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Metra finds $5.7M in cuts but 2016 fare hike not ruled out yet

Metra officials have found $5.7 million in savings in next year’s budget but were unable Tuesday to say if it will help reduce or eliminate what at one time was predicted to be a 5 percent fare increase in 2016.

Staff has not yet nailed down Metra’s projected 2016 revenues and expenditures, so it’s too early to say if Metra riders will face a fare increase next year, Metra CEO Don Orseno said.

“There’s a possibility of a lot of things,” Orseno said. Metra’s 2016 budget should be unveiled in October.

Near the top of the chopping block is an $800,000-a-year program that provided as many as 2,666 employees — from train workmen to office staff — a $25 401(k) contribution for every month they worked injury-free.

The extra $25 a month was the only matching 401(k) money Metra offered to employees who also are covered by a railroad pension but not Social Security, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis.

Except for senior leadership, Gillis said, the incentive applied to all Metra employees.

“It started at least 10 years ago as a way to encourage safety by everyone at Metra, including office workers, and it did, in fact, have a positive impact on our injury rate, saving us money,” Gillis said.

The offer was particularly key for those in jobs “where one mistake can affect a lot of people,” Orseno said. However, Orseno said, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it could discourage people from reporting injuries, so Metra is canning it.

Back in the fall of 2014, Metra had warned it could need 10 years of consecutive fare increases, totaling 68 percent, to help bankroll a plan to upgrade the oldest fleet among commuter railroad peers and typical 3 percent annual operating increases.

The first year of fare boosts — 10.8 percent — took effect in February, with officials promising to annually look for savings to keep future fare hikes to a minimum.

The fruits of the first step in the budget process — identifying efficiencies — was released Tuesday, when Metra identified about nine different savings totaling $5.7 million that will be cut from its 2016 budget.

Uncertainty still clouds the budget process. Metra does not yet know if state funding will shrink or if federal lawmakers will be successful in relaxing a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline to meet an expensive new “positive train control mandate” or face fines.