No rush to attend Metra budget hearing

SHARE No rush to attend Metra budget hearing
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Sun-Times file photo

Only a smattering of commuters showed up Wednesday at Metra’s  busiest location — Union Station — to comment on a proposed 2 percent fare increase, something the agency’s chairman took as a positive sign.

“We are right in Union Station,” Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said after less than a dozen citizens spoke at a budget hearing held inside the station’s Legacy Club to encourage participation.

“We had 55,000 people who came through here during the evening rush hour,’’ yet only eight had headed into the Legacy Club as of 7:30 p.m., Oberman said.

“I think we can assume most people are satisfied with our service and they didn’t stop by to tell us otherwise,’’ Oberman said.

Union Station was the site of one of eight hearings scheduled Wednesday and Thursday on Metra’s proposed $945.5 million 2016 budget, which includes an average 2 percent fare increase.

That boost is the second of 10 planned over consecutive years to bankroll the overhaul of the oldest fleet among peers, an expensive federal safety mandate and typical annual increases in operating costs.

Metra wants to raise fares next year a flat amount per kind of ticket, regardless of the distance traveled. Commuters closest to the Loop — where the CTA also may be an option — generally would shoulder the biggest increases.

Under the plan, as of Feb. 1, Metra’s most popular ticket — a monthly one — would rise by $2.50. Users of a 10-ride ticket would pay $1.75 more. A one-way ticket would see a 25-cent boost. There would be no change in the price of a one-way reduced-fare ticket.

Some speakers warned the increase adds up to a nearly 13 percent fare boost over two years because it comes on the heels of last year’s nearly 11 percent fare increase.

West Lawn resident Kevin Peterson of Citizens Taking Action for Transit Dependent Riders called the 2 percent increase  “more nickel and diming” from an agency with “no service improvements.”

“Have fun losing ridership. That’s what’s going to happen,’’ Peterson predicted.

Richard Gill of Chicago’s South Side fretted in particular about the impact on the Metra Electric Line’s South Chicago branch. Nearby CTA buses cost $2 one-way versus a proposed one-way Metra fare of $3.75, Gill said.

“Metra is just inviting competition,’’ Gill said. “Metra cannot continue to set its fares without regard to the competition.”

This year’s planned 2 percent increase is less than the 5 percent originally envisioned for 2016. Lower diesel fuel costs, higher sales tax revenue and budget cuts helped shrink original projections, officials said.

In 2017, an 8.5 percent increase is predicted but an even bigger jump could be in the offing if Metra does not obtain proceeds from a state bond sale next year, Metra officials say.

The 2016 budget assumes Metra’s funding will not suffer the $20.8 million cut in Regional Transportation Authority funds proposed at one point by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

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