Buoyed by survey response, Metra resurrects pets-on-board plan

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Rena Church of Aurora organized a March 2014 petition to allows pets on board Metra, saying owners would like to bring their pets to the Chicago area’s many festivals and other events.

Metra board members are expected to vote Wednesday on whether to test a new pets-on-board policy now that 60 percent of riders surveyed support the idea.

The pilot program would occur only on the Rock Island line, only on weekends, and only for three months. It then would be re-assessed to see if it could be expanded systemwide.

Only pets small enough for carriers that can fit under a seat or on a passenger’s lap would be allowed.

Riders with pets that are “noisy or disturb others” would be asked to leave under the proposal.

The idea was derailed in February to give board members more time to study it. At that time, some questioned how passengers with pet allergies would be affected. Some riders emailed Metra with concerns about being stuck next to a barking dog or a pet that emitted a foul odor, Metra officials said at the time.

However, since then, Metra sent a two-question survey to 39,000 Metra riders who had previously agreed to accept Metra marketing emails, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said Monday.

Of the nearly 4,600 who responded, 60 percent said they would support a three-month weekend pilot on the Rock Island Line only. And nearly 60 percent agreed that if the pilot were “successful,” they would favor expanding it to all lines on weekends only.

Metra officials also surveyed about a dozen transit agencies with pets-on-board policies, including the Chicago Transit Authority and the Pace suburban bus agency, according to a briefing paper for board members released Monday.

It discovered that Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority allows even larger pets — generally dogs — to be brought on-board on leashes, without carriers, during non-peak hours. New York’s Metro-North Railroad allows small pets that are “securely controlled on leashes” during any trip.

In addition, the briefing paper said, peer agencies that allow pets on board generally don’t confine them to a single car or limit the number of pets per car.

“It is likely that, in the event of an issue related to the number of pets per car, the matter would be left to the conductors to resolve,” the Metra report said. However, such an event is “unlikely” given the small demand to board with pets elsewhere, the report said.

Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said he expected pet allergies to part of the board’s discussion Wednesday, but noted the issue apparently hasn’t stopped pets-on-board policies at other transit agencies.

“I would like to hear what the other board members have to say,” Oberman said. “Pilot programs are reasonable, taking it a step at a time.”

The few pet-related concerns Metra staff turned up elsewhere revolved mostly around allergic reactions and large dogs being brought on board without carriers, the Metrabriefing paper said. One incident of a conductor being bitten by a pet was noted.

However, the report said, five similarly-sized transit agencies that have allowed pets for at least 10 years “generally expressed satisfaction” with the policy, said few passengers actually board with pets, and “therefore the decision to allow pets on their transit vehicles has had little to no impact on their operations.”

Metra agreed to investigate a pets-on-board pilot after more than 4,000 people signed an online petition in March 2014 asking the agency to do so. Petition organizer Rena Church of Aurora argued that many Metra riders would like to bring pets with them to festivals and other events.

Metra’s Citizen Advisory Board endorsed a limited pilot this past January,although some members conceded they had reservations about the idea.

Service animals assisting disabled passengers are allowed on Metra at all times, Metra officials noted.

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