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Metra: Service cuts more likely than bigger fare hikes if funds slashed

A severe state funding cut to Metra would likely result in trims in service because raising fares to cover such losses would take much more time, Metra officials cautioned Thursday.

Eliminating runs of trains — rather than raising fares even more than the 2 percent proposed as of Feb. 1 — “may be the only option,’’ Metra CEO Don Orseno said after an address to the City Club of Chicago on Thursday.

“It depends on how quick and how severe” any loss of state funding is, Orseno said.

A combination of fare increases and service cuts may be possible, but fare increases take time to impose, Orseno said.

Metra Chairman Martin Oberman was even more emphatic Thursday that the “most likely” scenario would be service cuts if Metra suffers a $20.8 million loss of funding threatened at one point by Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose budget plan has been stuck in a stalemate for months.

At the moment, “We are not looking at raising fares” beyond the 2 percent proposed to make up such a loss, Oberman said.

That’s because raising fares would take “a couple months of lead time,” Oberman said. For example, he noted, if approved next week by board members, fare increases proposed in mid-October as part of Metra’s 2016 budget would not go into effect until Feb. 1 due to the public hearings, board vote and payment system changes required first.

“The bottom line is you would cut a significant number of trains,” Oberman said. “And in our business, you have to cut a lot of trains to save any money because train crews may make three, four, five runs a day, so if you are going to save on personnel costs, you have to cut four or five trains.

“You don’t just cut one train, as an example. So we’d have to go throughout the system and reduce service. That’s basically what would happen if that money didn’t come through,’’ Oberman said.

Oberman’s and Orseno’s comments came as Metra prepared to face its second day of public hearings on a $945.5 million budget for 2016 that includes the second of 10 years of proposed fare increases. The fare revenue would help overhaul the oldest fleet among peers; bankroll an expensive federal safety mandate; and cover typical annual increases in operating costs, officials say.

Under the 2016 spending plan, fares would rise a flat amount per ticket, regardless of the distance traveled.

The 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.

The average increase across tickets would be 2 percent, which is less than the 5 percent predicted last year for 2016 when Metra unveiled its 10-year modernization proposal and 10 years of proposed fare increases.

On Wednesday, Metra for the first time held one of eight public hearings on its 2016 budget in the Legacy Club of Union Station — its busiest location — in the hopes of encouraging rider reaction.

When only nine people showed up between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., Oberman took it as a sign that the thousands of Metra commuters who passed through Union Station during the Wednesday evening rush hour and didn’t stop to comment must be satisified with Metra’ service.

Don O’Keefe of Evergreen Park said Thursday that although the hearing was held at Union Station, it was “hidden” in the Legacy Club, in the southwest corner of the massive station, at time not convenient for early shift workers. Six signs about it were posted throughout the station for a week, Metra officials countered.

O’Keefe said Oberman was “sadly mistaken” if he believed most riders agreed with the fare hike. O’Keefe charged that it was unfair that commuters living closest to the Loop will have to shoulder the largest increases under the plan — of as much as 7.7 percent.

“Once again, Metra has placed the bulk of the hike on commuters who live closest to the city, who must subsidize riders from faraway stations who require more fuel and staff hours to service their stops,’’ O’Keefe said in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Even at the higher rates, officials say, Metra fares are still a bargain compared to many peers nationally. And, Orseno told the City Club on Thursday, Metra’s on-time rate is tops among peers despite having the oldest fleet.

Comments about the 2016 budget also can be sent by 8 p.m. Friday to 2016budgetcomments@metrarr.com, faxed to 312-322-7094, or mailed to: the Assistant Secretary to the Metra Board, Room 1300, 547 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, Illinois 60661.