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Riders at Metra hearing question 11% fare increase

The prospect of a nearly 11 percent Metra fare increase drew mostly gripes from riders at one public hearing Wednesday, with some blasting the increase as “outrageous.”

Electric Line riders in particular questioned what they would be getting out of a plan to raise fares in part to cover a $2.4 billion modernization of virtually Metra’s entire fleet over 10 years.

New Electric train cars have already been paid for, “So what am I getting” out of the first of what is expected to be 10 consecutive years of fare increases,” asked Jill McAvoy of Matteson.

“This fare hike has nothing to do with me or the Electric Line,” McAvoy said at a public hearing on Metra’s proposed 2015 budget at the Homewood Village Hall.

Electric Line riders don’t enjoy stations with coffee shops, restrooms in cars or stations or even ticket agents at stations like other Metra lines do, McAvoy said.

“So why are we paying the same as someone who can buy coffee in a station?” she asked.

Some of the fare increase also will cover the cost of installing and maintaining expensive but mandatory train safety technology across the Metra fleet, officials have said.

In addition, 54 percent of it will cover a built-in 3 percent annual rise in operating costs — in everything from pay and benefits to diesel fuel and electricity.

Another portion of the fare increase will cover debt service on bonds to pay for fleet upgrades, marking Metra’s first venture into the bond market in its 30-year history.

Officials are proposing 10 years of fare increases, or a 68 percent rise in fares over the next decade, to bankroll their 10-year proposal. The biggest of those increases will hit next year, with an average increase of 10.8 percent.

A few riders seemed willing to accept the fare increase to modernize a fleet that Metra says is the oldest among its peers.

“The chickens have come home to roost,” said Jemal Powell of University Park. “There’s no pot of money from Springfield or Washington, D.C. This is the best way to do it or face a railroad that may be in disrepair.”

Dennis Krisik of Tinley Park said the fare increase amounted to the government “fueling inflation” for those forced to pay what he called an “outrageous’’ increase in fares.

“You’ve got a monopoly here. There’s no alternative train system,” Krisik said. “How do you justify such an increase? We need to modernize the fleet – why wasn’t it done before? Why did it get into such a state of disrepair?”

A second round of public hearings is planned from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Metra headquarters, 547 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago; the Woodstock Village Hall; the Will County Office Building Board Room in Joliet; and the Clarendon Hills Village Hall.

Public comments also can be emailed to 2015budgetcomments@metrarr.com. Officials said as of Wednesday, they had received about 100 comments by email.

Metra board members are expected to vote on the 2015 budget and the 10.8 percent average fare increase on Nov. 14. Before then, they will review a synoposis of public hearing comments, officials said Wednesday.