In 2014, when Metra drew up an ambitious long-term plan to repair and burnish its creaky system — partly funded by fare increases every year for a decade — then-chairman Martin Oberman said there was no guarantee the plan would work.
“If the whole world turns upside down, then this plan will turn upside down,” Oberman said at the time.
For Metra, the world has turned upside down.
Metra riders have done their bit since 2014, paying steadily higher fares. But the better service they expected in return has lagged far behind schedule. On top of that, riders now find themselves facing probable service cuts.
Riders who stand on station platforms to wait for trains that come annoyingly late might feel their world is turning upside down, too.
As part of its $2.4 billion plan in 2014, Metra assumed Congress would continue funding transit at historical levels, about $200 million a year. Instead, Metra will have to pay almost all of the $400 million installation cost of “positive train control” — a new system designed to prevent trains from running into each other. That system, which Congress is requiring Metra and other railroads to install, has additional operating costs of $15 million to $20 million a year.
And it seems unlikely funding for mass transit will get any better under President Donald J. Trump and a Republican-led Congress — another way Metra’s world has changed since 2014.
On the state level, Metra assumed whoever was elected governor in 2014 would push through a capital-spending plan that would provide more than half the money for Metra’s upgrade. The state has done that many times over the decades, given that Metra is a regional, not local, service.
Instead, state finances were tied up in a budget impasse for two years, and the state even pulled back $265 million Metra already had coming from earlier bond sales.
This year’s state budget deal that ended the impasse trimmed money for mass transit, and the state also started skimming some of the sales-tax revenues that go to the regional rail service.
Paradoxically, the reduction in funding raises costs for Metra as workers struggle to repair old equipment over and over again. As the Tribune reported last week, overtime costs at the agency have swelled by 47 percent. Taking old locomotives back into the shop repeatedly is like hiring someone to come out every few months to repair leaks in a roof that’s long passed its useful life.
Metra once had a goal of buying 52 new locomotives and 367 new coaches. Now, it hopes to buy only 10 locomotives and 25 coaches. The agency will have to figure out how to keep a lot of old equipment running.
In the past, Metra has overspent on payroll. Former top boss Philip Pagano took his own life in 2010 by stepping into the path of a Metra train as Metra investigated bonuses and cash advances he had awarded himself. An analysis of payroll records in 2010 by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association found the agency doled out hefty cash payouts for unused sick time and vacation days to several other former and then-current management workers.
But Metra’s money problems now appear to have more to do with a lack of proper state and federal funding. For our regional economy to prosper, Metra has to be on track.
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