Metra weighs naming rights to close $100M gap

August 13, 2011 6:37:51 AM PDT
Prepare to pay more if you ride Metra. The transit agency's board said fares will go up, and some services will be cut as it tries to fill a $100 million budget deficit.

Metra is also considering corporate naming rights as a way to make money.

Fuel costs are up and sales tax money is way down. It's a double whammy for a Metra budget that is looking at a $100-million hole next year. According to Friday's discussion, Metra board members and staff are not inclined to make deep service cuts and, instead, are focusing more on fare hikes.

"Nobody wants a price increase on anything. But we need to make a decision of what do we think is a fair price, that in the end, after all the dust settles, people will still continue to pay because they find the value there," Metra board member Mike LaBelle said.

No decisions have been made yet, but fare hikes up to 20 percent are possible. Many Metra riders - who've been weighing in on the debate through an online survey- suggest quite strongly that before fares go up, Metra ought to do a much better job collecting from riders who never pay because the conductor never gets to them.

Uncollected fares is not a new issue for Metra, but with every dollar critical, the new boss is promising action.

"We need to see it ourself. We need to understand what's going on out there. We'll do some undercover kind of rides on our trains in order to see what's going on. We take this extremely seriously. We must collect those fares," Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford said.

"We have to get a handle on those fares and that could add up to millions of dollars, we don't even know," Metra Board Vice Chairman Larry Huggins said.

Like every cash-strapped agency, Metra is looking for new money and on Friday it hired a company to look possible corporate sponsorships and naming rights After all, the logic is, there's the United Center, and an Allstate Arena, so why not sell naming rights to LaSalle Street Station, a section of track or a locomotive? Or how about sponsorship? Perhaps this onboard defibrillator is brought to you by a health care firm?

"If Applebee's restaurant wants to sponsor a station somewhere that's across the street from them, and they want to have their name on the station and they want to pay a reasonable fee, I like Applebee's," Metra Board member Jack Schaffer said.

For now the exploration of naming rights is focused on the Rock Island Line because it's owned by Metra.

If this all happens, board members say there will naturally have to be some discretion in selecting corporate sponsors if they line up for naming rights. Then again, they may desire their names be excused on those days when there are delays.

Metra says changes are not likely to come until the fall. Meanwhile, the agency is encouraging riders to continue giving feedback online at Metra's website.

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