Get ready to pay more to ride Metra trains

September 19, 2011 5:02:45 AM PDT
Metra's board outlined its plan Friday to raise fares by about 30 percent. The increase is designed to avoid service cuts along the commuter train line.

These aren't the final numbers, but they will likely wind up being pretty close.

Metra has many different types of tickets -- one-way fares, 10-ride tickets, monthly passes -- all going up at different rates. But they are all going up.

The Metra Board has made it clear that it does not want to make any significant cuts in service, and it no longer wants to continue the practice of dipping into its capital fund to run the railroad.

Thus, the inevitable.

"I think we all know we're headed toward a major fare increase," said board member Mike McCoy. "But, down the road, I think we have to have an incremental based on a cost of living adjustment or something, and eliminate drastic fare increases."

"Major." "Drastic." Two descriptions of what's to come.

Metra has a zone ticketing system, so fares differ by distance of travel. But consider as an example someone who works downtown, lives in west suburban Western Springs, and rides with a monthly ticket. That Metra rider is currently paying $102.60 a month. The proposed hike would take it to $134 a month. That's a 31 percent increase. And, for the whole year, that rider would be paying nearly $377 more for the train.

"I understand the arguments for it," said Metra board member Jack Schaffer. "But it's going to make traveling into the city much less attractive, and people are going to start thinking about, 'Do I want to go into the city? Do I really want to work in the city?' "

But, without service cuts, which board members and riders have said they don't want, and with a $65 million budget shortfall ahead, it is reasonable to conclude that Metra customers can expect what will quite likely be the biggest fare hikes in the agency's history.

"This is a tough, tough process. We're talking about significant fare increased being proposed," said Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford. "We need to show our dedicated riding public that we're going through this budget line by line. We're taking every measure we keep the fare increase as small as we possibly can."

Metra is starting a campaign called "Be fair, pay the fare," which is meant to call rider attention to the fact that some passengers don't pay, and sometimes conductors don't collect. Metra is putting more "observers" on trains to try to fix that to the extent they can.

There is no reliable estimate on ticket money lost. "It's probably not a significant amount," Clifford said, "but no matter what it is, it's got to be pursued" -- especially when everyone is being asked to pay more.

Metra leadership comes back with their specific fare hike recommendations next month. Past fare increases have taken effect in early February.

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