Metra's board will soon grapple with whether customers will face a fare increase in 2015 – three years after the biggest hike in the agency's history, the commuter rail chairman said today.
Although officials say a fare increase hasn't been proposed yet, Metra is being squeezed by $49 million in higher costs next year as well as by $9.7 billion worth of unmet capital needs for equipment, infrastructure and maintenance, according to agency financial data.
Revenue from ridership is flat and additional federal funding is unlikely, forecasts show. Yet, Metra riders pay hundreds of dollars a month less than what riders pay in metropolitan areas such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia, officials say.
All these figures could add up to a pitch for a fare increase next year as the agency starts to crunch the numbers in its 2015 budget, a draft of which is due in August.
Chairman Martin Oberman said he hopes Metra's board will have a thorough airing of the agency's financial situation over the next few months.
At Friday's board meeting Metra staffers are scheduled to outline some of the key data to be included in the preliminary budget and show where Metra stands financially. The meeting is being held at the Will County Office Building in Joliet for the benefit of local residents.
A fare increase is not currently on the table, Oberman and a Metra spokesman said.
“My view is we ought to get the homework done and have a public discussion about fare increases that's meaningful, whichever way we decide to go,” said Oberman, who was elected Metra chairman in February. “I would not want to go through my first real budget season without confronting this issue head-on.”
Metra should evaluate its fare structure annually so as to not “surprise people every few years” with a major increase, he said.
Metra's fares increased modestly over the years but skyrocketed as much as 35 percent on Feb. 1, 2012. Then-CEO Alex Clifford blamed previous management for “kicking the can down the road” and diverting money for infrastructure and equipment to pay for day-to-day needs.
Since then, the Regional Transportation Authority has estimated that Metra's capital investment needs over the next 10 years total $9.7 billion. Of this, $6.6 billion represents a backlog.
According to data being presented Friday, Metra estimates that expected sources of capital funds from the state and federal government will total $2.6 billion through 2020.
More than 60 percent of Metra's operating expenses go toward labor costs. Salary and benefit costs for Metra's contract employees and BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad workers, who staff some Metra lines, are expected to rise by $16 million in 2015, the data show.
Passenger revenues, however, are up only 0.9 percent systemwide for the first five months of 2014, compared to the same period last year, the data show.
Fares on Metra, the nation's second-busiest commuter rail agency, continue to lag behind fares charged by agencies in other big cities, officials say.
A Metra BNSF Line rider to Naperville, for example, pays $163 for a monthly pass, while equivalent customers of other large systems pay over $260 on average, officials say.
Meanwhile, riders on the BNSF, Metra's busiest line with 67,400 passengers each weekday, continue to suffer through delays, according to data being presented Friday.
Rush-hour BNSF trains were on-time only 84 percent of the time in June, the worst performance of Metra's 11 lines, records show. Systemwide, the on-time rate was 94.1 percent, just under Metra's goal of 95 percent.
The BNSF Line managed to better its dismal performance in May, when it met its schedule only about 79 percent of the time during peak periods.