CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago-area commuters have never seen anything like it. Metra has proposed fare increases averaging 10.8 percent, starting in February, with the guarantee of additional increases every year through 2024.
The February increase would be the second-largest in Metra's history, second only to the last increase in 2012. Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said his goal is to pay not just for fuel and wage increases, but for 400 new bi-level rail cars, and more than 50 new locomotives to replace engines that are more than 30 years old; and bi-levels that are in some cases 60 years old. He also wants to speed up the process of heavy "mid-life" rehabilitation, which has been constrained by a dearth of capital funding.
Oberman said he expects the immediate reaction to the planned fare hikes to be astonishment, but he said that's what riders have to expect if they want a safe, clean, and comfortable ride in trains that are not 40 years old or more.
"Am I supposed to say that's a secret? You know, I mean, it's just silly. We're going to tell people this is what it costs. It's not free. A billion dollars' worth of rail cars costs money," Oberman said.
If you expect the suburban political leaders who control most Metra board appointments, or Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard to step in and stop it, Oberman said think again. He said the plan has been "road-tested" with members of the Illinois congressional delegation, state legislators, suburban county board chairmen, and Dillard; and Oberman said there has been not one dissenting comment.
"I haven't had any political leader, or anybody else tell me we're wrong, we shouldn't do it," he said. "A lot of people say this is painful and, yes, of course it is painful."
The February fare increase would erase a $27.3 million operating deficit expected in the coming year.
Oberman said six months of study showed no way around the unprecedented annual fare increases.
"At a minimum, they can expect a 3 percent fare increase every year to cover increased costs," he said. "We will tweak it, and adjust it every year as needed, that 3 percent. We're talking about fuel, wages, etc."
Oberman said there should not be any additional fare hikes on top of what the agency has laid out for the next decade.
"With putting out this 10-year fare program, we are saying this is what we think it is going to be, as best we can determine. Other needs are going to have to be met through other sources," he said.
The commuter rail agency does not intend to make riders soak up all the costs of purchasing new rail cars. Far from it. Metra expects $710 million in state and federal aid to go toward the new locomotives and bi-levels and rehab work, and will lobby for an additional $1.3 billion from Springfield and Washington, an average of $130 million a year over 10 years.
Metra also intends to make use of its never-utilized bonding authority to issue $400 million in bonds, in $100 million increments next year, in 2017, in 2019 and in 2022. That coincides with large annual fare increases -- 8.5 percent in 2017, 7.75 percent in 2019, and 5.75 percent in 2022.
Oberman said Metra has never had a scheduled plan for rehabilitation and replacement of aging equipment.
In an attempt to mollify commuters, Metra planned a number of actions often requested by riders. It intends to restore a discount on the 10-ride pass, so riders who use it get one ride free. It also will make one-way tickets good for 90 days, instead of the current 14.
Metra also would increase the charge for buying a ticket onboard trains when station ticket offices are open to $5 from $3, increase the price of a weekend pass to $8 from the current $7 and adopt a general no-refund policy.
Oberman said he expects feedback at public hearings scheduled for Nov. 5 and 6 at eight locations, including 4-7 p.m. Nov. 6 at Metra's headquarters at 547 W. Jackson Blvd., within a block of Union Station; but he expects most riders to grit their teeth and accept it.
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