Metra Modernization Plan Includes Annual Rate Hike

Pending board approval, all of the changes will go into effect February 1

For hundreds of thousands of Metra riders, the daily commute is about to get a lot more expensive.

The rail agency announced Thursday that starting next February, one-way fares will go up by an average of 10.8 percent to as much as 18.2 percent. The fares will keep going up every year for the next 10 years to help fund a modernization plan of the aging system which Metra officials say is long overdue.

Over the entire 10 years, fares will increase by an average of 68 percent from current levels.

"Folks may love nostalgia, but it makes a powerful statement when our oldest cars date from the Eisenhower administration," Metra chairman Martin Oberman said in a statement. "The majority of our rail cars are older than the majority of our daily commuters."

The 2015 fare hike will mean an increase of between 50 cents and a dollar for the average rider who buys a one-way ticket. By 2024, fares in the most expensive zone will double, from $2.75 to $5.50.

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"We expend a huge amount of resources -- time, staff, and money -- on timely and extensive maintenance so that even our 'vintage' rolling stock is completely safe," said executive director Don Orseno. "But, as the old saying goes, is this really any way to run a railroad? Safety will always be our number one priority, but being modern and comfortable is important too."

Metra officials say they have one of the oldest rail fleets in the United States. The average age of the agency’s rolling stock is 29.7 years, compared with 19 at other large railroads. Under the proposed plan, Metra will buy 367 new rail cars to replace 318 cars with an average age of 43 years. More than 100 of those cars would be delivered between 2018 and 2019.

In addition, 85 locomotives will be rebuilt at a cost of $178.5 million. In 2020, 52 new locomotives will be purchased with a price tag of $416 million.

The bad news carries a couple of silver linings. The agency plans to restore discounts for 10 ride tickets, with the price of those tickets dropping to the cost of nine rides. The grace period on monthly tickets will be restored, allowing use on the first day of the following month. One way tickets will be good for 90 days, instead of the current 14.

The extra charge for buying a ticket aboard trains will increase from $3 to $5. Pending board approval, all of the changes will go into effect February 1.

"While nobody ever likes fare increases, Metra’s fares are significantly lower than our peer railroads in major cities, and have not kept pace with inflation," Oberman said. "In addition, we have to do this right. We have to stop pretending that our costs do not go up every year, just like they do for everything else."

Among other expenses, Metra faces a $400 million tab for installation of a safety system known as Positive Train Control, mandated by the federal government with a deadline of December of next year. Under the plan, PTC would receive $275 million, to be combined with $133 million which the agency has already set aside.

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All told, the agency says one forecast put its capital needs at $9.9 billion over the next decade to achieve and maintain a state of good repair on the system, with only about 25 percent expected from federal and state sources.

The plan calls for yearly fare hikes, mostly averaging between 3 percent and 5 percent. Fares in 2017 would go up 8.5 percent, while in 2019, the increase would be 7.75 percent.

By 2024, the cost of a one-way ticket on the system will range from $5.50 for a trip from Clybourn Avenue to Downtown, all the way to $16 if that trip originates in far northwestern Harvard. Currently that Harvard trip is $9.25.

The last time Metra increased fares was 2012.

"Metra can no longer kick this can down the road and continue with cobbled-together solutions on its aging system," Oberman said. "We must secure a stable funding stream that allows us to implement ongoing rehabs and replacements."

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