It’s fare increase time again at Metra

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“It’s become a Chicagoland tradition that every year around this time, transit riders cross their fingers and hope they won’t be hit with service cuts and fare increases. Unfortunately, it looks like the tradition will continue this year.” -Lee Crandell to the Metra board on October 14, 2011. 

Lee Crandell is right, but the tradition is not something Metra, or any other Chicagoland transit agency, has much control over.

Metra staff has proposed fare increases to the board who have accepted the proposal and will submit them to public hearings in November (schedule at the end). The staff first proposed fare increases to the board on September 16, 2011. They proposed a revised fare increase at the October 14, 2011, meeting, at which Crandell spoke. The alternative to fare increase was one of two service reduction options.

In addition to the fare increase, staff proposed to change the validity period of 10-ride tickets and monthly passes, the refund policy for tickets and passes, and add a fee to process refunds. Another element in the proposal was to cut the weekend pass’s validity period to one day instead of both or all days. (Board member Jack Schaffer asked Metra CEO Alex Clifford how much money Metra would save if this was the new rule and Clifford responded that he didn’t know; October meeting minutes are not available.)

I’ve presented a summary of these changes in fare policy in a section below.

Before the staff proposed their fare change recommendations to the board in September, they explained the principles they held to create them and asked the board members for their opinions on the principles they adopted. The board seemed to be in agreement over them. These principles are presented in page 37 of the October presentation to the board (download the PDF). One board member, Mike McCoy, stated at the September board meeting that these principles should be adopted as Board policy. I think it’s wise to have a formal policy that guides staff members each year on how to evaluate fares and develop fare changes.

Principles for fare policy

This is a sample of the principles the staff developed, along with my reactions. 

  • “Consider regular fare adjustments that ensure a balanced budget, keep pace with inflation, and avoid significant, infrequent fare increases” – Metra has typically raised fares only after several years; in the past decade it’s raised fares 4 times. In the previous decade it raised fares 1 time. (See page 37 of the September board presentation.)
  • “No diversion of capital eligible funds to operating budget” – This practice must end at all transit agencies in the country. This is not a sustainable way to cover shortfalls. Think of it this way: Former Mayor Daley sold Chicago parking meters to cover a shortfall in the City’s budget. Does the City budget still have shortfalls? Yes, several that a one-time cash infusion of $1 billion couldn’t cover.
  • “Evaluate fare policies of sister agencies and peers” – I don’t think this is very important. Metra’s customers most likely do not know who are Metra’s peers, nor do they care about the price of a ticket on the Long Island Railroad (New York), or the costs of operating Metro North (Connecticut, New York, New Jersey). It’s useful to look to other agencies to see what ideas they have to reduce costs or how they are proposing fare increases to their passengers, but comparing Metra to peers in order to see who offers a more advantageous trip to their customers is pointless as they are not in competition. Board member Schaffer said that “he frankly does not care what Metra’s peer agencies are doing” when it came to comparing Metra staff’s proposal to reduce the validity period of a 10-ride ticket (see page 15 of September meeting minutes).

Why does Metra have to raise fares

Lee Crandell, a manager for the Riders for Better Transit campaign at the Active Transportation Alliance, spoke at both the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Metra board meetings this month. In his speech to the Metra board, he sympathized with them, acknowledging that it’s not Metra’s fault that it must choose between cutting service (when it’s slowly rising) or raising fares.

Criticizing Metra in this situation is a normal reaction—and certainly on behalf of the riders we represent, we urge you to explore every possible efficiency to prevent fare hikes or service cuts—but ultimately, it’s our elected leaders who hold the purse strings and decide whether our transit agencies will have enough funding to make ends meet. Transit is significantly under-funded because our elected leaders at the local, state and federal levels have put it on the back-burner. [Read the full comment.]

The Metra staff and board do not control what subsidy commuter rail receives to provide a vital transportation service to hundreds of thousands of Chicagoland residents each day; Money flows with fewer restrictions to the Illinois Department of Transportation when it comes to building and maintaining highways. But highway builders don’t answer to boards or have farebox recovery requirements (the portion of operating costs that must be covered by tickets). Transit and urban planners recognize that we cannot afford to continue building highways, even if that’s what most people use to get to work and shopping. There’s a cost to congestion and we’re all paying for it with pollution and lost time.

Highways are not supported as much by user fees as transit is. An enormous portion of roads are paid for by general revenues while many people believe gas taxes pay for a majority of road building and maintenance – they don’t. Transit is supported by sales tax, user fees (tickets), advertising, and other revenue sources.

The Urbanophile calculates the benefit of providing transit:

 In Chicago, which is gearing up for another round of fare hikes and service cuts, the cost of congestion avoided due to public transit is about the same as the combined operating budget of all regional transit agencies. Chicago transit is effectively self-funded in terms of benefits delivered to motorists alone.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2010 Urban Mobility Report (TTI UMR), which the Urbanophile is referencing, ranks Chicago as having the highest congestion cost in the United States, at $8.2 billion*. (Some controversy surrounds the TTI’s UMR in that it is used to support the expansion of roadways. The group CEOs for Cities published a critique, Driven Apart, that “reveals how sprawl is lengthening our commutes and why misleading mobility measures [TTI’s UMR] are making things worse by suggesting more highways are the solution”.)

Who can fix this

I wrote in August that some cities’ residents vote to tax themselves to support transit. We do that here in Chicagoland, but the legislature imposed the tax. In Phoenix and Los Angeles, residents imposed the tax on themselves by approving a referendum.

Another idea is to tie transit agency revenues to property taxes instead of sales taxes. Property values are not as volatile as consumer product prices and may do a better job of providing a sustainable source of funding for transit. The Illinois legislature would have to make this change.

The Illinois legislature can reduce the subsidy to building and maintaining roads and transfer this subsidy to increase funding for transit.

All of these ideas are in addition to the constant discovery of new efficiencies and new grant opportunities from the federal government. Several Metra board members stressed this in the September meeting, yet there may be a theoretical limit to maximizing revenue and reducing costs.

For now I recommend that you join the Riders for Better Transit campaign to stay in touch. And continue to educate yourself on the complexities of transportation funding in Chicago and the United States (it’s equally complex in any city in the country). Also contact the Governor and legislators about Metra and CTA fare increases and service cuts using the Riders for Better Transit action alert webpage.

Summary of fare policy changes

  • Price of weekend pass will not change
  • One-Way Ticket – Valid for 14 days, including date of purchase; No refund (currently valid for 1 year and can be refunded at any time until expiration, or can be replaced with a new ticket, no refund fee)
  • Ten-Ride Ticket – Valid for 1 year from date of purchase; Refundable 3 months from date of purchase; May be refunded with up to 9 rides used;  Refund subject to $5 handling fee (currently refundable up at any time until expiration, no refund fee)
  • Monthly Ticket – Valid through end of month; Refund subject to $10 handling fee (currently valid through end of month until next weekday at 12 PM; no refund fee)

There are other changes: see page 39 in the October board presentation.

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The rules on how this ticket can be used may be changing. The board will vote on November 11, 2011, to accept or reject the fare increases and changes to fare policy. Photo by Eric Pancer. 

Public hearing schedule

There are eight public hearings schedule to lend Metra your thoughts on the fare increases and changes in fare policy, four each on November 2nd and November 3rd, all from 4-7 PM. There is one in Chicago (at Metra headquarters, 547 W Jackson Blvd), two in suburban Cook County, and one each in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties. View the details in this Google Fusion Table or in the interactive map below.

In order to educate passengers on the changes, Metra distributed a special edition of its monthly newsletter (available in all train cars), On The Bi-Level. Paul Dailing of Mokena Patch dissects the scenarios and dollar figures presented in the newsletter; he finds it odd that Metra uses suspect or inflated numbers because even with accurate variables it would have come out the winner when compared to driving downtown and parking.

See a related story on Steven Can Plan about Metra’s marketing and assumptions about people’s familiarity with Metra’s service as an alternative to driving downtown. 

*Congestion cost is defined as “Value of extra travel time (which we call delay) and the extra fuel consumed by vehicles traveling at slower speeds. Travel time has a value of $16.01 per person-hour and $105.67 per truck-hour in 2009. Fuel cost per gallon is the average price for each state.” From the Urban Mobility Report FAQ page.

Top photo: A Metra train crosses Kinzie Street near Ogilvie Transportation Center, by masMiguel

12 thoughts on “It’s fare increase time again at Metra”

  1. I’m glad that enough folks spoke up to force Metra to reconsider the outrageous 67% increase they originally proposed for Zone B riders.  For those of us Zones C and D (and now Zone B under the revised proposal), getting hit with a 34-35% increase is still a lot to swallow.

    Eliminate link-up subsidy?  For those who need a CTA connection downtown – ouch!  Now we’ll really need that bike share program.

    Last year I was working a long-term temp job at a location too far from my downtown Metra station for my bad knee to walk.  I checked out bike parking, since taking my folding bike on the train would be an option.  There was nearby bike parking, but overall logistics would be complicated and I wasn’t sure that my knee would tolerate carrying the bike on and off the train 4x/day.  I found that it wasn’t workable on some days.

    I ended up getting a link-up pass, so that I could connect to CTA.  My Zone C monthly pass was $90.45, and the link-up pass was $39, for a total monthly commute cost of $129.45.  I had a co-worker who commuted from Evergreen Park (same zone).  She has multiple issues that affect her ability to walk more than a short distance.  She’s not a cyclist and is somewhat frail, so bike share is unlikely to help her.  She has a disabled husband, so she is the sole income earner in her house.

    I still run into her occasionally, and she’s still doing the same commute.  With Metra’s proposed increase, her Metra monthly pass will cost $121.  If the link-up subsidy is eliminated and she has to pay full cost for a CTA monthly pass, that will cost $86, for a total monthly commute cost of $207.  That’s a total increase of 62%. 

    If she switched to the office building’s shuttle bus, it might save a few dollars, but would add about 20 minutes to her commute.  And her commute would still cost a LOT.  Between that and how awful the job is, I’m guessing that she may choose to retire sooner.

    1. I don’t fully understand right now how the LinkUp pass works. 

      In the September 2011 staff presentation to the board (and in the meeting minutes), it says that the LinkUp costs passengers $39 and Metra pays a $6 subsidy on this. In the minutes, it says the staff propose eliminating the $6 subsidy thus raising the price of the past to $41 (I think this is a typo and should say $45). 

      Metra provides the BusPlus pass to transfer to Pace. Staff propose eliminating its $8.54 subsidy raising the pass price from $30 to $39.

      So it seems that riders would NOT have to pay $86 for a 30-day CTA pass. 

      (I like your story and how you think that bike sharing would have helped in your commute.)

      To all readers: Look into a pre-tax deduction of a monthly transit pass from your employer. This can save you a few hundred dollars a year by having to pay less taxes. Visit http://www.lesstaxingcommute.com/

      1. For the user, the LinkUp pass offers unlimited transfers to CTA and Pace during specified rush hour periods.  Thanks for the clarification on the cost and subsidy issue.

        If bike sharing had been available for the commute I had last year, say at LaSalle St. station and the Millennium Park bike station, it would have saved me a lot of wear and tear on my knees, as much as $50, hours of commute time over the period of that temp assignment, and a lot of stress.

  2. Taking the Metra will still be a huge bargain, compared to what CTA customers pay, when we look at rate per mile traveled.
     
    A Metra rider in Naperville travels 30 miles to get to the Loop. The new monthly pass will cost her $162, which if used 22 work days for 44 rides total a month, is $3.70 per ride, or 12.3 cents per mile. (The current rate of $128 for a monthly pass has her paying a measly 9.7 cents a mile.)
     
    On the other hand, a CTA subway rider who commutes 6 miles pays $2.25 per ride, which is 37.5 cents a mile. Even if he buys a monthly pass for $86, the per-mile cost is still 32.6 cents a mile. If the Naperville commuter paid the same amount per mile, her monthly pass would be $430.

    1. I haven’t looked into it, but I would be that Metra has a higher per-mile operating cost than CTA because it probably has a lower efficiency (using diesel to move heavy equipment). But riders probably don’t care about this as they may see that the services are essentially the same: both are trains that get them somewhere; they use the one that’s closest to them. 

      Or maybe people who have access to both prefer Metra because they’re more likely to get a seat. But there are few people who have access to both. If you live near 35th and State Street, you have three choices!

  3. Regarding the evaluation of fare policies with sister agencies and peers, I think this was essential in Staff developing the argument that fares needed to increase to cover costs. Riders (and Jack Shafer) may not care what Metra’s peers do, but Metra Staff and other commuter rail agencies around the country care what their peers do. Peer comparison and evaluation regarding fare policy is important because you find out if your fare policies can or have worked in other places, whether they make sense, and whether they are justified based on industry practice in other places. On the flip side, if Metra has an existing fare policy that is grossly out of line with best industry practices, it is best to highlight this and investigate why. I don’t believe Metra will develop and implement fare policy entirely around what its peers are doing, but peer comparison informs the discussion and development of  policy that works for Metra and the Chicago region.

    1. These sound like good reasons to investigate Metra’s peers. Thank you for commenting. 

      I noticed that CTA consistently points out the farebox recovery ratio of its peers, noting that it has a higher recovery ratio than I think everyone else. 

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