Monday, October 19, 2009

Chicago Metra releases 2010 budget for public comment

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At a time when the economy is tough and base sales tax receipts have eroded to a 10-year low, the Metra Board of Directors unveiled a $613-million operating budget that calls for no changes in commuter rail service in 2010 and some revisions to its fare structure.

Metra is grateful for the recent actions of our elected officials in Springfield, first for addressing its operating needs by increasing the regional transportation sales tax last year and then for addressing its capital needs by approving a public works bond program earlier this year. Those efforts are greatly assisting Metra in balancing its budget and investing in its infrastructure.

The new fare structure includes adjustments in one-way fares and the first change in the cost of weekend passes since the program began in 1991. But the impact of the new fare structure on regular Metra riders will be limited, since most use 10-ride tickets and monthly passes and those fares won't change."Any fare adjustment is difficult, particularly in today's economy, but we believe we are taking a responsible, targeted approach that is sensitive to the needs of our passengers," said Metra Chairman Carole R. Doris.

Metra's new fare structure, which would start Feb. 1, 2010, is intended to encourage customers to use 10-ride tickets and monthly passes, which already offer a discount over the one-way fares. Those multiple-ride options are easier than ever to purchase, because Metra recently spent $3.9 million on a new Website that allows riders to buy 10-ride tickets and monthly passes online with credit and debit cards.

To encourage riders to buy tickets at stations and over the Internet, Metra would increase the penalty for on-board purchases to $5 from $2. That penalty is not assessed on passengers who board at unmanned stations.

One-way fares would increase about six percent, an average of about 30 cents a ticket. In order to simplify on-board fare collection, the increases have been rounded to the nearest quarter, a practice common to other commuter rail operations in the United States.

Weekend fares would increase to $7 from $5. This would be the first increase in the existence of the weekend fare program, which started in May 1991. During that time, Metra has raised its general fares four times (in 1996, 2002, 2006 and 2008). Weekend passes are good for unlimited rides on both Saturday and Sunday.

The tough economy has prompted Metra to adopt a variety of cost-containment measures that saved about $4 million in administrative costs, including leaving about 150 positions unfilled, freezing management salaries and asking non-union employees to pay more for their health insurance.

Public hearings on the proposed budget and presentations to the boards of the six counties in Metra's service area will be held over the next few weeks. The budget also must be approved by the Regional Transportation Authority.