Metra will not raise fares in 2019 and will spend the year highlighting the need for more public aid and sounding the alarm about the system’s deterioration and possible downsizing if that aid does not materialize, the Metra Board of Directors unanimously decided today.
“We ask our passengers and our elected leaders to join with us to tell our story to members of the state Legislature,” said Metra Chairman Norm Carlson. “That story is very simple: Metra needs a sustained capital program to maintain its existing service levels in the 2020s. Otherwise, drastic changes in service levels may be needed to shrink to a size that existing resources can sustain.”
In late 2014 Metra unveiled a $2.4 billion plan to modernize its rolling stock and install the federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. That plan assumed that current state and federal funding sources would cover about $700 million and Metra financing would cover an additional $400 million. Metra hoped to secure $1.3 billion in new funding for the remainder – most likely from a new state infrastructure program. The plan included projections for fare increases that would be needed over the next 10 years for financing and for the regular growth in operating expenses; but most of the fare increases approved since then have gone toward capital needs and PTC.
But Board members agreed that another fare increase for capital needs would overburden Metra’s customers after four straight fare increases while providing only a fraction of the revenue needed to address large capital funding shortfalls. They approved a pause in 2019 in the modernization-related increases and ordered staff to spend next year educating riders, the public and lawmakers about Metra’s need for sustained capital funding and detailing the consequences of falling short – including possibly shrinking the system to a size that matches available resources.
Metra still is working to modernize its rolling stock and pay for PTC. However, because the state has not passed a new infrastructure program since 2009 – and in fact reduced some of Metra’s $700 million in expected funding – its efforts have been slowed. PTC installation remains on track, and by the end of this year Metra will have rehabbed about 145 cars and 42 locomotives since the plan was announced. However, it has not yet purchased any new cars and engines, and the purchases that are coming soon will be smaller than originally anticipated unless new funding comes through.
The problems with state funding also postponed Metra’s proposed financing, and with the exception of the first year, 2015, Metra has not raised fares for financing. (A portion of the 2015 increase was for financing; the revenue cumulatively set aside for financing since then now totals $15.6 million. The Board today approved allocating that money towards the purchase of locomotives.)