No fare hikes as Metra relishes capital infusion
After years of gloomy budget forecasts, Metra riders Wednesday received a reprieve from fare hikes in 2020.
The railroad has an estimated $1.45 billion in new money coming from the state over five years, courtesy of a capital program enabled by a variety of tax increases.
That means passengers should expect fewer breakdowns and a less Spartan commute in the future as Metra expedites replacement of its vintage fleet, officials said.
"We now have a significant infusion of dollars to help us begin to attack our backlog," Executive Director Jim Derwinski said. "One intent … is to go ahead and execute a contract on a large car purchase to replace some of our oldest" rail cars.
Wednesday's board meeting was the public's first look at Metra's proposed budget, which will be voted on in November.
The positive capital budget vibes were tempered by so-so revenues coming in for Metra's operating budget.
Ridership, which generates roughly half of Metra's cash, is projected to be flat in 2020, but operating expenses are up by $5 million. The agency is proposing a $827 million operating budget.
"Right now we see (fares) trending flat," Derwinski said. Meanwhile, "expenses are trending up. There's no windfall on the operations side. No service cuts ... but no expansion or growth."
Illinois lawmakers approved a $45 billion capital bill in June that included a significant transportation component paid for by taxes like a 19-cent increase per gallon of gas.
With the boost in state revenues and federal aid, Metra projects a $486.8 million capital budget for next year. The agency originally budgeted $185.6 million for capital this year but adjusted that to $374.6 million related mainly to grants. About 43% of the capital cash will go toward new locomotives and rail cars, 17% is allocated for facilities like rail yards and equipment, 14% is earmarked for stations and parking, 13% for track and structure upgrades, and 13% for signals and electrical upgrades and other improvements, according to preliminary estimates.
While Director Ken Koehler of Crystal Lake agreed with replacing older trains, he suggested more revenue should go to track and railroad structures.
"If you can't get from Point A to Point B because of structural failures, that concerns me," he said.
After numerous consecutive fare hikes, Metra held back on raising rates in 2019.