Metra budget won't raise fares; it brings back trains, but bets passengers will lag
Metra's $900 million proposed budget for 2022 is a balancing act as leaders lean on federal aid to bring service back to pre-COVID-19 levels on all lines in hopes of reclaiming the absent passengers who have decimated revenues.
The tentative budget, approved for release by Metra directors Wednesday, increases spending by 12.5% from the $800 million 2021 fiscal plan. In comparison, Metra's original budget for 2020 was $827.4 million, although projections changed because of the pandemic, and the 2019 budget was $822 million.
There will be no fare increases, officials said.
The $100 million extra will be used to fill vacant jobs, offset inflation, and run more trains, which are at about 80% of 2019 numbers. The railroad had cut multiple trains as the pandemic surged in spring 2020.
"We are creating a budget that provides sufficient funding to absorb uncertainties," which includes when ridership returns to normal, Acting Chief Financial Officer Alan Ochab said.
"We feel the most responsible approach is to be cautious with our assumptions about the growth in ridership while at the same time ramping up our service" to accommodate passengers when they are ready, CEO Jim Derwinski said.
The agency intends to reduce the time a 10-ride pass is valid from one year after date of purchase to 90 days, effective Feb. 1, 2022. Similarly, one-way tickets will expire in 14 days instead of 90 days.
A review of mobile ticketing over three years shows "the vast majority of tickets are used during that duration we are proposing," Strategic Planning Director Lynnette Ciavarella said.
Metra will keep its $10 unlimited rides day pass and but introduce a spinoff -- a day pass that's limited to three fare zones priced at $6 as a pilot project.
Pre-pandemic weekday ridership was about 281,100 compared to an average of 67,200 a day in August, or a decrease of 76%, Metra data shows.
The budget anticipates 2022 will begin with passengers at 25% of pre-pandemic levels and end at about 35%.
"For the first few weeks after Labor Day, ridership seems to have plateaued at 25% of pre-pandemic levels," Ochab said. "There are uncertainties when a more robust return to in-person work will occur, as well as how successful we as a society are at controlling and containing future strains of the COVID-19 virus.
"Metra's past estimates have proved to be too optimistic and have been unfavorably impacted by both delays in expected return as well as flare-ups of new COVID strains."
Revenues include $146.4 million mainly from fares and other sources, $458.8 million in sales taxes, and $202 million in federal COVID-19 aid. However, that leaves a $92.8 million shortfall, Ochab said, expected to be filled by additional federal relief.
The railroad also plans a $258 million capital program with $42.8 million to rehab and upgrade locomotives and rail cars.
Public hearings will occur on Nov. 3 and 4 across the region. For information on attending in person or virtually or to make a comment, go to metra.com/options-public-comment-2022-budget.