Wheaton students are lucky to have the culturally-rich city of Chicago at just a train ride away. However, students will now have to add several dollars to their usual Metra fare. A one-way ticket to Ogilvie Station is now $6 on weekdays, with a surcharge of up to $5 on the train if a ticket agent is available at the boarding station.
On Feb. 1, Metra raised ticket prices by an overall 10.8 percent to accommodate its 2015 budget. This was the beginning of a series of proposed increases by Metra that could span over ten years with an overall fare increase of 68 percent.
With the tight budgets of college students, even a few dollars can be enough to deter someone from using Metra to travel to Chicago. As stereotypically poor college students, even the simple increase of a weekend pass from $7 to $8 can seem like a lot.
Freshman Sarah King takes the train to Chicago about five times each semester. She ex-pressed frustration with the recent increase in ticket prices while planning transportation for an upcoming concert. King said, “I think Wheaton students would go less often (if prices continue to increase). If Metra prices were lower, I would definitely go to more concerts.” Senior Marie Morton agrees that the increase in Metra ticket prices will make students less likely to go into Chicago. Morton said, “I find that tickets seem expensive before and now a raise in price would stop me from riding the Metra.”
The recent changes came in the wake of the 2013 corruption scandal involving former CEO Alex Clifford and many other executive officers, where “hush money” amounting to over $800,000 was used to buy out Clifford’s contract. Clifford also claimed that speaker of the Illinois house Michael Madigan asked him to give promotions and pay raise to political associates involved with Metra. Following this, many other executive board members resigned or asked to not be reappointed, leading to further speculation about corruption. The following year, outdated equipment led to many breakdowns that let riders stranded on platforms in subzero temperatures during last year’s polar vortex. Metra officials are using the corruption of 2013 and breakdowns of 2014 to justify the new economic demands and said that previous leaders of the company failed to regularly increase fares to accommodate for necessary replacements of outdated trains and equipment.
Meg Reile of the Metra Office said that fare increases were applied for two functions: to pay for continually rising cost of operations and to start a source of capital funding for the modernization plan. The cost of operations, including cost of fuel, worker salaries, supplies and everything else that goes into operating the train is expected to increase significantly over the next year. How-ever, much of the money will be going to fund Metra’s new $2.4 billion modernization plan.
Reile said, “Much of the equipment and trains date back to the Eisenhower era and are nearing the end of useful life. This (modernization plan) will allow Metra to replace equipment and minimize breakdown, but it is just a start.”
Each day, Metra provides transportation for hundreds of thousands of commuters across the Chicagoland area. Metra recognized that in order to continue to provide reliable services, replacement and repair of trains is essential. The decade-long plan will allow time for funding through state and federal means as well as through revenue from the continuous yet gradual fare increases.
Some current benefits include the reinstatement of a “discounted” 10-ride ticket, a grace period on monthly tickets and an extension on the expiration of one-way tickets from 14 days to 90 days. For frequent passengers, however, the immediate implications of this plan appear mostly negative. Reile assured that although significant benefits are not currently being experienced, they will come “down the line,” including major changes such as remodeled passenger cars.
With the significant increase in fares and the plan for continued increase over the next decade, many wonder if current Metra users will switch to cheaper options such as CTA. The CTA reaches three of Metra’s main travel zones near the Loop, giving many commuters the opportunity to switch, should they find prices too high in the coming months and years.
Despite this, Reile said, “We have not seen a drop in ridership since the fare increase in Febru-ary.” While most commuters have stuck with Metra for the time being, competition between Metra and CTA services will continue to decrease as monthly passes, the most popular type of ticket, near the $100 price that CTA currently charges while maintaining the same limited service options.
Fare increases appear far more drastic because of their ability to maintain impressively low tick-et prices in previous years. Michael Gillis told the Columbia Chronicle, “Our capital needs far exceed the available resources we have to meet them.” Now, for the first time in history, the service is now facing a debt from a $100 million bond to help begin funding the pricey moderni-zation plan and operation expenses. Thus, such increases are essential for Metra to update its equipment and continue running efficiently. Metra Spokesperson Michael Gillis told the Columbia Chronicle, “Our capital needs far exceed the available resources we have to meet them.”
With increased concern, Metra continues to seek to keep riders informed and optimistic about the benefits down the line.