The ‘magic’ of Metra: Higher costs, lower service

The ‘magic’ of Metra: Higher costs, lower service

Costs for Metra's administrative workers, including managers, lawyers, accountants and IT specialists went up 54 percent over the last five years.

Each December, Amtrak runs a “Polar Express” in hopes of sparking holiday wonder and joy for Chicagoland families.

Metra puts on its own daily version of the Polar Express, only that production inspires cynicism and annoyance for the Illinoisans who ride its commuter trains.

Riders have had to deal with delayed service and increased fares, all while watching Metra payroll increase by 32 percent over the last five years.

Payroll costs for union workers increased 27 percent over that time, with overtime costs up 47 percent. However, it’s the administrators who have benefited the most. Costs for administrative workers, including managers, lawyers, accountants and IT specialists went up 54 percent.

It’s clear: Metra has failed to control its payroll to keep it in line with what the rail service can afford. This is why fares have continued to rise. The recently approved operating budget for 2018 was pegged at $797.2 million, up $16 million from last year. Metra has decided to raise ticket fares for the fourth consecutive year.

Taken alone, these hikes are pitched as modest increases to help maintain the service. But in reality, riders are getting the short end of the stick.

Take, for example, a rider from Naperville. In 1998, this rider paid $105.30 for a monthly pass. If Metra had simply increased fares by the rate of inflation, the same pass would cost $160.73 in 2018.

Instead, this rider currently pays $199.50 for a monthly pass and, starting in January 2018, will pay $210.25 – an additional $49.52 each month compared with what riders could expect with inflation alone.

The cost of the Naperville monthly pass has increased by an average of 5 percent each year for the last 20 years. And what have riders received in return for these skyrocketing rates? Frequent delays – and soon, reduced service. As part of the 2018 budget, Metra will be reducing service, cutting trains on several lines. Though these will be the first budget-necessitated service reductions in many years, riders have long experienced effective service reductions across all lines due to delays and mechanical failures.

Metra likes to boast about its on-time performance rating: around 95 percent of all trains arrive on time. These ratings, however, are calculated based on a train reaching its final destination within six minutes of its scheduled arrival – a meaningful amount of time to commuters who must arrive at work by a certain time. These “on time” statistics are similar to the fuzzy math that state and local governments and governmental agencies across Illinois have been using for years to sell taxpayers on shaky fiscal planning. If Metra wanted to be honest about their performance, they would use a metric such as Passenger Delay Minutes. This metric considers the number of passengers that are delayed rather than total services.

This way, a delayed rush hour train is weighted more heavily than an on-time train during off hours. In a place like the United Kingdom, this means passengers can even claim compensation for delays.

The whole picture adds up to potential doom for Metra. Fare hikes and service cuts can lead riders to defect. That, in turn, drives down revenues, leading to more fare increases and service cuts. It’s a self-perpetuating spiral that can be extremely difficult to recover from. Metra ridership was down 1.7 percent for the year through September. Chicago already has some of the worst traffic in the country, something that is sure to get worse if Metra continues to diminish its product via fare hikes and service cuts.

Metra has chosen to reach into the pockets of taxpayers and riders alike in an attempt to fix its budget crisis. Chicago-area residents already shoulder one of the highest tax burdens in the country, and these fare increases will only add the pain.

Metra, like its counterparts in state and local government, needs to look at its finances with an eye toward eliminating the waste that has run unchecked for too long. Until Metra owns up to the problem, riders can expect to pay more for less.

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