At last month’s Will County Board meeting, representatives from Metra gave a presentation about the current state of the commuter railroad company.
Metra Board Chairman Norm Carlson and incoming CEO and Executive Director Jim Derwinski made a presentation about the challenges Metra is facing.
Carlson said that the way Metra has been operating its business is outdated and needs modernizing for the current economy.
“Metra is facing its most significant financial crisis in its 33-year history,” Carlson said.
Carlson talked about the difficult choices the board had to make in its 2018 budget, which it approved Friday. Those choices include cost reductions, fare increases, deferral of capital spending and, for the first time in Metra’s history, service cuts to close a $45 million budget deficit.
“Metra has an economic model that is not sustainable,” Carlson said. “This is in large part due to macroeconomic changes in our society.”
The 2018 budget changes include a 25 cent increase in the price of one-way tickets in all zones (a 2.3 percent to 6.7 percent increase). A monthly pass would go up in price to between $9 and $12.50, depending on the zone.
Service cuts include a midday train on the Southwest Service line that operates between the 179th Street stop in Orland Park and Manhattan. That’s because an average of two passengers take the train north between those stops, and an average of one passenger takes it south.
There also will be adjustments to the night schedules on the Rock Island District line, which has trains going to Joliet until 12:30 a.m. from LaSalle Street in Chicago. Three weekday trains – one arriving at LaSalle at
6:44 p.m., another at 7:42 p.m. and one at 11:50 p.m. – will be eliminated.
Metra is trying to adjust its late-night schedule so it can preserve service for rush hour trains, during which 70 percent of its customers ride. The challenge, Carlson said, is to get more passengers on the trains that run outside of rush hour.
Projects in Will County are coming along, such as the Metra station in Romeoville, which will be a stop on the Heritage Corridor line going from Joliet to Chicago. That station is scheduled to be complete next year.
Carlson said Metra also is working with New Lenox on a proposed new station. There also will be new floors and a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system installed in the Lockport station.
He said Metra will continue coordinating on the construction of the new Joliet station.
With these adjustments, Metra has been able to keep its operating costs, and ticket prices, relatively low compared with its peers, Carlson said.
Performance also has been a consistent positive, with an on-time performance of 95 percent or better for the past 31 months.
Carlson said these achievements largely were because of a focus on maintenance, and the equipment has needed it. Metra has the oldest fleet of locomotive cars in the country.
Carlson said there are four cars on the BNSF Railway line from Aurora to Chicago that sometimes are used on the Southwest Service, which will turn 65 years old next year.
Metra has been trying to find ways to operate more efficiently, conducting numerous studies about its fare structure, station optimization and investment, and infrastructure efficiency, among other areas of its operations.
Will County Board member Don Gould, R-Shorewood, who also serves as chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, said he understands the importance of Metra to Will County for both riders and nonriders.
“You can probably find people in every community who is a commuter,” Gould said.
But in terms of ways to help Metra in its financial situation, there is not much local governments can do. Metra’s deficit is partly because of a cut in subsidies of about $13 million from the state government.
Gould said he is trying to be positive in hoping that the addition of the Romeoville station could bring some added riders and revenue to Metra. But he said the near future will show just how dire the situation will be for Metra and everyone who needs to travel to work in Will County.
“Metra is going to affect everyone, whether they have a station or not,” Gould said. “Next year will be critical.”