Metra approves 2017 budget with fare increase to pay for capital needs

Written by Mischa Wanek-Libman, editor
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Metra says 100 percent of the revenue raised in 2017 from increased fares will go toward capital needs.

The Metra Board of Directors approved the agency's 2017 budget, which includes a fare increase that will fund needed capital requirements.

The $1.06 billion budget provides $781.2 million for operating costs and $279.5 million for capital improvements in 2017. The budget increases fare revenue by 5.8 percent to generate $16.1 million for the agency’s huge capital needs.

“No one likes to pay higher fares, but unfortunately we can’t ignore our need for more money to invest on our system,” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno. “We hope our customers understand that we are trying to address a serious capital funding shortfall as best we can.”

The fare increase will generate an additional $16.1 million in revenue in 2017, 100 percent of which will be used to fund capital improvement projects. Metra has an extensive backlog of capital projects requiring $11.7 billion over the next decade or $1.2 billion annually just to achieve and maintain a state of good repair. Yet, in each of the next four years, Metra projects that it will have less than $300 million annually available to spend on capital projects – about $900 million less than the agency needs to spend each year.

Fares cover about half of the operating budget, with the rest primarily coming from the RTA sales tax collected in the six-county region (partially matched by state). The $21.4 million in operating cost increases will be offset by an additional $21.8 million Metra is expected to receive from the RTA sales tax in 2017.

Fare increases that will take effect on Feb. 1, 2017 and include and 25-cent increase on a one-way ticket; a $2.75 increase on a 10-ride ticket and a $11.75 increase on a monthly ticket.

The 2017 Operating Budget, which covers the day-to-day costs of running the railroad, increases costs by $21.4 million or 2.8 percent over 2016. Key drivers of 2017 operating cost changes include a projected savings of $9 million in diesel fuel prices locked in in 2016, a projected $11.6 million increase in employee health care costs and an average 3 percent increase in employee wages. Metra also anticipates a $4.7 million increase in training and mechanical costs, a $2.6 million increase in Positive Train Control (PTC) operating costs, a $2.8 million increase in materials and services costs and a $1.2 million increase for the Safety and Police Departments.

For 2017, the Capital Budget totals $279.5 million, the bare minimum investment the agency can make in 2017 to keep the system functioning reliably. The capital budget includes $90.5 million for rolling stock to continue our program to rehabilitate 18 locomotives and 43 railcars annually and a portion of funding to purchase 21 new railcars. Other major capital investments include: $23 million to continue the multi-year effort to replace aging Union Pacific North Line bridges over 22 streets on the north side of Chicago and rebuild Ravenswood Station; $20 million to expand the 49th Street rehabilitation facility to increase by 30 percent the number of railcars Metra can rehab each year; and $30.5 million to continue to install PTC.

For 2017, Metra is expecting to receive $175 million from federal sources and $72.4 million from the RTA for its capital needs. It is anticipating no new capital money from the state of Illinois.

As it does each year, Metra began the budget process by finding $5.3 million in cuts to the current operating budget, including: $1.8 million in reduced insurance and claims costs; $1.7 million from the elimination of 27 vacant positions; $700,000 in reduced website hosting and content management costs; $600,000 from lower-priced software maintenance contract for revenue accounting and less expensive data storage; $300,000 from reduced maintenance costs as older locomotives are remanufactured; $100,000 in reduced maintenance costs as old Highliner cars are retired; $100,000 in reduced media consulting services, and $100,000 in reduced in rental expenses. These budget cuts bring the total efficiencies achieved by Metra in the past seven years to $24.8 million.