Metra riders gave a thumbs-down to a proposed average fare hike of 25 percent Friday.
"It's so expensive -- that makes it difficult for anyone with a lower income," said Penny Rusch of Aurora.
Fare hike nitty-grittyHere are specifics on Metra's plan to raise fares. If approved:
• One-way tickets would be valid for just 14 days.
• 10-ride tickets would be refundable only three months from the date of purchase and a $5 fee would be charged.
• Monthly passes would be valid to the end of the month only and refunds would be subject to a $10 fee.
• The Link-Up (for Pace and CTA) and PlusBus (for Pace) subsidies would be eliminated.
• Weekend passes would stay intact but the young adult half-price fares on weekends and holidays would be eliminated.
• Tickets would be rounded to the nearest 25 cents.
"Do I want a 25 percent increase now?" Milwaukee North Line rider Jennifer Long asked rhetorically. "It should have been 3 to 5 percent over the past five to 10 years."
If approved, the increases will mean 10-ride and monthly pass holders pay 29 percent more if they're traveling from Chicago, which is fare zone A, to suburbs such as Arlington Height in zone E. As an example, a 10-ride pass between zones A and E would jump from $36.55 to $47.25, and a monthly pass would go from $116.10 to $149.50. One-way tickets will bump up by 17 percent.
Short trips between two zones, such as Lisle (zone E) to Naperville (zone F), will increase by 20 percent for one-way tickets and 35 percent for 10-ride and monthly pass holders.
Metra is facing a $53 million deficit in 2012, caused in part by skyrocketing diesel fuel.
"There's never a good time for a fare hike ... but we wanted to be sensitive to the need to keep this as low as possible," Metra CEO Alex Clifford said.
The changes, if approved, would go into effect in February. Public hearings on the plan are set for November.
Metra administrators revised fare projection from September amid criticism from South Side Chicago riders that they gouged city residents because of hikes of 58 percent to 67 percent for short trips within a zone or between two zones. The majority of short trips are taken by Chicagoans.
"The suburbs are always favored over the city," said Chicago commuter Linda Thisted, chairman of the Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation.
"This discriminates against people of color," the Rev. Booker Vance of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church said.
Acting Metra Chairman and Chicagoan Larry Huggins disagreed.
"City riders have a choice, suburban riders don't," said Huggins, referring to the CTA.
Metra board Director Jack Schaffer of Cary noted that most of the sales tax earmarked for transit that's paid in Chicago and Cook County goes to fund the CTA. That's not the case in collar counties where sales taxes are divided between the CTA, Metra and Pace.
"I don't want to get regional but it's not a good deal for the suburbs," Schaffer said.
However, other suburban directors called the fare increases equitable.
"I think they're pretty well-balanced," said Metra Director Mike McCoy, former Lake County chairman. "I view it as a correction that needed to be made because of past policies."
"I think it's unfortunate but necessary," Director Paul Darley of Elmhurst said.
Clifford said the agency has trimmed about $17 million from its operating fund, through locking in 75 percent of diesel fuel prices as well as administrative cuts, such as reductions in lobbyist contacts.
Metra directors agreed to stop transferring capital dollars to subsidize operating funds, a routine practice in the past.
Clifford blamed former Executive Director Phil Pagano, who in 2010 killed himself in the midst of an investigation of his misuse of at least $475,000 in agency funds.
"This all has to do with one person and one person only," he said.
Metra officials said the rate hike will balance the 2012 budget and put the agency on a solid financial footing. But they didn't rule out a possible increase to the 10-ride pass in 2013.
The proposed operating budget for 2012 is $686.8 million and the capital budget is $244 million.