To some extent, Metra passengers should not be surprised to see fare increases for a fourth straight year. Beginning in 2014, the agency outlined a 10-year, $2.4 billion plan of action for upgrading its equipment that called for regular annual increases.
As unwelcome as it was to reflect on a future of regular annual fare hikes, there was at that time at least a sense that the money was going for something necessary and was being managed with insight and with foresight. In some of those early years, the fare increases even fell short of the maximum called for in the plan -- as Metra officials kept a promise not to ask customers to pay more than was necessary to stick to the upgrade schedule.
Then came the last two years. Dramatic unpredicted decreases in sales tax revenues. Steadily declining revenue from gasoline taxes. A two-year state budget impasse and concurrent cuts in resources from the state. Suddenly, what had seemed a controlled exercise in preparing for the future began to feel like, at best, a mission disrupted.
Plans for new rail cars were scaled back and the time line for the project extended. Ticket prices continued to rise. Cuts were made in staffing and consultants. Now this: On Friday, the agency's board approved ticket prices that, depending on the trip, will be from 8 percent to 12.6 percent higher -- in addition to hikes for one-way ticket and weekend passes plus the elimination of some trains from the regular schedule,
It's important to maintain perspective here. Many of the factors battering Metra's revenue picture are outside the agency's control and likely couldn't have been predicted in the fall of 2014. Throughout the period, the rail line has continued to pursue efficiencies without which Friday's announcement would have been even more unsettling. And the service cuts currently envisioned are far from draconian.
Even so, we do not take lightly -- and no one should -- the assessment by Metra's newest board member that the agency is in "dire straits" and its present path forward is "unsustainable." Our natural next question is, "What is sustainable?" And what will it take to return to a vision of a stable, if not always financially pleasant, future.
When Metra Director Rodney Craig says his "fear" is that "additional cuts will occur within the coming year," it is less ominous that cuts may occur within a year than that they can't be predicted now.
To the extent that state resources are part of that uncertainty, the least lawmakers and state policymakers can do is work to give Metra and other public transit agencies a promise of reliability in funding. But then perhaps it is also a good time for Metra to step back and take another look at what its near- and long-term future will look like. Our sense is that officials are a lot less clear about that today than they were three years ago. We don't fault them for that -- yet. But, if they aren't able to outline a more specific and predictable way forward, it's going to become increasingly difficult to accept routine cuts in service combined with demands for higher fees.