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Metra may revamp fare structure, introduce new passes

Inbound and outbound trains stop at Union Pacific Northwest Metra Line’s Palatine station during rush hour. Photo: Igor Studenkov

As Metra prepares its 2021 budget amidst a 90-percent ridership drop, the commuter railroad is considering substantial changes its fare structure and service patterns.

As Lynnette Ciavarella, Metra’s director of strategic planning and performance, explained during the transit agency's September 15 board meeting, the goal is to reduce how often conductors have to sell and validate tickets by encourages riders to shift to the Ventra app and using passes. To that end, the transit agency is considering introducing new multi-day passes, decreasing the prices of monthly tickets; making physical weekend passes good for only one day while app weekend passes remain good for the entire weekend; introducing a loyalty program for monthly ticket users; and introducing off-peak fares.

Many of the details, such as the exact prices, won’t be finalized until the October 6 board meeting. If approved, some of those changes could be rolled out as early as February 2021, while others are currently expected to take effect by the middle of 2021.

Metra's fare structure hasn’t changed much since the railroad took charge of most Chicago area commuter lines in the 1980s. As with most commuter rail systems in United States, its fares are zone-based, increasing the further ones gets from downtown Chicago. Metra offers single-ride tickets, 10-ride tickets, weekend/holiday passes and monthly passes. For most of Metra’s history, weekend passes were the only tickets good for unlimited riders across all fare zones. In May 22, 2019, Metra made monthly passes double as weekend passes to make them more appealing to riders. This summer Metra introduced one-day passes that function like weekend passes, with unlimited rides through all zones, except lasting only a single day. That has since been replaced by an app-only Round Trip Plus pass, which works more like a monthly ticket, in that it’s limited to specific fare zones.

Even before the pandemic, Metra had been trying to shift more riders towards monthly passes. Unlike single-ride and 10-ride tickets, conductors don’t need to hole-punch them (if they’re physical passes) or have the riders activate and validate them (if they're digital), which speeds up the ticket-checking process. Suffice to say, this became even more valuable during the pandemic when minimizing interactions between conductors and passengers became desirable for safety reasons.

While Metra officials previously estimated that ridership would rebound to 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020, with most schools still closed and major downtown employers pushing back their employees’ return to physical offices, Ciavarella and other officials to the board that they now expect it to be closer to 20 percent.

Ciavarella said that in order to encourage more riders to switch to monthly passes, Metra would lower their price. She noted that they’re currently priced at an equivalent of 29 one-way trips within whatever zones they’re valid on. “We're looking at pricing it a bit less than that.”

To further encourage monthly pass use, Metra is considering introducing a loyalty program for monthly pass users. Ciavarella didn’t elaborate on what that would entail, only saying that it would be one of the changes implemented later.

Metra is also considering changing the way weekend passes work, making the pass that’s good for both Saturday and Sunday app-only use, and having physical weekend passes only be good for one day (either a Saturday or a Sunday). The traditional weekend pass would still cost $10, while physical passes cost either $5 or $7.

In a smaller, but notable change, Ciavarella said that Metra is looking at changing expiration dates for one-way tickets and 10-ride passes. The dates have been changed several times over the years, but they are currently good for up to 90 days and 365 days, respectively. The expiration dates are especially handy with 10-rides, since they let less frequent riders to use a single ticket for months on end. And when Metra raises fares, riders have been known to buy 10-rides in bulk. Any change to the expiration date would affect the tickets’ utility.

Later next year, Metra is planning to introduce “a new multi-day pass product,” Ciavarella said, specifically mentioning 2-day passes, 3-day passes and 4-day passes – something the transit agency never had for weekdays. She also mentioned potentially introducing peak and off-peak fairs – something Metra has been discussing for years.

But perhaps the most notable longer-term change would be decreasing the number of fare zones. While Ciavarella didn’t elaborate on what that might look like, even before the pandemic, Metra made some changes along those lines. In July 2018, it merged further-flung fare zones K, L and M with fare zone J, in hopes that reducing ticket prices on the most expensive fare zones in the system would encourage more riders. At the same time, it shifted some fare zone boundaries within the city of Chicago to make some Metra Electric trips on the South Side cheaper.

The future of Metra schedules, both during and after the pandemic, is more fluid, but Ciavarella acknowledged that even after a vaccine or an effective treatment is introduced, things won’t necessarily go back to the way they were pre-pandemic She said that Metra would beef up service based on demand, while also acknowledging the “chicken or the egg” problem – riders can’t flock to service that doesn't currently exist. Ciavarella said that the transit agency has been talking to Chicago Chamber of Commerce, as well as the businesses along the Lake Cook Road corridor in Northbrook, a major reverse commuting destination in the suburbs, to get a better idea of how many commuters would take Metra and what times would work best.

Ciavarella said that the transit agency Is looking into providing “a consistent and frequent service,” with more regular intervals between trains. Depending on demand, Metra would also consider adding new express services and expanding reverse commuting options. It will be looking into adjusting schedules to make it easier to transfer between Metra lines, as well as between Metra and CTA/Pace buses and ‘L’ trains – something that, as I’ve noted before, was a mixed bag at best before the pandemic and only got worse in the suburbs as Metra schedules shifted while most Pace bus schedules remained the same.

“A lot of our schedules are remnants of 1984,” Ciavarella said. “The service patterns have changed since then. [The schedules] will be remarkably different than what we've seen before.” She emphasized that this goes for just about every facet of Metra’s services. “As the ridership has changed, as the world has changed, we need to be a little more flexible.”

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