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Metra 2022 budget calls for new day pass, more wheelchair-accessible Chicago stations

Metra Twins pulling out of Union Station. Photo: Jeff Zoline

Metra is cautiously optimistic that ridership will rebound in 2022 as it prepares to approve its budget for next year.

The proposed 2022 budget doesn’t call for any fare increases, but it would make a few changes to the fare structure. Metra already quietly made the $10 All-Day Pass, originally a temporary promotion that kept getting extended because it turned out to be popular, permanent. The budget would get rid of another pandemic-era promotion, the Round Trip Plus app-only pass, but introduce something that borrows from both promotions, a $6 Day Pass that will be Ventra-only and only be good for up three fare zones.

Metra is also planning to make headway on the long-awaited Rock Island District Line Auburn Park station, make several stations wheelchair, and add video information displays to more stations.

The budget sets the goal of returning Metra to pre-pandemic service levels over the course of next year. As society has gradually recovered from lockdown, the railroad has followed the strategy of increasing service levels to encourage ridership increases, reasoning that riders won’t return if the options aren’t there. But at the same time, Metra makes relatively conservative assumptions about ridership, projecting that it will increase from the current 25 percent of pre-pandemic levels to 35 percent over the course of next year.

The budget calls for $900 million in projected expenses. About $146.4 million of that will be covered through fares and “other system-generating revenues” such as advertising revenue and retail rent. Metra's share of local sales tax revenue is expected to amount to $458.8 million, and $202 million will come from the last two federal stimulus packages. The Regional Transportation Authority won’t decide how to allocate the funding from the third stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan Act, until December, but Metra is planning to ask for at least $92.8 million to help cover next year’s expenses.

Metra will hold virtual and in-person budget hearings on November 3 and 4. The Board of Directors will vote on the budget during its November meeting.

Proposed fare changes

The Metra All-Day Pass was introduced on June 1, 2020 as the stay-at-home order was lifted and Metra brought back conductors. As the name suggests, the pass offers unlimited rides throughout the entire Metra system for a single weekday, the way Metra Weekend Passes have done for weekends for decades. The Round Trip Plus pass, which was originally recommended in the 2016 fare structure study, was introduced in September 2020 and functions more like a Metra monthly pass, offering unlimited rides for a single day within specific fare zones. The Round Trip Plus pasts costs the equivalent of two one-way tickets and, unlike the All-Day Pass, is Ventra-only.

At $10, the All-Day Pass is cheaper than the cost of a round trip between all fare zones except A-B. The two exceptions to that rule are the Metra Electric and Rock Island District lines. Under the Fair Transit South Cook fare pilot, which launched last January, their regular fares are the same as reduced fares, which means that a round trips to the furthest fare zone the lines reach (Fare Zone H at Joliet) costs $8.

The $6 Day Pass still wouldn’t be a better deal for MED and RID, either, but it would be a better deal than the All-Day pass Chicagoans traveling to the Loop from further-flung neighborhoods with no ‘L’ service. For example, the round trip from Far Northwest Side’s Edgebrook neighborhood, which falls within Fare Zone C, costs $11 with two single-ride tickets. While the All-Day Pass costs less, the Day-Pass would nearly halve the cost. It’s even more noticeable in the neighborhoods that fall within Fare Zone B, such as the West Side’s Galewood neighborhood, where two one-one tickets cost $8.50 – less than the All-Day Pass but more than the Day Pass.

The Day Pass would also be a good deal for riders commuting from any suburbs that fall within Fare Zone B (for example, Oak Park) or Fare Zone C (for example, Evanston and Park Ridge). It would also benefit reverse commuters heading from Chicago to Evanston, and from some suburbs to other major reverse-commuting destinations. The pass would save money for riders Milwaukee District North line to Lake Cook Road (Fare Zone E) from Edgebook or Lake Forest (Fare Zone F). And while North Central Service line service is still significantly below its pre-pandemic level, the pass will save money for suburbanites heading to the O’Hare Transfer Station (Fare Zone D) and to suburbs such as Prospect Heights (Fare Zone E) and Wheeling and Buffalo Grove (Fare Zone F)

In Metra's press release about the 2022 budget, Metra described the day pass a way to “To incentivize short trips and attract more customers,” adding that it “could also be useful for college students commuting to class.”

For the most part, Metra doesn’t provide direct service to colleges – students have to transfer to the ‘L” or some kind of bus. There are a few exceptions. The MED line directly serves the University of Chicago; the Union Pacific West line’s Collège Avenue station serves Wheaton College,; and the BNSF Line’s Halsted Street station is next to the University of Illinois of Chicago’s South Campus,

The budget also proposes reducing expiration dates on 10-Ride tickets from one year to 90 days and on the one-way tickets from 90 days to 14 days. Due to COVID-19, Metra temporarily extended the expiration dates for both types of tickets until the end of 2021, so long as they were purchased on March 2020 or later.

Capital Projects

As usual, much of the budget goes into routine maintenance and infrastructure replacement, but Metra is also spending money on several projects that have been in the works for years.

The budget adds another $200,000 for the construction of the Union Pacific North Line’s Peterson Ridge station in Edgewater, though permitting issues have slowed the actual construction.

The new Auburn Park station can’t be built until the bridge structure that currently carries the RID tracks above the elevated Belt Railway/Norfolk Southern tracks is raised. The budget calls for a total of $8.3 million to raise the bridge, repair and refurbish the structure, put in a station entrance with stairs and elevators up to the new platform, the platform and the canopy, the car parking lot and bike parking, a new plaza and a drop-off lane.

Notably, the budget calls for making several Chicago stations Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant. That includes the BNSF Line’s Western station in Pilsen, and the MED’s 79th Street/Chatham and 103rd Street/Rosemoor stops. While the later two have level boarding, none of the three currently have elevators or ramps. Metra will be rehabbing the stations in the process. Metra would also spend around $3.3 million on smaller ADA improvements throughout the system, and $900,000 to develop the plan for improving the the Union Pacific West line’s River Forest station, including making the station ADA-compliant.

Other projects include rehabilitations of the depot and the general rehab of BNSF Line’s La Grange Road station; adding heated platforms to the line’s Westmont station, renovating the station entrance, and adding heat lamps and canopy at the MED’s 147th/Sibley station; and “extensive” repairs for Union Pacific North Line’s Kenilworth station. The Union Pacific West line in particular got four projects: the long-planned Elmhurst station, rehabilitation of the West Chicago station, including the stairs and funnels connecting the platforms to the nearby streets, and  repairing the decaying staircase and retaining wall at the line’s Kedzie station in East Garfield Park.

And, in a project that may fly under the radar but that could have significant impact on the rider experience, Metra would spend $3 million on replacing the station information signs. Instead of scrolling text, they would have video screens that would show “live train-tracking information, customer information, and emergency messages.”

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