Metra board members who have been balking at a previously planned 8.5 percent fare increase for next year are expected to be presented with alternate fare options at Friday’s board meeting, officials say.
Two years ago, the Metra board signed off on a $2.4 billion modernization plan that included 10 years of fare increases, totaling 68 percent over the decade.
The plan tentatively proposed that an 8.5 percent fare increase would kick in next Feb. 1, the second-largest increase in the 10-year sequence and the third year of such increases.
But Metra Board Chairman Martin Oberman, of Chicago, said Thursday that “there’s some debate on the size of an increase, if any. . . . There are different points of view on it.”
As a result, Oberman said, he has asked Metra staff to give board members several fare options before they vote Friday on fares and on Metra’s preliminary budget.
Officials always said the 10-year fare increase schedule was a tentative one, to be tweaked as needed, Oberman noted.
“We said we would adjust it each year based on the facts,’’ Oberman said. “That’s what we will grapple with” on Friday.
In announcing Metra’s 10-year modernization plan two years ago, officials proposed floating $400 million bonds in as many as four waves to bankroll an update to the oldest fleet among peers and to cover new federally mandated safety technology.
But state funding glitches have delayed such a deal. As a result, Metra officials this summer suspended plans to buy 367 new rail cars, although they hope to buy 21 of them at far less expense.
At this point, Oberman said, the earliest any bonding decision would be made is 2018. Some board members say the second-largest fare increase in the sequence might make more sense when the board pulls the trigger on bonds. Most of the remaining increases in the schedule, through 2024, are of 4 percent or 3 percent.
In addition, some members have questioned an 8.5 percent fare increase next year given this year’s $9 million in fuel savings, $5.3 million in efficiencies, and the suspension of any large-scale rail car purchase.
At Friday’s meeting, “My guess is we will end up in the fours or fives. It’s not going to be eight,” said Metra Vice Chair Jack Partelow, of Will County.
Board member John Zediker, of DuPage County, also said he would be “surprised” by an 8.5 percent increase unless the board starts bonding.
In the first year of the 10-year plan, the board raised fares by an average of nearly 11 percent, as scheduled. But in the second year, it rolled back a planned 5 percent increase to only 2 percent, due to achieved efficiencies and increased sales tax revenue.
By the end of 2016, the first two years of fare increases will have helped pay for 68 rehabbed rail cars, seven locomotives and $95 million in “positive train control” safety improvements, officials say.
Also Friday, board members are expected to decide whether to select a new chair as of Nov. 2 or to change the rules so that Oberman can serve a full four years as chairman, rather than just finish out the term of former chair Brad O’Halloran, who resigned amid an uproar over the golden parachute given to former Metra CEO Alex Clifford.
Oberman said he has told colleagues “I am available and I would like to stay on” as chair to follow through on important changes so far on his watch.
Board rules require that the chairmanship be rotated every four years between a Cook County and collar county board member. Oberman, an appointee of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was elected chairman in February 2014.
“Our policy is the job [as chair] is up on the second of November,” said Partelow, who is ready to surrender his vice chair post on Nov. 2. “Do we want to change the policy? It’s a good policy, a solid policy. I don’t see any reason to change.”
Partelow said he suspected Lake County Board member Norman Carlson, a railroad industry consulant, has the votes to take over as chairman, because of his deep knowledge of the industry.
“Norm is held in high regard by everybody,’’ Partelow said. “Based on that, he probably has the votes.”