Riders weary as Metra prices jump again Friday
Commuters board a Metra train Friday morning. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 8, 2013 6:22AM
It was one of the few things Metra riders could count on: The discounted 10-ride pass.
No matter how many times the fares went up and how many other policy tweaks the agency introduced, Metra continued to promote 10-rides as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to one-way tickets.
That changed on on Friday, when Metra’s new 10-ride fare policy went into effect. In an effort to help raise funds for capital projects, the transit agency got rid of the tickets’ built-in discount, raising 10-ride prices to match the cost of 10 one-way tickets. Metra argued that, even though 10-rides no longer offered a better value, they still had advantages over one-way tickets.
But that did little to relieve the riders’ concerns. Commuters that spoke to Pioneer Press complained that the hike came too soon after across-the-board fare increases in February 2012, and placed unfair financial burden on people who could least afford it. But at the same time, most seemed content to make the best of the situation.
For most of its existence, a 10-ride ticket cost the same as eight one-way tickets. Over the last few years, Metra tried to maintain the proportion in order to encourage customers to switch to 10-rides, which would cut down on agency’s printing costs.
That started to change when Alex Clifford became Metra CEO in early February 2011. When fares went up lastFebruary, 10-ride prices were raised so that they would be worth about nine one-way tickets. In December, Metra’s board voted to eliminate the discount entirely.
While Metra acknowledged that the price increase could discourage customers from buying 10-rides, the agency argued that the passes still had advantage over one-ways. They could still be shared between several people, and it would be more convenient than having to buy 10 separate tickets.
But for riders, those advantages weren’t enough.
PARK RIDGE RIDERS UNHAPPY
Park Ridge is served by two Metra stations — Dee Road and Park Ridge. Both are located in Metra’s Fare Zone C. With the fare hike, the cost a 10-ride for trips between downtown Chicago and Park Ridge went up from $38.25 to $42.50.
While most of the riders used the train to get from Park Ridge to Chicago, a sizable portion of riders came from the city or the suburbs to work in Park Ridge.
Laura Mallory, an Arlington Heights resident, is one of those riders. When asked about her opinion about the price increase, she didn’t mince words.
“I really was kind of appalled that they raised prices so soon after the big fare hike last year,”Mallory said Thursday evening. “I’m sure they had a reason, but in this economy, when everyone is struggling…”
Mary Cadieux, a suburb-to-suburb commuter from Woodstock, shared Mallory’s concerns. In her opinion, anything that discourages commuting by public transit is counterproductive, she said Thursday.
“Commuting should be easier and more affordable,” Cadieux said. “It’s good for the community, it’s good for the environment. It’s unfortunate that [Metra] feels the need to raise prices.”
Ahsan Khurshid, a Chicago resident, tried to take a more balanced approach.
“I understand that [Metra] needs to balance its budget,” he said Thursday. “But, as a customer, they don’t increase my pay, so it’s frustrating.”
Michael Mazur, a Park Ridge resident who works in downtown Chicago, shared Cadieux’s concerns about the timing of the fare increase. He uses 10-rides to get to work. While he said that this fare hike wouldn’t affect him financially, he is worried about what would happen if the fares go up any further.
“If [the fares] keep getting higher, I might consider alternate transportation, like the ‘L’ train, or driving,” he said.
Current Park Ridge Metra riders do have alternatives. The Cumberland Blue Line ‘L’ station is located on the city’s southern edge. Its multi-level park-and-ride facilities are large enough to handle incoming traffic. For those who don’t drive, the PACE bus route 290 takes seven minutes to get from the Park Ridge Metra station to the Cumberland ‘L’ station. It runs an average of once every 20 to 40 minutes in each direction.
The option does have drawbacks. The ‘L’ is slower than Metra, and the park-and-ride rates are higher than what riders would find at either of Park Ridge’s stations.
MORTON GROVE ALTERNATIVES LACKLUSTER
Aside from the village that gave it its name, the Morton Grove Metra station serves Skokie, Niles and parts of Lincolnwood. Like Park Ridge, the station is located in Fare Zone C. With the fare hike, the price of a 10-ride to Chicago went up from $38.25 to $42.50.
While most of the riders used Metra to get from Morton Grove to Chicago, a sizable portion of riders took the train from other suburbs to work at and around the village.
Rodney Walat lives in Fox Lake and takes Metra to work in Morton Grove. On Thursday, he said that while wasn’t pleased about the fare hike, he had no choice but to live with it.
“Unfortunately, I live far enough away from here that I have to take the train,” Walat said. ‘I wish I could get back at [Metra], but I can’t.”
Karoon Panosyan, of Skokie, used 10-rides to get to Chicago, but she said that it will change now that the price has increased.
“I’m going to start buying a monthly, which I guess is what [Metra] wanted,” she said Friday morning.
Naiha Walia, of Prairie Grove, was just one of the many riders who shared Panosyan’s feeling that Metra was trying to steer them toward monthly tickets.
“I feel they want more people to buy monthlies,” she said. “That way, they got all the money up front.”
Nate Delman, a Skokie resident, said that he already switched during the last year’s fare hike.
“I used to buy 10-rides when it was eight rides [per ticket],” he said. “But when it went up, I decided to buy monthly.”
But that’s not a realistic option for everyone. Alex Larson, a manager at Des Plaines-based Specialty Store Services warehouse, passes through the Morton Grove station on the way to work. While he can afford the monthly pass, he’s worried about how this will affect his employees.
“A lot of my employees can’t afford to put that much money up front,” he said.
Shaun Fernitz isn’t quite ready to get a monthly. He hadn’t been taking Metra much until the beginning of this year, when he got an internship in Chicago’s Edgebrook neighborhood. He said that he would continue buying 10-rides in order to get there, but he would be less inclined to take Metra the rest of the time.
“On weekends, I’d just hitch a ride with friends,” he said.
If they want to get Chicago, Morton Grove riders have another public transit alternative. PACE’s Route 250 passes within walking distance of the station, linking the riders to the Dempster Yellow Line station. If riders use Chicago Cards or CTA transit cards, the entire trip would only cost $2.00.
But it’s an alternative most riders prefer not to take.
“I live right by the Skokie [CTA] station,” said Panosyan. “The CTA takes longer.”
The effects of Metra’s fare hike won’t be felt right away. Ten-rides purchased between Nov. 17, 2012 and Jan. 31 will be valid until Feb. 28. The 10-rides purchased before then are valid for a year after expiration. That means that 10-rides at the pre-hike prices could still be in use until Nov. 16.
In the end, none of the riders who spoke to Pioneer Press expressed any real desire to stop using Metra. As she stood on the outbound platform Thursday, waiting for the train to arrive, Park Ridge resident Betty Wagner summed up her feelings about the fare increase by citing the company’s slogan.
“Of course I’m not happy,” she said. “But Metra is still the way to really fly. It beats traffic.”