Metra director Stephen Palmer | Igor Studenkov

The Metra Board of Directors voted unanimously on Nov. 11 to approve a 2023 budget that includes keeping the popular $100 Super Saver monthly pass and both all-system and three-zone day passes until at least the end of next year.

The initial budget proposal called for Metra to do away with the Super Saver pass, which works system-wide, in favor of returning to zone-based monthly passes, as well as replacing the current day passes with zone-based day passes that would cost the equivalent of two one-way tickets.

The proposal drew a backlash from several directors representing the collar counties and parts of suburban Cook County, who argued that returning to zone-based passes was the opposite of what Metra should be doing: making the fare system simpler and more user-friendly.

The proposed changes were designed to strike a balance between attracting riders and putting more money in Metra coffers as federal stimulus funding is expected to run out in 2025. The commuter rail agency has been using the funds to make up for passenger revenue shortfalls, and Metra Chief Financial Officer John Morris told the board that, if the status quo is maintained, it would add around $2 million to the 2025 budget hole. But the board and staff agreed this isn’t the last word on fare changes as Metra continues to look for ways to attract riders.

At $100, the Super Saver pass is cheaper than zone-based monthly passes on most lines, including all the lines serving this newspaper’s coverage area. The previously proposed fare changes would have lowered the cost to $68 a month for Forest Park, Oak Park, River Forest and Galewood riders, and $88 a month for Brookfield and Riverside riders. But it would have also raised monthly pass prices for suburbs further out. While much of the backlash during the Oct. 12 meeting came from Metra directors representing the collar counties, board member Stephen Palmer, who represents most of west suburban Cook County, also argued against it, saying that the Super Saver has been popular with his constituents.

Since the Super Saver pass was introduced in July, the sales of monthly passes increased every month. According to the Nov. 11 ridership report, as of October, the sales more than tripled compared to June, going from 10,141 tickets to 30,703 tickets. Sales of day passes have been dropping during the same period, but as of October, they still account for 28.5% of all ticket sales, with 19.8% of all sales coming from the system-wide $10 day passes.

During the Nov. 11 meeting, Morris said he estimates that, with the status quo fares, the 2025 budget hole will be $54 million. He also warned that the law requiring Metra to get at least 50% of its revenue from fares, which the state waived for three years at the start of the pandemic, will return in 2024. Metra currently gets around 43.5% of its revenue from fares.

Now that Metra has passed the budget, it will need to go before the Regional Transportation Authority Board of Directors for the final approval — but that step tends to be a formality, especially when the budgets are approved unanimously.  

Palmer said he appreciated the staff making adjustments after he and the other directors “threw you for the loop.”

“I know that the budget we passed was a budget for the people, saying we want you to come, we want you to ride with us,” he said. “We know that, right now, we made the right decision for the time we’re in and the environment we’re in.”

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...