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The [Thursday] Papers

"Fare hikes have become routine for Metra riders after four consecutive annual increases. But the hike approved by Metra's board last week is different. It comes with service cuts, marking the first time in many years that the commuter rail agency has reduced service for financial reasons. Along with $17 million in fare increases, Metra is eliminating or curtailing a handful of trains," Joe Cahill writes for Crain's.

Sure, the cuts will affect only a relatively small number of commuters. But they're an ominous sign for an agency that needs to plug a $45 million budget gap for fiscal 2018 and address mounting long-term financial pressures exacerbated by recent state budget cuts. Metra officials warn that more service cuts may be needed if finances don't improve. "The current situation is unsustainable, and threatens the future viability of the important service Metra provides," Metra Chairman Norman Carlson said in a statement on the 2018 budget.

Fare hikes and service cuts are a poisonous combination for public transit. Riders defect as fares go up and trains run less often and make fewer stops. Declining ridership drives down revenues, leading to more fare increases and service cuts, in a self-perpetuating downward spiral that becomes harder and harder to stop as it gains momentum.

We can't let that happen to a vital public asset that distinguishes Chicago from most other U.S. cities. Metropolitan Chicago is one of the country's few population centers with an extensive commuter rail network linking its central business district with distant suburbs. Businesses, workers and the region as a whole benefit in many ways. "Metra is an unappreciated gem," says public transit expert Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

At the same time, the RTA wants the CTA to raise fares:

"In what could be a sign that a CTA fare hike is likely, the head of the Regional Transportation Authority warned the transit agency that it should join Metra and Pace in raising 2018 fares - or risk massive service cuts," the Tribune reports.

Leanne Redden, executive director of the state agency that oversees the three transit authorities, said in a letter last week to CTA President Dorval Carter that the transit agency had not offered "clearly identifiable and reliable revenue streams" to close the hole in its proposed 2018 budget. Because of this, the RTA would not be able to approve it under state law, Redden wrote.

If the RTA does not approve the CTA's spending plan, the budget cannot be adopted. The RTA also has final authority over Metra and Pace budgets. The lack of a budget after Feb. 1 would cause the RTA to withhold some funding, which would result in "immediate service disruptions," Redden warned.

All of which led our very own transportation expert Natasha Julius to recall the long-forgotten (and wrongly ignored) Quinn task force report:

Which makes it a good time to revisit Natasha's four-part "A Modest Transit Proposal" series.


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