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A Modest Transit Proposal: Kill Metra

Governor Pat Quinn's blue-ribbon commission on transit reform is due to issue its first report by Friday. This week we'll give you four recommendations of our own that just might fix this mess.

Suggestion #1: Kill Metra
There are two Metras: the commuter rail system that serves millions of people in the Chicagoland area, and the obtuse, intensely political, hopelessly anachronistic corporate behemoth that serves the interests of a few well-connected individuals. In order for the former to thrive, the latter must be destroyed.

The scandal that consumed much of the Metra board this summer was nothing new. It was the latest sleight of hand in nearly 40 years of Regional Transportation Authority hustles. Long before Metra leapt fully formed from the RTA's head, that agency had figured out how to misdirect its mark. Distract them with partisan wrangling, mollify them with cosmetic upgrades, confuse them with layers of unnecessary complexity, and threaten them with dire consequences if they don't fork over more cash. If you browse coverage of the RTA in the early years, you'll find depressingly familiar headlines: doomsday scenarios; threats of Draconian service cuts; revelations of mismanagement; even suggestions of a looming pension crisis. Meanwhile, the actual service provided to commuters changed surprisingly little.

When the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad collapsed in 1980, the RTA faced the real prospect of substantive action. Instead, it spun off two new operational agencies, thereby divesting itself from the very services it was conceived to coordinate. Pace, the suburban bus service, has fostered a cooperative relationship with the CTA and, by extension, the city of Chicago. Metra hasn't. Instead, Metra views Chicagoland politics as a zero-sum game, in which anything benefiting the Democratic city necessarily screws over the Republican suburbs. Metra is a white knight, the last line of defense between collar-county dollars and the rapacious maw of an insatiable city.

This view contrasts with a reality in which Metra's corporate board has mushroomed from seven to 11 members, each representing a smaller and more stridently delineated set of special interests. Its directors are chosen by the county boards, possibly the most crony-riddled entities in a crony-riddled region. In constructing its crusading mythos, Metra has transformed itself from a functional service provider into a potent and perennial symbol of public corruption. And still the iconic double-decker trains wait at the same grade crossings that delayed their steam-powered ancestors. Still jauntily-clad conductors attack paper tickets with novelty hole-punches.

This matters because, as much as Metra would like you to ignore this fact, it is a vital part of Chicago's transit mix. Large swaths of the city, particularly on the Far South Side, were ceded in the 19th century to the long haul railroads that eventually became Metra. Why? Because the small-time robber barons who built Chicago's elevated rail system hadn't speculated on land in those areas. That the public rail service provided to certain communities in 2013 - not to mention the price paid for that service - is still determined largely by the decisions a handful of opportunists made shortly after the Civil War illustrates perfectly how little tangible good Metra and the RTA have managed to achieve.

There is one key difference between the rail lines operated by Metra and those run by the CTA. The CTA owns and controls its infrastructure; Metra, by and large, does not. This single fact justifies the existence of a separate agency; everything else is a lie. To refocus Metra's leadership on the long-term goal of supporting a vibrant, truly intermodal public transit system, the following changes must be made:

1. Modernize the fare collection system. Whatever you can say about the disastrous rollout of Ventra, at least it doesn't involve scrapbooking tools. Metra's Depression-era ticketing system isn't just asinine; it impedes the ability to assess performance. Metra can't offer anything close to the detail and accuracy of ridership information CTA and Pace can. Without a detailed understanding of who is boarding where and what happens when they leave, Metra is ill-suited to respond to changes in ridership patterns.

2. Determine a reasonable transfer fee. Once Metra has been dragged into the 21st century, we might be able to stop charging people two full fares to travel by Metra and CTA/Pace. Metra currently offers its monthly riders the ability to purchase a magnetic stripe card for $55 that is usable for " . . . unlimited connecting travel on CTA and Pace buses. CTA usage is restricted to weekday peak travel hours." So, in other words, limited unlimited transfers.

Based on the assumption that a monthly traveler transfers twice a day, five days a week, that means Metra thinks a fair transfer fee is around $1.40. Pace allows transfers to local, non-premium routes for $0.25. CTA allows two transfers in two hours for the same. If Metra is smart, it'll follow suit.

3. Overhaul Metra's in-city fare structure. Metra's zoned fare system supposedly is based on the distance traveled. CTA riders pay a flat fee. This means that potential Metra riders in outlying parts of the city pay a premium to travel to downtown. The amount of that premium depends on where you live and which branch you ride. If you take the Metra Electric South Chicago branch from 87th Street (Zone B) to Millennium Station, it'll set you back $3. If you take the Metra Electric main branch from 87th Street (Zone C) to Millennium Station, it'll cost you $4.25. Now consider the CTA's Red Line has a station at 87th (under re-construction at the time of this writing, but scheduled to re-open later this month) offers an almost identical service for $2.25.

In the above comparison, the additional fees can be overcome with moderate inconvenience by a short bus ride. That's not the case for people living south of 95th. Those commuters face a significant inconvenience to transfer to a less costly CTA line, and the surcharge to use Metra only increases as you move further from the city center. Even as you read this, the CTA is planning a costly extension of the Red Line to 130th, running agonizingly close to the Metra Electric line. Before investing a lot of money in a new service, it's worth asking if the needs of those commuters can be met through a more rational and fair fee structure on the existing line.

View Proposed Red Line Extension in a larger map

Incidentally, the revision of Metra's in-city fare structure could benefit CTA riders as well. In the above comparison, the fares given were for single one-way tickets. If you buy a monthly pass on Metra's Zone B, you actually make out slightly better than the CTA's monthly pass (assuming no transfers). Maybe this would give CTA leaders a reason to scale back the punitive multi-day pass price increases instituted at the start of this year.

4. Decide on an operational strategy. As noted above, Metra controls relatively little of the traction over which it operates. The three lines that Metra owns (the Rock Island, the Metra Electric, and the Milwaukee District North and West) were acquired out of necessity rather than as part of a coordinated strategy. The remaining lines are leased from larger rail conglomerates in complicated purchase-of-service agreements. Per Metra, not even the Milwaukee District lines are completely free and clear. The dispatching duties for those lines are still handled by Canadian Pacific. This lack of control limits the kind of service Metra can provide. Service adjustments like additional runs and longer trains are much more cumbersome when they have to be negotiated with other parties.

It's not likely Metra will be able to acquire all of its lines. Routes like the Union Pacific North are profitable endeavors for their parent corporations. However, wherever possible Metra should work to create more freedom to address service needs quickly. At the very least, Metra should work with traction owners to reduce the number of grade crossings that pit commuter trains against freight. Metra's timeliness is a constant issue simply because trains have to queue on a semi-regular basis.

5. Consider a limited number of new stations. It's impractical to think that Metra will ever function as a local service. This would impose an undue burden on suburban passengers. However, Chicago represents the largest customer block in Metra's operating region. Some of the areas currently traversed by Metra lines are completely cut off from CTA rail operations. The strategic addition of a few stations could bring reliable rapid transit access to neglected communities, creating new populations of Metra riders in the process. With careful planning, these stations also could boost intermodal transfers, strengthening the alternative transportation system overall.

The operational work of Metra has tremendous potential to serve the Chicagoland area. Sadly, Metra is administrated by a carefully curated collection of political animals trained to avoid the agency's most basic needs. Any solution that fails to destroy the status quo will never truly benefit the public. It will be another artful con, another misdirection, and we'll be reading the same pathetic headlines in another 10 years.


Tomorrow: Look At A Fucking Map.


Comments welcome.


Posted on October 14, 2013

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