Metra director Stephen Palmer | Igor Studenkov

Metra’s 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 backlash from several directors representing the collar counties and parts of suburban Cook County, who argued that returning to zone-based passes was non consistent with Metra’s stated goal of 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’s 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. 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. The board and staff agreed that this isn’t the last word on the 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 in 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 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, Director 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 have 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. The sales of day passes have been dropping during the same period, as well, but they still accounted for 29% of all ticket sales in October, with 20% of all sales coming from the system-wide $10 day passes.

During the Nov. 11 meeting, Morris said that 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 445% of its revenue from fares.

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

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

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...