Diverging Approach: Doomsday

On Wednesday, the Metra Board of Directors took a page out of the old CTA playbook, holding fares steady but trotting out transit doomsday predictions due to the suddenly-dire fiscal situation the agency finds itself in. Relying on a patchwork of fleet fixes due to a lack of a state capital bill since 2009 layered on top of the expensive unfunded Positive Train Control mandate, Metra simply needs more capital funding to keep trains up and running. This isn’t exactly a shocking new development; if you’re reading this blog you probably already know that transit funding throughout the country and especially here in Chicago is generally anemic and insufficient.

What’s new this time around is Metra diving head-first into the RTA’s #InvestInTransit push to try to rally political support to get the ear of enough people in Springfield and/or Washington to get capital funding flowing to Chicagoland. Not just that, they’re taking the task straight to ridership, mounting a social media campaign to have conversations with riders about the challenges Metra currently faces and soliciting innovative solutions to improve service and the railroad’s financial future.

Well, as long as they don’t cost money.

Or aren’t 100% accurate.

Or require using Metra’s bonding authority, which currently sits at 0% utilized.

Seriously, Metra’s aversion to good debt is bizarre. “Debt” has negative connotations, of course, and it’s generally not a great thing to spend money you don’t have. But it’s also not a direct parallel to a credit card (despite what some libertarians may try to tell you). If Metra were a person, they’d have no student loans, and no car payment but they keep renting a shitty apartment from a landlord who keeps jacking up the price. But instead of getting a mortgage to buy a nice, bigger, newer house for a smaller monthly payment, Metra is content with whining to mom and dad in Springfield to just give them more money every month to keep the same crappy apartment with spotty WiFi and air conditioning that only works 80% of the time.

While it’s great that the Metra board is using their platform to advocate for financing change, getting on the bully pulpit to rally the riders, I’m not sure if the board realizes they themselves can be those very change agents. In the meantime, Metra’s staff is in the unenviable position of fighting on two fronts: how do you get people excited about changing the funding structure in Springfield while digging in and defending the same systemic structural failures within Metra that led to this death spiral?

In one of today’s Twitter exchanges, Metra threw the (budget) book at yet another passive-aggressive comment:

Well, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that this blog did go ahead and dive into the budgets and audits so you don’t have to. The bad news is, well, Metra may or may not have raised fares unnecessarily over the past few years. I’m not an accountant, nor am I a journalist, so if anyone reading this is either of those I encourage you to dive in yourself. But basically, since Fiscal Year 2015 and continuing through Fiscal Year 2017, every time Metra raised fares for the year Metra’s actual operating figures ended up more favorable to budget than the amount projected to be raised by the fare increase.

If that sounds like economic gibberish to you, same here, but what it comes down to is Metra pinching their pennies so well that they ended up financially better off than a fare increase alone would have provided. For instance, in Fiscal Year 2016, Metra’s budget predicted operating costs would end up $385.2 million in the red. (The RTA sales tax generally covers those losses.) Instead, Metra’s operations actually finished only $363.1 million in the hole, so the year went $22.1 million better than expected. Good news, of course, but Metra also raised fares to add an expected $6.5 million in revenue that year. If that prediction came true and if all that fare increase was included in the Fiscal Year 2016 data, that means without the fare increase Metra would have still been $15.6 million ahead of budget.

So why did Metra raise the fares in 2016? More importantly, with an extra $15.6 million available, why did the board still vote to raise fares by another $16.1 million in 2017 when you had $15.6 million to play around with on paper? (FY2017 ended up $26.6 million favorable to budget (-$365.1m vs. -$391.7m budgeted), by the way, so theoretically there’s enough to cover the missing $500,000 from 2016 AND cover the $17.0 million 2018 fare increase AND the $3.0 million service cut.)

Again: I’m not an accountant, and I’m sure Metra moved those surpluses into the rehab program or PTC or other capital needs. I’m not accusing Metra of stealing or misappropriating funds anywhere. But it does come back to an important consideration when talking about Metra’s finances: Metra doesn’t exist to make money. On the contrary: Metra was organized to bail out the failing private railroads who couldn’t afford to run commuter service any more. We, as a region, chose to levy a tax on ourselves to subsidize a new, publicly-owned railroad because we collectively understood the value it provides to Chicagoland. It’s great that Metra continues to position themselves in as fiscally-solid of a footing as possible, but honestly it’s in the region’s worst interest for Metra to try to maximize passenger revenues, since it leads to mounting ridership losses, more expensive tickets, and service cuts. Year-over-year, Metra’s year-to-date ridership is down by nearly two million rides. That’s two million more times this year that someone either contributed to congestion by driving or Uber/Lyfting, or they simply stayed home and did not spend their money somewhere else in the region.

In the meantime, Metra is now trotting out a new monthly scorecard that shows ridership falling across the board with big, red, angry, downward-pointing arrows, but right next to it are happy green arrows showing that fare revenue is up. “Fewer people are riding our trains, but that’s okay because we’re making more money!” is a heck of a message for a public service to make. Memo to Metra: yes, you’re a railroad, but you exist to provide a public good. The taxpayers of the region are your shareholders, and the profit you turn is not financial. Do something! I sincerely hope there is a capital bill that comes out of Springfield and that there’s a lot of zeroes after whatever number they assign to Metra.

But honestly, there continues to be so much Metra can do now for little to no budget that would seriously move the needle on ridership and passenger satisfaction, and holding out for a fat check to keep running the same service from 70 years ago is a waste of time and resources. In no particular order, here’s Star:Line’s short list of cheap improvements that can be rolled out tomorrow.

  • Let the planners plan schedules. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with the staff in Metra’s Strategic Capital Planning group, and I can say with no hesitation that Metra has assembled a great group of planners. But when it comes to actually scheduling service, that’s taken care of in the operations division, totally separate from SCP. Operations can move trains like nobody else, but Metra exists to move people, not trains. Rolling scheduling into the planning group at least makes it easier to get perspectives from a demographic and ridership point of view and would provide a more responsive service better equipped to adapt as regional trends continue to evolve and change.
  • Pulse scheduling. Metra offers free transfers on weekends with the Weekend Pass, and there’s still buzz about a Daily Pass for weekdays. But a 90-minute layover at Union Station isn’t going to encourage anyone to use Metra for longer-distance trips.
  • Coordinated park-and-ride pricing. Most of Metra’s suburban parking lots are owned by the various suburbs, who are more or less able to do what they want with their lots. A concerted effort by Metra to try to smooth the edges between adjacent municipalities’ parking policies and rates would encourage daily drivers to use lots closer to their homes or, at the very least, help fix the inversion seen in places like Lisle where a daily parking space costs less than a round-trip Pace feeder route and kills Pace ridership while increasing parking demands in suburban downtowns.
  • Improve off-peak/weekend schedules to lower headways in higher-demand time periods. Our raison d’être. Someone in the NUMTOT Facebook group posted this CB&Q (today’s BNSF) schedule from 1883. Chicago burnt to the ground 12 years before; people still worked on Saturdays; Chicago’s population was a little more than 500,000. And they had an 11:30pm “theatre special” outbound train! 125 years later, Metra continues to shoot themselves in the foot with two-hour, 10:40pm/12:40am departures that literally scare suburbanites away from using Metra to go downtown. In the meantime, trains run hourly between 12:40pm and 6:40pm, a schedule that only makes sense in the context of pre-labor movement workweeks that included Saturday half days. It’s 2018. Come on.

Look, Metra’s in a tough spot. The fleet’s not getting any younger, the state’s financial situation is, uh, poor, and we’re still two months away from a gubernatorial election so don’t bank on any multi-billion-dollar capital spending bill landing on Governor Rauner’s desk any time soon. In the meantime, Metra’s 2019 budget is due, and it’s time to make some tough decisions. But before we start slashing service willy-nilly, there’s still plenty of options Metra can pursue. And it’s not just high-level huge implementation stuff like proof-of-payment or flexible fleets or fare integration or any of the other big-picture improvements (that Metra should pursue anyway!), but little stuff like running trains when more people would use them or making sure that fare increases are actually needed.

Oh, who am I kidding. Metra’s probably going to do something stupid like shutting down the Heritage Corridor or killing Sunday service on the Rock or something else drastic and short-sighted.

Enjoy doomsday, kids!