Why Metra can’t have nice things

Why Metra can’t have nice things

Metra riders are used to not getting what they pay for. In the past, commuters have been served fare hikes with the promise of perks such as free Wi-Fi and better seats. The assurance of “upgrades” is nothing new.

But Metra’s at it again, with a proposed 2015 budget that includes a 10.8 percent fare hike, which would be just the first of 10 proposed annual increases (coming just two years after Metra hiked fares by 30 percent).

Their pitch?

Fleet modernization. If rate hikes are enacted (and bonds are issued), Metra officials said that by 2024, riders will have contributed to the replacement of virtually every train, or to the rehab of trains to “like-new” condition, as well as the locomotives that drive them, according to the Chicago Tribune.

But at the same time Metra officials are crying poor, many Metra employees are enjoying generous raises.

The Daily Herald reported that 324 noncontract Metra staffers averaged 15 percent higher pay in 2014, “about $10,851 a year more on average from 2013 to 2014. The changes cost about $3.5 million.” These pay boosts include:

  • A 23 percent raise for an attorney, bumping up the employee’s salary to $111,670 from $90,495
  • A 30 percent raise for a communications and customer service supervisor, increasing this employee’s salary to $69,953 from $53,785.

On top of these raises, Metra also OK’d $1.9 million in costs associated with employee promotions.

The Chicago Sun-Times released an analysis that highlights Metra’s “$100,000 club,” finding that: “Nearly one in four Metra conductors and assistant conductors pulled down at least $100,000 last year, and an even higher proportion of engineers – almost 40 percent – took home that amount.” With all of Metra’s talk about updating its fleet, there has been no talk of updating its pay schedule. As the Sun-Times reported, these six-figure salaries are based on a century-old formula that has been abandoned by some of Metra’s peers.

With so much pressure on an already-strained budget, there’s little reason to believe Metra will make good on promises of sweeping modernization.

So why can’t Metra have nice things? Officials may say publicly that they have to raise this new revenue for better equipment, but one of the key drivers behind Metra’s insatiable need for more money is its ever-growing personnel costs.

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