CHICAGO (CBS) — Metra is asking riders to dig deeper in their pockets. Fares could go up as much as 20 percent next year. There’s also talk of service cuts, but there’s no talk of eliminating a major perk for some of the agency’s administrators and staff – free take-home cars.

CBS 2’s Dorothy Tucker reports on who’s driving for free.

Metra spends more than $2 million a year a on its company cars. Most of the 91 vehicles in the fleet are police cars and pool cars that are used by the staff when needed.

But according to a recent memo to the Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford, there are 20 administrators and staff who can take home company cars 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“This is cronyism at its worst. This is good old boy politics that has to come to an end,” said State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo), a frequent critic of Metra.

Franks said the perk costs the agency nearly $500,000 a year.

It’s money that Metra is shelling out when there’s talk of cutting service and raising fares 20% in 2012 to address a $100 million deficit.

“It’s not right. So, our fare hike is paying for their ride home? Who’s paying for our ride home?” said Metra commuter Trey Smith.

“In this economy, it’s not fair,” said commuter Terri Norris. “They shouldn’t be entitled to have cars. Cars should be cut from the budget.

But Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said, “It’s really not considered a perk. It’s considered something that is an asset to help in an emergency response.”

“The reason that they have 24/7 access is really to keep the system running and operating smoothly, so we don’t have delays,” she added.

Pardonnet said those on the special list for take-home cars are engineers, mechanics, and transportation supervisors who are on-call 24 hours a day.

“They get cars so they can respond to problems on the railroad systemwide,” Pardonnet said.

Metra provides service in six counties. There are 18 rail yards where employees report to work and it’s not uncommon to have pool cars parked in the lots.

Asked why Metra couldn’t have those employees drive their own personal cars to the nearest rail yard and pick up a company car to use on duty, Pardonnet said, “We would have to look at the logistics of that, given where people live in the districts, in the areas they serve.”

“That is something I’m sure that could and would be considered,” she added. “I mean, we are looking at every budget cut possible and if that is something that would save money and still give us the same level of customer service and response, then that would be something we would look at.”

The Metra board presented its proposed budget two weeks ago. The final budget will be presented in October. It’s expected to include a fare hike for commuters. We’ll see if company cars for top administrators have been cut.

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