CHICAGO (WBBM) — Illinois’ U.S. Senators have written Metra CEO Alex Clifford, demanding justification for fare hikes that could top 30 percent.

“We feel the riders of Metra deserve an explanation for many of the costs incurred by the agency,” wrote U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, in a letter dated Tuesday and obtained by WBBM Newsradio.

They are particularly interested in outside consultants’ contracts, and specifically the six-month, $225,000 contract awarded to George Avery Grimes, who has functioned as Clifford’s top deputy.

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That contract is up for renewal, and the board has already postponed consideration once.

At the time, Clifford said he was hopeful that the board would renew the contract and see the “benefit” that Grimes has brought to the agency.

One of Grimes’ tasks is to find cost economies and efficiencies, but Durbin and Kirk said the Grimes contract is nearly twice the amount paid to any Metra salaried employee and represents about 10 percent of Metra’s 2012 efficiencies and cost reductions.

The commuter rail agency has been the target of constant scrutiny since Clifford’s predecessor, Phil Pagano, committed suicide amid reports that he misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars and granted lucrative exceptions to Metra’s written policies on vacation and sick leave payouts.

“Following the recently discovered activities of Metra’s former executive director, every expenditure needs to be carefully vetted before fare increases or service reductions occur,” the senators wrote.

The Metra board last week ruled out service cuts, saying that riders preferred to pay higher fares.

Clifford said that when budgetmaking is done, the fare increases could go a couple of percentage points higher than the 32.2 percent anticipated for 10-ride ticket holders, 29.8 percent for monthly passholders and 17.3 percent for those who use single-ride tickets.

Metra will unveil its 2012 budget next month. The fare increases would take effect Feb. 1.

The biggest fare increase in Metra history to date was 10 percent, in 2008.

A Metra spokesperson indicated that the agency is preparing a response.

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