UPDATED 11/11/11 11:36 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — The Metra board has approved the largest fare increase in the agency’s history.

As WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports, board members approved the increase, and the agency’s 2012 budget, at a Friday morning meeting at Metra headquarters, 547 W. Jackson Blvd.

Although public comment has been overwhelmingly against the average 25.1 percent increase, there wasn’t been much of it. A Metra representative told WBBM Newsradio that a total of 43 people commented at eight public hearings. Another 250 commented by e-mail, fax or U.S. mail.

Many echoed Sandra Martin, a rider who attended last week’s hearing in Homewood, called the projected fare increases “insane” and asked, “Where exactly am I supposed to get that 30 percent?”

Nonetheless, the Metra rep said few, if any, changes are expected in the fare increases as outlined a month ago.

Under the new fare schedule, which will take effect Feb. 1, 10-ride ticket prices will increase by 30 percent, monthly passes by 29.4 percent and one-way tickets 15.7 percent. In addition, 10-ride tickets will be refundable for only three months from the date of purchase, while one-ride tickets will be good for only 14 days instead of a year, and will not be refundable at all.

The Metra budget includes $686.8 million for operations and a $244.1 capital program.

Chief executive officer Alex Clifford told riders at hearings in Homewood and at Metra headquarters that he feels their pain. Nonetheless, he said the fare hikes are essential to balancing the agency’s 2012 budget.

“You cannot kick the can down the road when it comes to balancing your operations and your expenses and revenues,” Clifford said. “You simply cannot do this because the problem only compounds itself.”

He blames the need for the hefty increase on a variety of factors, including fuel prices that have risen substantially in the past year, and additional money to pay for snow removal in what is expected to be a bitter winter.

Clifford also blames the need for the increase on the management policies of his late predecessor, Phil Pagano, who stepped in front of a Metra train and committed suicide last year after board members found out that he had improperly taken $475,000 in vacation pay over the course of 11 years.

The Metra board has also placed strict limits on purchases of 10-ride tickets, to minimize hoarding. Those changes take effect immediately.

The last time fares increased, by 10 percent in 2008, the sales of 10-ride tickets nearly doubled in the weeks immediately preceding the hike. Ten-ride tickets purchased between Saturday and Jan. 31 of next year will only be valid through Feb. 29.

After that, 10-ride tickets will still be honored for a year under the new fare structure, but Clifford has said he does not want to see hoarding happen again.

Metra has increased fares fewer than 10 times in its 28-year history. Clifford said that, beginning in 2013, he hopes to tie any increases in fares to the cost of living.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports


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