CHICAGO (CBS) — Beginning today, Metra is asking riders to “pick their poison,” and tell them what kind of fare increase, if any, they can stomach next year.

Metra could conceivably balance its budget without a fare hike, although Chief Financial Officer Tom Farmer said the commuter rail agency would need everything from moderating fuel prices to a mild winter to make it work.

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“There are considerable risks,” he said.

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Even then, the budget would set aside only $700,000 to be used from fare box revenues to match any federal capital grants that may appear.

Metra generally sets aside $10 million for such purposes, and would like to again in 2013.

That is why riders will be asked, during the hearings at the Crystal Lake City Hall, the Flossmoor Village Hall and at the Kane County Government Center in Geneva to comment on fare increases ranging from 1 percent to 10 percent, elimination of the discount on 10-ride tickets and a smaller discount on monthly passes.

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The 10-ride tickets and monthly passes are Metra’s most popular forms of ticketing.

Fares were last increased in February, when they jumped an average of 26.9 percent, the largest fare increase in Metra’s 30-year history.

During a series of public hearings since the budget plan was unveiled last month, Metra CEO Alex Clifford and other senior agency officials have said that their goal is to implement regular “incremental” increases in order to avoid major fare hikes of the type imposed earlier this year.

“We never want to do that again,” Clifford said.

More hearings are set next week in the city of Chicago, north suburban Cook County, and in DuPage, Lake and Will Counties.

The Metra board is expected to decide on an option and approve a budget later this month and submit it to the RTA board for its approval.

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