The Fact Check: Is Metra Fudging the Savings Numbers?
Metra put out a special issue of its commuter newsletter to sell its price hike plan to riders. The Fact Check sees if "On the Bi-Level" is on the level.
To sell a proposed fare hike to commuters, Metra recently put out a special edition of its commuter newsletter On The Bi-Level. Here's a look at the part relating to consumer cost.
Note: Metra is still fiddling with the fare plan before the Nov. 11 vote, so the numbers here are just the proposal as reflected in the commuter newsletter. You can see a more complete presentation of these numbers at www.metrarail.com.
The Claim: A commuter from Zone F (which includes Mokena) will pay $607.98 a month to drive to downtown Chicago compared to $162.25 for a monthly pass under the proposed fare hike.
Problem 1: Metra compared its monthly rate to Loop parking garages' daily rates.
Metra figured the cost of driving for someone who pays $18 a day, 22 days a month to park. That comes to $396 a month.
According to a 2011 Colliers International study of business district parking rates, the median cost of unreserved monthly parking (you get a space in the lot, but not the same space every day) in Chicago's Loop was $289 a month.
Metra compared its discounted rate to a parking garage's standard rate, tossing an extra $107 a month onto the cost of driving in the process.
Problem 2: Metra has drivers parking in Chicago, but not train-takers parking in Mokena.
Ignore this if you normally walk to the station, but with Mokena's four Metra lots' recent rise to $1.25 a day, parking adds $27.50 a month to the cost of taking the train.
Between that and the $107 from correcting Chicago parking, Metra's promised $445.73 in monthly savings (the difference between the costs of driving and riding) is now closer to $311.23.
Problem 3: Mokena isn't Naperville (this one helps Metra).
Metra put a Zone F commuter's monthly gas cost at $211.98, but their example was Naperville, which is closer to Chicago than Mokena is.
Using Metra's estimates for figuring gas prices ($3.95 a gallon in a 25 mpg car, both of which I'll quibble about later) and Google Maps' distance between Mokena and Chicago (34.7 miles) a Mokena driver would pay $241.23 a month in gas.
So to figure the savings you would get from riding the train:
- Take $241.23 (or whatever figure current gas prices and your car's gas mileage come to).
- Subtract $162.25 for the monthly pass.
- Add the amount you would pay a month for parking in Chicago.
- Subtract $27.50 if you pay to park in Mokena.
Even people who give up free parking in Chicago to park at a Mokena station and take the train would still save $51.48 a month riding the train. That's the low end of a huge range of possible savings.
Where Metra went wrong was cherry-picking a figure from the high end and saying that would be the savings for everyone.
How Long is a Year?
The Claim: "Annual savings for Zone E ticket would be $5,300, Zone K $7,100 compared to the cost of driving." (Ed. Note: Zone E includes Tinley Park's 80th Avenue station, a popular departure point for Mokena commuters.)
Problem 1: The year’s not that long.
Metra officials must have gotten their yearly savings by multiplying their monthly savings by 12. It's the only way their estimated Zone K savings would round to $7,100 instead of $7,000.
Multiplying their 22-weekday month by 12 gives 264 weekdays a year. There are always 260 to 262 weekdays in a year (and you only get years with 262 weekdays every few leap years).
Metra’s math added up to four non-existent days of burning gas and $18 parking.
Problem 2: Your year's not that long.
With two weeks vacation, five sick days and all 10 federal holidays off, you could potentially be commuting as few as 235 days a year.
If you could get free parking downtown but instead pay $1.50 a day for 80th Avenue 235 days a year, you might only be saving $496.34 a year by taking the train from Zone E.
That's the absolute minimum you could save, but it's less than one-tenth what Metra said would be the yearly savings for every Zone E commuter.
What Metra Didn’t Say
Here are some other factors a commuter has to consider:
- Driving from Mokena to downtown Chicago 235 days a year will put 16,309 miles on your car, according to Google Maps. That means more maintenance, more repairs and lowered trade-in values.
- If you have to ride the CTA to get to your job once you get off the train, you'll either pay an extra $86 a month for a CTA monthly pass, $88 if you take the bus using a farecard or $99 if you ride the L with farecards (also $99 if you take the bus with cash). UPDATE: A reader informed us of a $39 monthly link-up pass for the CTA, good only from 6-9:30 a.m. and 3:30 to 7 p.m.
- "Quick acceleration and heavy braking" like you would see in stop-and-start rush hour traffic can reduce fuel economy up to 33 percent on the highway, according to FuelEconomy.gov. This means the 25 mpg Metra used to figure gas costs might not be accurate.
- Similarly, the $3.95 a gallon price Metra used changes a lot. It was a perfectly reasonable estimate assuming these numbers were prepared over the summer, but that price changes day by day, town by town and even station by station.
- According to a recent report by Texas A&M University's Texas Transportation Institute, the cost of the fuel wasted in gridlock (just the stuff burned off sitting in traffic rather than moving the car forward) plus the lost man-hours stuck in traffic means that, averaged out, each Chicago-area commuter lost $1,568 to congestion last year alone.
If you give up free parking in Chicago and you take the CTA to work once you get downtown, it will cost you between $7.02 and $34.52 more a month to ride from Mokena depending on whether you pay to park at a Mokena Metra station.
That is the only possible way I can figure riding the train will cost more. And a monthly Metra/CTA link-up pass would mean you're still saving money on the train even if you gave up free parking and take the L.
(If you take a cab to work once you get off the Metra in Chicago, that's on your head. I've done enough math today.)
That's where the wear and tear, maintenance, repair and declining trade-in value of putting an extra 16,000 miles a year on your car will come in.
If gas prices spike again (and I wager they will), that $35 advantage is gone. Even if you don't strain the car too much, you're hitting the benchmarks for oil changes and other services much more quickly.
That's what I find vaguely insulting about this: Metra was already winning but messed with the numbers anyway.
Maybe they didn't think we would understand any savings but a huge one.
Updated at 1:02 p.m. Oct. 17 with information about the Metra/CTA link-up pass.