Commuters who get off work at 5 p.m. may have to wait up to two hours to catch a Metra train home out of downtown Chicago if a plan to cut weekday and weekend service to the southwest suburbs goes through.
Some weekday trains on the Southwest Service Line are on the chopping block and weekend service may be eliminated altogether if a proposed plan by Metra to plug a $100 million budget hole goes through.
Congressman Dan Lipinski (IL-3) and 22 elected officials along the Southwest Service line, including Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki, sent a pointed letter to Metra expressing their opposition to reduce service, saying that such service cuts would “disenfranchise” commuters in the southwest suburbs.
Elected officials, including suburban mayors and Chicago aldermen from the city’s southwest side, signed the letter at the congressman’s request that was sent to Metra’s board of directors before their regular board meeting this Friday at 9 a.m. at Metra’s headquarters at 527 W. Jackson St.
Now the transit provider is floating a plan before its directors that eliminates weekend service on three lines, including the Southwest Service line.
The plan also calls to eliminate some weekday service between 179th Street and Manhattan on two trains. In total, Southwest Service riders would lose all six Saturday trains plus some weekday trains while eight other lines would experience no service cuts.
Lipinski said that Southwest Service riders would be unfairly targeted and that the proposed service cuts would only save $800,000, about a half-percent of what Metra needs to plug its budget deficit.
“Given the importance of the Southwest Service to communities in southwest Cook County and northeast Will County, I’m going to continue working to preserve weekend and weekday service,” Lipinski said in a press release. “This letter represents a strong show of support for the Southwest Service line, and I hope Metra listens carefully.”
Nathaniel Zimmer, the congressman’s spokesman, called the savings to Metra’s annual $630 million operating budget “negligible.” Metra has offered very little detail or justification to Lipinski’s office of why it’s cutting southwest service.
“That is certainly one of the problems,” Zimmer said.
Calls to Metra on Wednesday went unanswered. Metra has stated that if it doesn’t implement service cuts, fares may increased up to 20 percent.
Lipinski is encouraging Metra to hold public hearings and solicit input from Southwest Service riders before it makes any final decisions, which may take effect in 2012.
Hometown Mayor Kevin Casey said he’s tired of the South Side always getting the short end of the stick when it comes to services.
“There aren’t any jobs in the Southland anymore. If you need a job it’s downtown and a lot of people here take Metra,” Casey said. “Metra should look at trimming its own budget like the rest of us. We cut out every little bit of fat that we could. We didn’t cut service or tax anybody, and we gave our employees raises.”
For years, southwest suburban mayors fought to increase weekend trains on the Southwest Service, Mayor Gerald Bennett of Palos Hills said.
“We were one of the last lines for them to improve the number of trains,” Bennett said. “Now we’re the first to be cut out.”
Bennett said overall ridership on Metra’s Southwest Service line has increased since more trains were added.
“We asked Metra to hold off and to at least take a look at distributing cuts across the board instead of piling it up on the Southwest line,” the Palos Hills mayor said.
Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki said he signed the letter because, "The amount of money they'd save by cutting those other trains is insignificant in the grand scheme of things."
"It's minimal at best," he said during a phone interview Thursday morning. "They need to keep what they have and maintain services before they do anything else."
Mayor Dave Heilmann of Oak Lawn, a regular Southwest Service Line rider, said the lack of train service until recent years was just another example of how the south suburbs have been neglected.
“I don’t want to be one of those government officials that says ‘cut everything except me,’” Heilmann said, “but the treatment of the south suburbs hasn’t been equitable in the amount of services we receive. We pay the same [fares] as everyone else.”
Oak Lawn commuter Mark McKibbin said losing weekday train service on the Southwest Service line would have a huge impact on his commute to and from downtown Chicago.
“I’m always running to catch the 5:40 p.m. [weekday] train out of Chicago,” McKibbin said. “I take the 6:15 p.m. train quite a bit. It that’s gone there’s not much you can do. If [Metra] eliminates the 6:15 on this line, I’d gladly go to Beverly and pay the $2 to park rather than give it to Oak Lawn.”