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Metra's new team: Able, but so much to do

Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

On behalf of commuters everywhere, let me express the hope that the long public agony that Metra has become finally is at an end.

The agency lately known for service delays, dumping passengers on outdoor platforms in sub-zero weather, political infighting and resignations, the suicide of one staff chief and the controversial ouster of another finally has a new executive team, arguably its best in a decade, maybe more.

Selected a couple of weeks ago to be the new CEO was Don Orseno, a railroad veteran who may not be very flash but has the apparent confidence of his beleaguered staff and a reputation for making the trains run on time. And, as my colleague Tom Corfman reported yesterday, it has a new chairman, too: former 43rd Ward Ald. Martin Oberman, who, at 67, is old enough to have lost most of his burning ambition to run for high political office but experienced enough to know how to achieve and not just talk about government reform.

It looks like a good team — Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, as it were. Now they need to get to work.

Job One, as former Metra Director Jim LaBelle puts it, is to "be honest." To level with workers and riders alike about where things stand, and to follow Metra's established policies rather than maneuvering for political advantage, a job for your son-in-law or a contract for a connected buddy. In other words, Metra needs to quit getting in its own way and become the professional, goal-oriented commuter service its riders need and will, if achieved, reward.

Job Two: Better communication. Though Metra says it sent out millions of emails and other missives in the midst of this winter's woes, they either didn't get there, didn't say enough or didn't penetrate deeply enough into riders' inboxes. Chicago commuters can put up with a lot. This isn't Atlanta, where people flee at the first snowflake. But you have to tell us what's next.

Job Three is to pass a much-needed strategic plan and figure out how to finance it.

That won't be easy. Metra has billions of dollars in unmet needs to keep its aging system running, including replacing some of those decades-old track switches that froze this winter. At the same time, as recent reports have suggested, its off-peak service needs to be boosted from the current once or twice an hour. And growing exurban areas are howling for new service.

Metra can't do all of that at once. It's going to have to prioritize and look for creative funding options. And it's going to have to do that without getting in a contest with the Chicago Transit Authority for limited federal dollars, and while convincing Illinois lawmakers that a reformed Metra truly can be trusted with more money.

Meanwhile, other trials await. Like an upcoming report by the state's executive inspector general on Metra's recent trials. And a forthcoming report from a commission named by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn that could recommend a reshuffling of the area's multiple transit agencies.

Assuming the new Metra team weathers those, it's time to dream. Personally, I think it ought to revisit the question of installing Wi-Fi. It's expensive, an estimated $35 million by one count, and alternate technologies are emerging. But Metra might as well get lots more passengers if time on the train wasn't dead time.

And, how about returning the bar car?

Just kidding. I'll settle for Mr. Orseno and Mr. Oberman doing their jobs and beginning to tackle what has become an almost insurmountable mountain of obstacles. "Almost" insurmountable. Good luck, guys.



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