Former Chicago alderman named Metra chairman

Martin Oberman was selected Tuesday as chairman of the Metra Board. | Sun-Times file
Martin Oberman was selected Tuesday as chairman of the Metra Board. | Sun-Times file

Former independent Chicago Ald. Martin Oberman was unanimously selected Tuesday to serve as Metra’s chairman — the first Chicagoan tapped for the spot in Metra’s 30-year history.

Oberman, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pick to replace to a board member Emanuel forced out, topped two suburban candidates for the post.

Clearly, Oberman’s diplomacy and independence was a plus to 10 other members who agreed to let the only Chicagoan in their midst lead them.

A big Oberman supporter was McHenry County board member Jack Schaffer, who said Oberman brought the right “skill set … independence and integrity” to lead Metra through any “storm.”

Though a collar-county Republican, Schaffer said, “I am very proud and confident voting for a Chicago liberal Democrat.’’

Oberman was tapped to serve out the term of former Metra chairman Brad O’Halloran until fall 2016. O’Halloran ended up resigning followingresigned after the tumult over the $871,000 buyout of former Metra CEO Alex Clifford that O’Halloran had encouraged.

Emanuel appointed Oberman to fill Chicago’s only seat on the Metra board after forcing the resignation of board member Larry Huggins, who had become embroiled in the Metra patronage scandal. At an event at Wells High School on Tuesday morning, Emanuel was clearly happy about Oberman’s selection as chairman.

“They see in Marty Oberman what I saw when I decided to nominate him: A person committed to public service, committed to the task ahead of him and bringing a vision of how to modernize something that will help serve the overall regional economy, which Chicago is the center of,” the mayor said.

“I’ve been advocating for a long time modernizing our transportation system. … I’m accountable as mayor for the CTA, which is why we’re making major investments in new rail cars, new buses, new stations, new track, new Red Line South, a new Blue [Line] taking 10 minutes off the ride. …” Emanuel said. “But having a modern transportation system also includes one that allows people in the city to get to jobs in the suburbs and people in the suburbs to get to jobs here in the city. Metra is integral to that. Having a coordinated strategy between CTA and Metra is key to that.”

Oberman also will have some major Metra issues to address.

Metra launched a massive customer service survey Monday as it conceded under legislative grilling that only 30 percent of Metra trains were on time during the polar vortex extreme cold that gripped the Chicago area Jan. 6-7.

At least 85,000 riders who get Metra email service alerts should be receiving the survey, officials said Monday. Others can go to www.metrarail.com to fill out the “Customer Communication Survey” which asks, among other things, how Metra can improve “customer communications” — a top beef of those who weathered bone-chilling cold during the Metra delays last month.

A “perfect storm’’ of powdery snow, high winds and subzero temperatures caused only 30 percent of Metra trains to be on time Jan. 6-7 — a far cry from the agency’s usual 95 percent on-time rate, Metra Executive Director Don Orseno told the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee Monday.

Orseno said he wasn’t there to “offer excuses,’’ but insisted that, despite preparing for the storm for days, Metra couldn’t quickly combat frozen train doors, frozen snowblower fuel lines, or ice that clogged switches.

The only specific changes he mentioned to tackle future “Chiberias” is an enhanced train tracker system and a switch from jet fuel to diesel for its snowblowers to reduce the chance that fuel delivery pumps will freeze during subzero temperatures.

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