New Chair defends Metra’s on-time record

Metra Chairman Martin Oberman speaks with the DuPage County Board's Ad Hoc Committee on mass transit Tuesday. Committee Chair Tonia Khouri (R-Aurora) chimes in, too.  |  Hank Beckman~For Sun-Times Media
Metra Chairman Martin Oberman speaks with the DuPage County Board's Ad Hoc Committee on mass transit Tuesday. Committee Chair Tonia Khouri (R-Aurora) chimes in, too. | Hank Beckman~For Sun-Times Media

New Metra Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman met the DuPage County Board’s Ad Hoc Mass Transit Committee Tuesday and stressed the need for public mass transit to operate with the entire Northeastern Illinois population in mind.

“Public mass transit is a regional issue,” he said. “It has to function regionally.”

Oberman briefed DuPage officials on his activities since being approved in a unanimous vote Feb. 11.

He spoke of the ongoing internal audit of the service problems Metra experienced as a result of early January snow storms.

Oberman noted that with all the modern technology available, huge chunks of ice falling on Metra switches posed problems that couldn’t be easily or quickly remedied.

“Some things can’t be helped,” he said.

Oberman defended the company’s on-time record during the January storms, saying that it still averaged 90 percent, comparing Metra’s record with schools, airports and other rail lines that had shut down completely.

He did acknowledge that with all the modern communication technology available to Metra, the company could have done a better job communicating to riders not only about delays during the storm, but also what the problems were.

“We could have done a better job telling people why we had those problems,” he said. “Overall, I think we can do better.”

Speaking of the ongoing projects in Downers Grove, West Chicago and Villa Park upgrading platforms, he said that Metra was “short on cash” and noted that another $115 million would be spent to upgrade 176 passenger cars.

As for the possibility of offering Wi-Fi services to commuters, Oberman said that the cost — estimated to be $72 million — made the idea impractical for the time being, although he didn’t rule it out forever.

“We’re looking for business partners,” he said of the possibility of allowing private firms to underwrite part of the cost of Wi-Fi service.

Committee members had questions.

Tony Michelassi noted that some estimates showed Metra needing $9 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 10 years, and asked if the figure was accurate.

An RTA study actually shows $9.6 billion needed over the 10-year period to keep Metra operations in good repair, but Oberman cautioned that the study was based on federal guidelines that didn’t have his complete confidence.

He said that it was possible that some of the cost estimates were off, either by estimating too high or too low, depending on the item.

“I’m not convinced that those numbers relate directly to reality,” he said, although he did acknowledge that the figure provided Metra with a working number to start with.

Oberman said that with only about $2.5 billion presently identified for the needed upgrades, one solution would be to “break it (infrastructure needs) down into identifiable chunks,” and raise revenue for each item separately.

Bob Larsen asked if fare increases had been considered.

Oberman said that Metra had no plans at present to raise fares, but wouldn’t rule it out in the future.

“Fare increases always have to be considered,” he said.

Oberman said that he favored any future rate increases to fund specific improvements to the company and wanted to educate customers about the process.

“We need credibility,” he said.

Oberman addressed complaints that Metra’s service had slipped some in recent years — even during good weather —by defending the company’s record of averaging 95 percent on-time service.

“That’s as good as you’re going to get,” he said.

Some have criticized the RTA arrangement regarding discretionary revenue that has in recent years seen 97 percent awarded to CTA, 3 percent to PACE — but none to Metra.

Of RTA finances, Oberman said, “it’s a complicated funding structure,” stressing that he wanted to avoid infighting between different regions competing for resources.

He promised that he would fight for “our fair share” of the revenue so Metra could continue to provide high levels of service.

Oberman stressed that the only viable solution to funding mass transit for the entire region was one that would increase revenue in the coming decade.

“The pot needs to get bigger,” he said.

Ad Hoc Committee Chairperson Tonia Khouri came away from the presentation impressed.

“I’m very optimistic, especially the way he’s thinking regionally,” she said.

Later, County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said his private discussions with Oberman led him to believe he was the right person for the Metra job.

“He prides himself on his record as a consensus-builder and reformer,” Cronin said. “We expect him to be a zealous advocate.”