Audit might get badly needed Metra answers


January 12, 2014 4:46PM

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Updated: February 14, 2014 6:14AM

On a chilly Metra platform Friday, a passenger exhausted by numerous train delays and cancellations jokingly asked if the rail agency had somehow offended New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

It was a bad week for Metra, as stranded commuters at remote depots shivered during lengthy delays and others stood cheek by jowl in downtown stations waiting for a train — any train — to pull out. Signals, switches and locomotives all were breaking down.

Yes, Metra could point to snow and subzero temperatures as the immediate cause of its problems. But its trains have run much better in past winter storms, and this year Metra has had difficulties even in good weather. One local transportation expert has sensibly suggested that Metra’s parent body, the Regional Transportation Authority, thoroughly audit Metra’s management, rolling stock, signal systems, switching equipment and track condition to see if there isn’t a better way to run the railroad.

“This is exactly the type of topic that RTA was given the audit authority to investigate . . . in 2008 by the Legislature,” says Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Lack of funding for maintenance and improvements is part of Metra’s problem — the region’s transit agencies have a $19.8 billion existing backlog in capital needs — but another problem might be the series of leadership scandals that have rocked the agency in the last few years. If the turmoil has taken a toll, that’s going to show up in the system’s performance.

We need to learn if Metra is structured to get the best possible use of its resources. An RTA audit could do that.

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