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Metra considers combining Internet air cards and rail fare packages

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Updated: June 4, 2013 6:26AM



Metra staff agreed Thursday to investigate the cost of folding Internet air cards into monthly rail fare packages after board committee members were taken aback by the projected tab of offering Wi-Fi on moving trains.

A consultant estimated that launching Wi-Fi that tapped Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-mobile to provide maximum reception on all 11 Metra rail lines would cost $33.5 million a year and $71.7 million over five years.

Left out of the equation was how much revenue Metra could reap from advertising and marketing because all of the bidders wanted to leave that up to Metra rather than assume responsibility for it and reflect that revenue stream in their bid.

“I’m taken aback by this,” said Metra board member Mike McCoy during a meeting of the Metra Capital Oversight Committee he chairs. “My impression was this was a cost neutral proposition.”

McCoy noted that many people now carry their own “hotspots” to get Wi-Fi connections and wondered if Wi-Fi was “kinda on the way out.”

Board committee member William Widmer III said the $72 million 5-year Wi-Fi tab “brings out the Luddite in me” and urged a “long hard look” at possible Wi-Fi revenues as well as alternatives.

As one option, Metra staff said they would investigate adding an aircard plugin, which they said costs about $40 a month, to monthly fare packages. The alternative would allow passengers Internet access without the operational and capital costs triggered by a Metra Wi-Fi

system, said Metra staff member Alex Wiggins.

Providing Wi-Fi Internet connectivity on a moving train over 11 different lines is tricky business, staff noted. The stainless steel train doors require two transmitters per car.

Staff hopes to come up with a proposal that could be piloted for a year on Metra’s Rock Island line — an option that would cost $3.4 million if Wi-Fi were used rather than aircards.

Also Thursday, members of the Metra Employment Practices Committee agreed to proceed with plans to use a consultant for $4,000 to develop the framework for a “360-degree” review of Metra CEO Alex Clifford, whose contract expires in February.

The process generally involves anonymous surveys of a wide range of stakeholders, including those working alongside, above and below the subject of the review.

Clifford had done his own “360-degree” review last year, but Metra board members wanted to commission their own such review before deciding whether to renew Clifford’s contract, Employment Practices Committee Chair Larry Huggins told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Clifford said later he used “360 reviews all the time” in his previous work for the Los Angeles County transit system, and utilized the approach again last year as a “self-development tool’’ for himself and his senior Metra leadership staff.

He has since given board members a copy of his 360-review by his own senior staff, Clifford said.

Meanwhile, based on Metra staff recommendations, Metra committee members Thursday agreed to give $296,000 in raises to 83 non-union managers whose pay is no more than 5 percent higher than the highest-paid non-union subordinate. In such cases, managers would all be paid 5 percent more than their highest subordinate under the proposal.

The committee also agreed to give raises totaling $144,000 to 43 workers whose pay was determined to be more than 9 percent below the minimum pay range for their positions.



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