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Routine agenda, but hardly a routine meeting for Metra

Arlene Mulder Norman Carlssitting next vacant board seduring MetrBoard Meeting Friday August 16 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Arlene Mulder and Norman Carlson, sitting next to a vacant board seat, during the Metra Board Meeting on Friday, August 16, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 18, 2013 6:06AM

The Metra Board — at least, what’s left of it — forged ahead with business Friday for the first time since its CEO resigned, with its acting chair insisting a new transit reform task force really isn’t needed.

Jack Partelow said Gov. Pat Quinn had “the prerogative” to create the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Taskforce, but two inspector generals and the Regional Transportation Authority are already investigating Metra and ex-CEO Alex Clifford’s charges that he was forced out for not bending to patronage and contract demands.

As a result, Partelow said, the task force is “not really” needed. Despite the “empty [board] seats,” riders are still getting “good service” from Metra, he said.

Partelow’s comments came one day after Quinn issued an executive order establishing a 15-member transit task force charged with evaluating “excess [transit] board memberships” and the possible streamlining or restructuring of Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and their financial overseer –– the RTA. The executive order specifically called out Metra for the “failed leadership of the existing board of directors.”

Five of 11 Metra board members have resigned in the tumult that followed their June 21 decision to give Clifford a 26-month, up to $718,000 “separation agreement” in exchange for his resignation. At the time, Clifford had only eight months left on his contract.

Even U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) blasted the Clifford deal Friday as he announced a bill that would “protect taxpayers” from “excessive” golden parachutes. Kirk’s bill would bar any transit agency that receives federal funds from paying any employee more than the President of the United States, who currently makes $400,000.

Addressing a board with more microphones than members Friday, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin assured the shrunken board that he’s “determined’’ to fill the vacant Dupage County seat by Metra’s next monthly meeting. In the meantime, Cronin said, “This is a tough, tough period right now.”

Metra Board members Friday approved a plan to solicit proposals to bring wireless internet to Metra trains at a cost to Metra of no more than $250,000. Alex Wiggins, the agency’s deputy executive director, said Metra hoped to mirror New Jersey’s transit agency, which got a cable company to cover most of the costs of setting up its transit WiFi.

And next year, Wiggins said, Metra hopes to pilot a handheld device for train conductors that would allow riders to pay on board Metra trains using the CTA’s Ventra card -- or credit cards with special chips.

In the meantime, Metra riders can use the debit side of the Ventra card to purchase Metra fares from Metra station ticket agents when the CTA launches Ventra systemwide this fall, he said.

At least one board member asked Metra staff Friday to double-check the number-crunching that followed a call by since-resigned-Metra Chair Brad O’Halloran to restore a discounted ticket offering 10 rides for the price of nine. Overall ticket revenue is up 3.7 percent for the first half of the year, data showed Friday.

Metra staff also revealed that passenger loads on June 28, the day of the Blackhawks downtown Stanley Cup parade, was the second highest in the agency’s history. Although officials conceded some trains were “SRO” following offers of a special $5 ride that day, ridership was 46 percent higher than a typical Friday in June.

With the existing six board members, Metra officials conceded Friday that some decisions -- such as approval of a budget -- will have to be unanimous. However, other decisions may only require a majority vote. Yet other business, such as the election of a chairman or a new CEO, cannot be conducted without eight affirmative votes.

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