New Metra boss Martin Oberman has a message for those who want to blow up the transit model in Chicago and start over from scratch -- not so fast.
"What these agencies need is oversight, dedicated board members," Oberman said, standing with a reporter on the Western Avenue platform, overlooking Metra's sprawling A2 yard on the west side. "If you create a giant agency, then you're asking a lot more of citizens to come in and provide that kind of corporate oversight. These are major businesses. Metra is a $1.3 billion dollar business!"
And it's a business which has had a very bad year. It started last summer, with the messy ouster of Alex Clifford as CEO, after he raised allegations of political meddling from the office of House Speaker Michael Madigan. Then came a very bad winter, with late trains, poor communication, and thousands of furious commuters.
"Ninety percent of our trains actually got through, albeit late," Oberman said, noting that some agencies actually were debating the wisdom of operating at all, while Metra was delivering thousands of passengers. He said nearly 400 of the agency's cars are more than 30 years old. Coupled with the powdery snow which seemed to get into every switch, and bone-chilling temperatures which even challenged the very mechanisms which moved the tracks, and it proved to be a perfect storm.
But that storm was nothing compared to the controversy over who pulls the strings behind the scenes.
"We intend to put a stop to it," Oberman said, insisting that the allegations of political meddling at the agency have actually faded in recent years. "Many people, not just limited to the speaker, felt that Metra hiring was open season."
Last week, the state panel assigned the job of assessing potential Metra reforms, issued a blistering assessment of hiring at the railroad. It painted a picture of hundreds of political jobs, memorialized on index cards at Metra headquarters, with Madigan's essentially "deciding" his candidates would be hired.
"There is something systemically wrong when such references on behalf of politically connected individuals seem to dominate and control the process to the detriment of better qualified candidates," the report said.
Oberman says corrective measures are on the way. Those doing the hiring, will now be required to sign a certification that no patronage was involved.
"So the person doing the hiring is now on the line themselves, their job is on the line, if there was political interference," he said.
On Friday, the agency will take up a reform suggested by the state task force, that any outside calls requesting a hire, be logged, with who called and who the candidate was.
"We want to eliminate that culture," Oberman said. "Metra needs to be run as a professional railroad corporation."
As the trains rattled by, Oberman said he had been doing a deep dive into his new job. Tuesday he rode in a locomotive to the far end of the Metra system in Fox Lake. And on Friday, he will join the entire Metra board on a train which will travel to the agency's meeting in Wheaton.
So, he was asked. What will he say if Madigan calls with another hire? Oberman laughed.
"You know, I'm just going to take a wild guess, and I know the speaker, we have a friendly relationship," he said. "I'm going to take a wild stab and say I don't expect any calls from the Speaker about hiring."