Metra Takes a Couple of Hits

Monday press reports cast shadow on commuter lines way of doing business

Metra officials are not likely having a great Monday after two items in local publications shed an unflattering light on the commuter train line.

In one of the articles, the Chicago Tribune says that Metra, now 20 years old, is behind the times.

"Despite ridership that has soared to a record 85 million, Metra still operates, some argue, as if it's stuck in the past," Tribune writer Richard Wronski reported.

According to the Trib:

  • While most people have made the use of credit cards, cell phones and the Internet second nature, Metra conductors still ply the aisles as they did back in 1983, punching paper tickets by hand.
  • While other transit agencies provide alerts about delayed trains on Web-enabled cell phones, Metra customers stuck on platforms rely on squawky public-address announcements that sound like they're straight from the Thomas Edison era.
  • Despite ridership that has soared to a record 85 million, Metra still operates, some argue, as if it's stuck in the past.
  • The practice of manually checking tickets and collecting fares strikes some riders as harmlessly quaint, but it riles others who have to dig down for cash or sign a check because Metra won't take plastic.

The article goes on to say that Metra is addressing many of these concerns, but they seem to be minimal compared to allegations laced in a blog by Greg Hinz, of Crain's Chicago.

Citing a report issued in the National Journal, Hinz said Metra "paid more to a Washington lobbying firm last year than any other Illinois entity, public or private -- and that the firm it uses happens to employ the son of long-time Metra board Chairman Jeff Ladd as a senior exec."

It's a coincidence, involved parties say.

Metra paid $760,000 to the Carmen Group Inc., and the agency was listed as one of the top five clients for the 25 top lobbying firms in the Washington, D.C., area, Hinz said.

One of Carmen's two executive managing directors is John Ladd, the son of Jeff Ladd, who served as Metra's founding chairman and held the job for 22 years before stepping down in mid-2006.

"So how does young Mr. Ladd happen to get a big job at a company that has a huge contract with an agency long controlled by dear ol' dad?" he asks.

Hinz offers a possible scenario, as laid out by Carmen's managing director for marketing, Richard Masterson. John Ladd had an established relationship with firm founder David Carmen prior to his being hired.

Enough said.

While not revealing any company secrets, Masterson did say that Carmen helped Metra secure more than $50 million of proposed extensions.

That's what they're hired to do.

So, conductors who punch tickets manually and lobbyists who get money for Metra are only doing what they're supposed to do. RIght.

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