It was a feel-good moment at Friday’s Metra board meeting: school children receiving iPads and plaques for their outstanding work painting safety posters about trains.
The young artists outnumbered the decimated Metra board two-to-one.
The board, such as it was, met Friday for the first time since the eruption of charges and counter charges which trailed the ouster of Executive Director Alex Clifford, leading to the departure of Chairman Brad O’Halloran and four other members. The railroad’s oversight body now has a scant six members, the legal number needed to even hold a meeting.
When the roll was called and the secretary announced "We have a quorum," acting chairman Jack Partelow declared, "Thank the Lord!"
The meeting was largely devoid of direct references to Metra’s recent tribulations, but the troubles hung over Friday’s session like diesel smoke in a crowded roundhouse. At one point, director Jack Schaffer questioned why the railroad’s media staff had been transferred to the office of the chief lobbyist.
"I'm very suspicious of that move," Schaffer declared. But he quickly added, "Nobody on staff has talked to me about this, do don’t pull a knife out."
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin appeared before the Metra board, declaring his intention to send them a new member before the next scheduled meeting.
"An investigation is ongoing and we need all of the facts before we can proceed," Cronin said. "The riders and the taxpayers deserve an honest solution that is collaborative and in their best interests, and not dictated by politics and power grabs."
Even the routine business at Friday’s meeting pointed to the need to get the organization back on the right track. While July’s on-time numbers remained at a respectable 94 percent, the report on the controversial 10-ride ticket was less encouraging. Clifford stripped the ticket of its discount, leaving a 10-ride ticket which actually carries the full cost of 10 rides. It was revealed Friday that the purchase of 10-ride tickets were down by nearly 18 percent.
"What I think we miss by this, is people love a discount,” director Norman Carlson observed, noting that many 10-ride purchasers had fled to the less lucrative monthly pass.
"We have people who used to pay us 90 percent of the cost of a one-way ticket. They are now paying 70 percent."
It wasn’t clear if the agency’s current economics would permit the 10-ride’s restoration, however.
The bad financial news didn’t end there. During another presentation, staff said the railroad needs about $10 billion in capital projects, but only about $3 billion in revenue is projected for the work. Federal dollars are potentially available, but those require engineering studies, few of which have been done.
Still, the trains are running, mostly on time, and at an agency where it seems there are a never-ending number of shoes dropping, that fact was not lost on those who attended Friday’s meeting.
"We can only do what we can do," said Partelow. "There some good service out there."