New Metra chairman faces funding gap, regional rivalry
New Metra Chairman and south suburbanite Brad O'Halloran promised a fresh start for the agency Friday amid the backdrop of a regional turf war and a capital revenue crisis.
O'Halloran, whose appointment came about through a political compromise, said Metra has a daunting task of finding enough money to pay for capital needs, such as track repairs, new equipment and station upgrades.
"We're talking billions of dollars that this agency will need," said O'Halloran, an Orland Park trustee. He didn't rule out an option in Metra's proposed 2013 budget to hike rates by 10 percent.
"We're looking at the different options, I'm not sure where that's going to end up," O'Halloran said.
"We can't kick the can down the road and in five years come to the public and say, 'hey, we need this whopper.' I think people would rather have small increases that reflect the costs and make sure Metra is stewarding their money appropriately."
Naperville resident and retired Dunn and Bradstreet executive Jack Partelow was picked as vice chairman.
O'Halloran replaces Acting Chairman Larry Huggins, a Chicago construction firm president, who didn't go quietly.
A motion to approve Huggins as chairman failed for lack of votes from Collar County Metra directors, reflecting the wishes of the politicians who appoint them. Then, directors voted unanimously for O'Halloran.
Metra board members are picked by the Chicago mayor, the Cook County Board president, Cook County suburban board members, and the five collar county board chairmen.
Voting on a chairman has come to symbolize a power struggle over transit funding between Chicago and the suburbs as well as a turf war between the south part of the region and the northwest. Adding to the dilemma was the wish of some elected leaders to bring in new faces after a 2010 scandal involving former Executive Director Phil Pagano, who committed suicide after profiting from thousands of dollars in unauthorized payouts.
"When the late Phil Pagano made that mistake, the board members were tainted," Huggins said. "But as a board we rallied together ... to make the necessary corrections." Huggins also said he was pushed aside because of earmarking funds to upgrade Metra stations in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood.
He wished O'Halloran well but said regional disparities that underfund Metra service in Chicago should be addressed.
"The southern part of the (Metra) district is just as important as the northern part," Huggins said. "If you look at the northern part of the district — there's economic development from Chicago to Wisconsin. If you look at the southern part — economic development stops at Crete."
Huggins was a "phenomenal chairman," said Arlington Heights Mayor and Metra Director Arlene Mulder, who nevertheless did not vote for him. "Your participation has been critical because we are a team."
Director Jack Schaeffer of Cary poked the so-called appointing authorities, thanking them "for the long, long, long deliberations and giving us advice. I wish them well as they tackle their other great issues ... and express the hope they let us now run the railroad. It could have been done better."
DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin, one of the appointors, said Thursday, "I would urge all members to get behind Brad O'Halloran. He's a wonderful guy, smart and very conscientious and sensitive to regional concerns."
O'Halloran served on the Metra board in 2003 and 2004 and was reappointed in 2011. He is the University of Notre Dame's regional director of development and president of Transportation Development Corp., a consulting firm.
In October, directors instituted a four-year rotating chairmanship. The rotation would be between directors from the collar counties and directors from Cook County, including Chicagoans.
The chairman receives $25,000 a year.
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