Metra's marathon trek toward a universal fare system that interfaces with the CTA and Pace hit a snag Friday as board directors objected to a consultant's contract.
For months, the agency has studied how to meet a Jan. 1, 2015, deadline to offer a universal card. Meanwhile, Pace and the CTA are rolling out a joint fare system dubbed Ventra this year.
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Metra officials say it's more complicated for the commuter rail agency because it has an open system where anyone can walk onto a train and conductors collect tickets or passes. Moreover, managers don't have the expertise in-house to evaluate the available options, they noted.
A proposal to hire consultants LTK Engineering Services for $825,336 underwhelmed several members of the capital oversight committee. Director Norm Carlson of Lake Forest wanted to know why there was a more than $1 million discrepancy between LTK's bid and that of another highly qualified firm.
"I don't want to be in a position where we're underbid," he said.
Carlson suggested the agency consider hiring experts to guide it through the universal fare process instead of temporary consultants because when the contract is up, "we don't want that knowledge walking out the door."
Metra managers said consultants are necessary because they possess expertise in multiple areas. "We could never hope to hire enough people with all these pockets of knowledge," Chief Financial Officer Tom Farmer said.
Another concern was whether contracting with Cubic Transportation Systems to set up the new system is inevitable regardless of any evaluation process. Cubic is designing the Ventra system for Pace and the CTA.
"Has the decision been made for us by the CTA and Pace?" Carlson said.
CEO Alex Clifford said Metra didn't want to be "an afterthought" in a contract designed for Pace and the CTA, and it was important to consider the agency's individual needs. "The CTA went on a journey without Metra aboard," he added.
However, CTA spokesman Brian Steele told the Daily Herald that Metra had been part of numerous discussions about the open-fare system since 2010 and had been provided with extensive information.
"Metra executives have attended more than 30 meetings about the topic since then, including one as recently as last week. Additionally, Metra has been invited several times to participate in the new Ventra system along with CTA and Pace," Steele said in an email.
Metra directors asked staff members to bring back more information at the full board meeting in two weeks.