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posted: 8/6/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Metra needs substantial, but measured change

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  • Metra riders board an afternoon train to Chicago.

      Metra riders board an afternoon train to Chicago.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board

That the Metra rail agency needs a broad makeover there can be little doubt at this point. But the form and process for that revision is a matter that deserves more thought.

The resignation last week of former Chairman Brad O'Halloran was, to be sure, an important first step in Metra's necessary transformation. And the departure of Chicago representative Larry Huggins, who was directly implicated in some questionable activities by ex-CEO Alex Clifford, also clears the way for a more considered re-evaluation of the leadership calculus at the agency.

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After that, though, the equation becomes substantially less well-defined. Already the commissioners representing DuPage County and Kane County, Paul Darley and Mike McCoy, respectively, have quit the board, in spite of the facts that neither was linked to the political games being alleged at Metra and that their departures significantly diminish the suburban presence in the agency's day-to-day and long-term decision making at a critical time. And with Huggins' and O'Halloran's exits, the board finds itself without sufficient numbers even to name a new chairman, much less to hire a new CEO.

A wholesale replacement of the entire Metra board, along the lines called for by Marengo Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks, would cripple immediate decision making, further delay the implementation of obviously needed reforms and rob the agency of institutional insight and leadership that will be valuable in helping put those reforms in place.

Combined with the suicide of Clifford's predecessor while under investigation on corruption charges, the scandal over Clifford's departure reveals a rail transportation system greatly in need of scrutiny at the top. Throw in the long-standing complications and potential for political mischief at the RTA, ostensibly and legally Metra's overseer, and you have conditions for a long and entrenched restructuring.

Part of that process requires a deeper understanding of all aspects of the Clifford payout. We have been outspoken in decrying that action, but we know well that, as acting Chairman Jack Partelow explains, many board members felt financial -- not political -- pressure to support it, and where the financial and political lines are drawn in this controversy await the determination of several investigations.

In the meantime, Metra still needs to operate efficiently, safely and economically, and it needs some consistency in the transition to whatever comes next. In that context, it also needs strong suburban influences. So far, DuPage and Kane county board chairmen, who must appoint successors to Darley and McCoy, have not shown much of a sense of urgency. They should reconsider, even if it means some sort of purely temporary appointments to last only until the leadership picture at Metra has been stabilized.

Fixing Metra, in short, is not going to take place overnight. It will require a great deal of thought, reflection and study just to identify the systemic corrections that need to be put in place, then more time and care to see that they are implemented effectively. The journey to achieving that new structure will be nearly impossible without the stability provided by some portions of the existing structure.

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