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updated: 2/11/2014 2:03 PM

Transit agencies on defensive at state hearing

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  • A Metra train plows past the Arlington Heights station in subzero temperatures last month.

       A Metra train plows past the Arlington Heights station in subzero temperatures last month.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • David Harris

      David Harris

  • Don Orseno

      Don Orseno

  • Ron Sandack

      Ron Sandack

  • Leanne Redden

      Leanne Redden

 
 

Lawmakers put transit leaders under the microscope at a Monday hearing over a scathing RTA report late last year and more recent weather-related Metra delays.

The confidential RTA report, obtained by the Daily Herald in late 2013, detailed employee allegations of low morale, racially offensive language by outgoing Executive Director Joe Costello and Chief of Staff Jordan Matyas, and sexual innuendoes by Costello to female employees. An independent attorney hired by the RTA to investigate found the complaints "credible," according to the report.

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Both officials have denied any misconduct, and Matyas said the attorney's findings were false and "lacked the thoroughness needed for any fair-minded person to believe they are truly credible."

State Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, asked RTA senior planner Leanne Redden, who will become acting executive director March 1, what she intended to do in the wake of the complaints.

"I would not stand for any of that type of behavior," Redden said. "I would not tolerate that behavior."

Harris said he was concerned that previously the allegations "were not taken seriously. With regards to the racial comments -- those were totally inappropriate," he said during a meeting of the House Mass Transit Committee.

RTA officials said they required Costello and Matyas, who is House Speaker Michael Madigan's son-in-law, to undergo management training and referred the issue to the Illinois inspector general.

Also Monday, lawmakers grilled new Metra CEO Don Orseno about service meltdowns during the polar vortex episodes in January. A 30 percent on-time performance Jan. 6 dropped the January on-time record to 85 percent.

"There's a sense the system is not working as well as it did; you used to be able to set your clock by the time the train left the Arlington Heights station -- you can't do that anymore," Harris said.

Orseno told lawmakers he wasn't there "to give excuses but to give explanations." One improvement he said the agency is considering would be to switch from jet fuel to diesel fuel-powered snowblowers at Metra yards in the future. The extreme cold froze gas lines transmitting the jet fuel last month.

But there's more than weather-related discontent out there, legislators said.

"There's a lot of constituents who aren't satisfied with the service they're getting," said state Rep. Ron Sandack, a Downers Grove Republican who represents riders on the BNSF Line.

"We're going to do everything we can to make it the best system there is," Orseno said.

Metra has been plagued by scandal including the suicide of former CEO Phil Pagano in 2010 amid an embezzlement probe and the sudden exit of former CEO Alex Clifford in 2013. Clifford accused two former board members of complicity in political patronage pressure from state lawmakers over jobs.

Harris advised Orseno, who has worked at Metra for about 30 years, to take a good, hard look at his team and to get the best people in place.

"We're watching you closely," Harris said.

The CTA and Pace got off relatively lightly regarding Ventra, the new fare system, which had a messy rollout this fall. Technical glitches and long waits on customer service lines led to both agencies pushing back the deadline to switch completely to Ventra. Now the new and old fare systems operate in tandem.

Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross said one challenge facing the agency was getting retailers in the suburbs to sell Ventra products and let customers recharge cards.

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