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Metra's new chairman lays out agenda

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  • Martin Oberman will have his hands full as Metra's new chairman. The former independent Chicago alderman was selected as chairman of the agency's board last week.

       Martin Oberman will have his hands full as Metra's new chairman. The former independent Chicago alderman was selected as chairman of the agency's board last week.
    MARNI PYKE | Staff Photographer

 
 

How does a bicycle-riding, bow tie-wearing, Rahm Emanuel appointee who lives in Lincoln Park fit as chairman of an agency considered to be suburban turf?

Like a glove, Martin Oberman says.

"There is no need for the idea of a competition or jealousy between city and suburbs," he said.

And Oberman, a former independent Chicago alderman who pushed back against City Hall's patronage machine in the 1970s, promises not to tolerate political pressure as Metra's new chairman.

"I would regard it as a great achievement if during the time I'm chairman that Metra is not only perceived -- but perceived based on fact -- to be a professional corporation, not a political hotbed," Oberman said in a Thursday interview, two days after his appointment.

Despite repeated attempts at reform, controversy at Metra exploded last summer with the exits of former Chairman Brad O'Halloran and former CEO Alex Clifford. Clifford accused O'Halloran of condoning political patronage over jobs from lawmakers like House Speaker Michael Madigan, which both men denied.

The messy affair is still under investigation by the state inspector general.

So, what would you do if a legislator calls and asks, "Hey, can you hire my son?" I asked Oberman.

"It's too hard to imagine anybody calling me up and asking me for a job," Oberman said. "If I was known for anything in the earlier phase of my career it was as a person who spent most of his time challenging the political machine and patronage army."

Back in the "old days -- to get a job on the city payroll, you had to carry with you a letter from the ward committeemen," Oberman recalled. Sometimes 43rd Ward constituents who struck out with the committeeman would ask him for help. "I would say, 'When they said -- get a letter -- they didn't mean from me.'"

After a miserable January where Metra scored a 30 percent on-time performance one day during the polar vortex, riders' primary concerns are about improving reliability.

"The fact we have to share our system with freight trains is a contributing factor to the reliability (issues) that are frustrating for everyone," Oberman said. "But except for the weather problems, we are running at a 95 percent on-time record with all those freight trains."

Both the BNSF and Union Pacific railroads are also in the riders' doghouse for delays. Does the agency have enough leverage over the freight railroads?

"Probably not, but that's something I want to explore," Oberman said. "Can we do better by walking softly and carrying a big stick? Or by diplomacy? We need to use every weapon we have."

The Metra board alienated many commuters by hiking fares up to 30 percent in 2012 and raising 10-ride passes by 11 percent in 2013. Is another increase on the way?

"I can't answer that question because it hasn't been studied," Oberman said.

"When government provides a service ... if you don't raise the cost for many years and find you're so far behind you have to have a huge jump to catch up, that's neither good policy nor good politics. It angers people. There is an argument to adjust fares to match costs on a much more gradual basis ... but we haven't begun to grapple with it."

Metra's police force also caught flak in January with the release of a consultants' report showing the department lacked training, didn't interact with riders and spent excessively on overtime. Which begs the question: Should the force be improved or policing contracted out?

"I've got an open mind," Oberman said. "I think we ought to seriously explore what is the most efficient way to do it. In other parts of the country, there's a wide variety of how (transit) policing is handled."

But he added, "we may be somewhat constrained by federal law as to whether we can eliminate job positions ... that has to be taken into account."

Oberman was the Illinois Racing Board's general counsel in 1973 and 1974, then served as alderman from 1975 to 1987 and backed Mayor Harold Washington during the Council Wars era. His resume also includes three runs for attorney general.

Now, Oberman runs his own practice on the 22nd floor of an art deco 1930s skyscraper.

His office is awash in legal briefs and decorated with Toulouse-Lautrec and Alexander Calder prints and photos of his two grown kids and wife. He's currently waiting for the birth of his first grandchild.

Regarding his appointment by Emanuel in September and whether he's going to be influenced by City Hall, Oberman said he's only had two recent conversations with the mayor. They comprised Emanuel asking him to serve and, this week, congratulating him on the chairmanship.

"I'm a person whose whole political existence is centered on being independent. When the mayor asked me to take this, I assumed if he wanted someone to just take direction, he would have asked someone else."

Emanuel's vision of Chicago as a world-class center of economic activity requires a high-performing commuter rail system, Oberman said. "You cannot have a successful economy without a very well-functioning mass transit system ... the mayor is well aware of that."

As a Metra director, Oberman did not take the $15,000 a year stipend and is not currently taking the $25,000 chairman salary. He has not decided whether to accept it in the future.

Whatever the history of the Metra chairmanship, "it is not a seat of exceptional power," Oberman said. "The chair should be an advocate and leader, but not a power broker."

What should the Metra chairman's priorities be? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Your voice

What's the deal with unending traffic backups at Lake Street near I-355? reader Bob Skwarek tweeted to @DHInTransit.

"The reconstruction of Route 53 has been plagued with delays due primarily to utilities," said IDOT's Jae Miller.

"The weather last December deteriorated very quickly and we were not able to complete what remains on Lake Street. At this time we're waiting for a break in the weather to continue with the remaining work. We're mobilizing the contractor to continue with work from the middle of March to the beginning of April. We anticipate the remaining work to be completed in June."

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