Metra riders know the agency's problems range from political patronage to aging equipment. Chairman Martin Oberman hopes resolving the first issue will give commuters enough faith in the agency to help pay to fix the second.
Metra planners are expected to report soon on the agency's capital needs, including infrastructure like track and train cars, Oberman told the Daily Herald editorial board Thursday.
Once planners give a solid number, options involve applying for a low-interest federal loan or issuing bonds. Metra has the authority to bond up to $1 billion.
But the agency will need to finance any new debt and that's where winning back public trust is essential, Oberman said. Metra is instituting ethics reforms after a scandalous summer when ex-CEO Alex Clifford accused two former Metra directors of condoning state lawmakers' political patronage requests involving jobs.
"It all gets back to governance," Oberman said. "I don't expect riders to say, 'Oberman is chairman, all is pure.'
"But over a period of time, I hope we can go to the riders and say, 'We've straightened this out the best we can. We're not wasting your money, we want to use it so two winters from now the train doors won't freeze open -- will you pay 25 cents more (a ride) for that?"
Oberman added the 25 cents more per fare was just an example and not an actual number.
Among reforms at Metra are requiring interviewers and managers to certify that political affiliations did not play a role in hiring decisions, revamping the board structure and hiring a chief audit officer.
"We really want to change the culture. It would be a great success if in a couple years the public would come to understand that Metra is a professionally run corporation," said Oberman, an attorney and former independent Chicago alderman.
On March 31, a task force created by Gov. Pat Quinn to scrutinize public transit recommended merging Metra, Pace and the CTA while eliminating the Regional Transit Authority.
Oberman praised the analysis of the task force but added, "I think the problem with mass transit is not caused by our structural problems -- it's caused by our long political tradition of competition between the suburbs and the city for scarce dollars.
"To say, if you change the structure, you will change the politics -- I think that's pie in the sky."