Metra to weigh another $225,000 in consultant fees

Let's say you're a transit executive starting a new job at a commuter rail agency, which has just gone through the worst year of its life replete with scandal, tragedy and misuse of public funds.

The problem is, as the new kid on the block, you don't know whom to trust at the agency, given its history of nepotism and financial misdeeds. You need a right-hand man who knows rail and transit, you need someone from outside the agency and you need him fast. That's why Metra CEO Alex Clifford hired railway consultant Avery Grimes in April.

Expertise doesn't come cheap — Grimes has a six-month contract for $225,000. Because it's nearly up, Clifford is expected to ask Metra board of directors to renew the agreement for another six months this Friday.

Metra's angst started in May of 2010 with the suicide of former CEO Phil Pagano, who stepped in front of a Metra train amid an investigation into misuse of funds. Fallout from the crisis revealed a pattern of perks for a favored few, waste and disorganization. Among the excesses was $475,000 in vacation pay Pagano finagled against company policy.

Grimes' resume is extensive. He has years of hands-on experience in transportation including jobs with railroads like Union Pacific and the CTA, a doctorate in civil engineering, a visiting professorship at the University of Illinois' Rail Transportation Center and a recent consulting stint at Southern California's Metrolink.

At Metrolink, he helped another new CEO turn around that troubled agency, which was dogged by declining ridership and a horrific crash that killed 25 people in 2008.

Clifford, whose career until recently has been in California, says Grimes is doing the same for Metra.

As Clifford learned more about Metra, “it became clear to me there was only one person that had the experience and could hit the ground running.”

The preferred practice in hiring consultants is to compare fees and qualifications from a number of professionals. In this case, “there was no time to spend four to six months in a procurement process,” Clifford said.

A look at his billing records indicates Grimes has put in 12-hour days. Among his tasks are assessing staff, evaluating the agency's antiquated computer system, negotiating with Metra's freight rail partners and labor unions, developing “score cards” to measure how staff members perform tasks such as the ambitious track rebuild on the UP North Line, and mapping out a financial plan given a looming $100 million deficit.

“He fulfills the role of multiple people,” Clifford said.

In asking for the contract extension, Clifford said before Grimes leaves, he's planning to hire a deputy executive director to replace him.

He acknowledged the contract cost is significant but noted that it is a wash given the void in executive positions.

Key figures who've exited since the Pagano scandal are Deputy Executive Director and Chief Counsel Mike Noland and Chief Financial Officer Frank Racibozynski, who both signed off on Pagano's vacation pay requests, although Racibozynski started questioning the expenditures in 2009. Deputy Executive Director Bill Tupper, who filled in for Pagano during 2010, also retired this year. Noland and Tupper had earned $175,000 each.

It will be up to the Metra board of directors to make the call about Grimes this Friday — a day they're also supposed to learn more about agency budget shortfalls and potential fare hikes and service cuts.

You should knowSpeaking of budgets, 33 out of 84 of Metra's department heads, directors and senior directors make more than $100,000 annually.According to a Freedom of Information Act request I filed this summer, wages range from $155,000 for the head of human relations to $100,000 for the chief of police.And, 29 out of 84 high-ranking employees make between $90,000 and $100,000. That's 74 percent of senior staff members earning between $90,000 and $155,000.Food for thought, as the agency considers double-digit fare hikes.Your voiceI asked readers if the Illinois toll road's rate increase effective Jan. 1 would cause them to put a stake through their I-PASS. Natalie White, who commutes to Lisle, didn't hold back.#8220;I will most definitely find alternate routes!#8221; she commented. #8220;Tired of paying for tolls as it is, $300 a month already with an I-PASS! I will get up a little earlier and use non-tollways to get to work! Over it!!!!#8221;Jon Ehrenstrom of Geneva had the most succinct response. #8220;Stake,#8221; he wrote.Gridlock alertSo many to choose from, unfortunately. Here are two hot spots, courtesy of IDOT.Lake County drivers who enjoy chronic construction will be pleased to learn that the widening of Route 21 from Routes 137 to 120 in Libertyville started recently and will continue until fall 2013. Work crews will rebuild the roadway, adding one lane in each direction and a median.And my advice to DuPage road warriors is #8212; don't go near Route 59 just south of Butterfield Road tonight or Tuesday evening. Route 59 will close from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. both days for installation of a storm sewer. Detours will be posted.Coming soonIDOT wants your input on its road construction plan for 2013-18. You can comment from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at an open house held at the Hilton Lisle/Naperville, 3003 Corporate West Drive, Lisle.For information about other similar forums, check out the website and click on #8220;Public Involvement.#8221; 21453001Alex Clifford 201217Avery Grimes Suburbs make list for most collisionsWatch out for road mayhem in Chicago, Allstate Insurance Co. warns. The insurer surveyed 200 major U.S. cities for car collision frequency and ranked Chicago at 156. With a rank of 200 considered most dangerous, Naperville came in at 124 and Aurora scored 111. Limiting distractions, going slow in bad weather and not tailgating are ways to avoid crashes. 27251645