Metra CEO Orseno retiring in December, board to launch 'nationwide' search

Metra stalwart Don Orseno announced Friday plans to retire in December as the agency's board of directors launched a "nationwide" search for a replacement CEO.

The former train engineer was chosen as acting executive director in August 2013 amid turmoil as the agency tried to stabilize following corruption and political scandals. The appointment was made permanent in early 2014.

"Railroading is in my blood," said Orseno, 62. "There's no question I'll miss it. You don't do something for 43 years and not miss it.

"It's just a matter of when you get older, time is not on your side. I want to spend time with my wife, and my family and my grandchildren while I still have my health."

Orseno was awarded a salary increase of nearly 10 percent in December and earns $317,500 a year.

Vice Chairman Romayne Brown of Chicago along with board directors Jack Partelow of Naperville and South Holland Mayor Don DeGraff will lead the search for a new executive director. They hope to hire someone this fall.

Board Chairman Norman Carlson called Orseno's departure a "major loss" to Metra in a statement. "He has a nationwide reputation as an outstanding commuter railroad executive."

Immediately before Orseno's tenure, Metra endured a series of public relations bombshells. In 2010, former Executive Director Phil Pagano committed suicide as investigations began to questions thousands of dollars he had pocketed in unapproved salary and benefits. Then, in 2013 revelations by former Executive Director Alex Clifford about political pressure over jobs brought down two Metra chairmen.

Orseno's leadership did not feature such scandals, but the agency has grappled with other challenges, including a $12 billion capital shortfall, service meltdowns during a "polar vortex" and parade events, underperforming police department, and an expensive federally mandated braking system. The agency also has taken heat from riders on fare increases.

To riders, Orseno said, "I really appreciate their steadfast commitment to Metra. I know we can do better. We've done a lot of great things. We're not going to rest on that."

He cited a rebooted police force, a program to rebuild railcars and locomotives, a more accessible website and ticket-buying app and more reliable service among his accomplishments.

"We've reduced delays for the last 24 months to 95 percent or above and that's not an easy task," Orseno said. "It's a testament to our dedicated employees."

Pagano's death in April 2010 stunned employees and the public at large. "It was very tough," Orseno said.

Metra instituted reforms but in summer 2013, Clifford informed board members that politicians such as House Speaker Mike Madigan and others were trying to influence hiring. Madigan denied any improper conduct. The allegations rocked Metra and resulted in multiple investigations.

"We lost a lot of public trust," Orseno said. "People didn't believe in what we were doing. We had to make sure we were doing the right things for the right reasons."

Orseno will receive about $215,000 annually in pension benefits.

The Regional Transportation Authority instituted reforms in 2011 that cap earnings used to calculate pensions to discourage spiking salaries before retirement.

Orseno's raise plus unused sick and vacation time in 2017 will trigger the cap rules, Metra officials said. As a result, his pension will be based on an average of the last three years. However, the highest year - 2017 - will be capped at 115 percent of the average of 2015 and 2016 when Orseno earned $289,5000.

State Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, was dubious about the raise, particularly given that the CEO will be leaving in a year.

"I happen to think (Orseno's) a quality guy and has done a good job at Metra but I had a real concern about a 10 percent increase in the economic conditions that we're in," he said.

Metra Director and Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig said he had hoped Orseno would stay on longer, but "I feel his pension is earned and he has represented the railroad in an exceptional manner."

Orseno holds numerous top positions on boards of the American Public Transportation Association and Association of American Railroads.

He said the biggest future challenge for the railroad is insufficient money for new equipment and infrastructure repairs. "Our needs far outweigh our capital resources and that's not getting any better," he said.

Orseno thinks Metra possesses senior managers in-house who could handle the CEO job, but he added that the board "wants to cast the net far and wide to get the right person."

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