Will new chairman bring Metra some Irish luck?
It's crunchtime for Metra's new chairman, Brad O'Halloran -- with big challenges that require a game plan where failure isn't an option.
But am I talking about the funding crisis facing Metra or Notre Dame's winning streak?
Actually, it could be either because O'Halloran is both the University of Notre Dame's regional director of development and the newly anointed head of Metra's 11-member board.
My recent interview with him was short on football -- he was cautiously hopeful the Irish would make it to the BCS Championship, and they did -- and long on commuter rail.
I first asked O'Halloran, an Orland Park village trustee, his thoughts on emerging issues of regionalism within the six-county area.
As context, some on Chicago's South Side and in South suburban communities think they're Metra's redheaded stepchild with all the good stuff going to the north, west and northwest. Meanwhile, riders in those suburbs think that they're the ones with the old cars, the lack of express trains and the service delays.
The south part of the region, however, recently got a big boost with $585 million allocated to new rail cars on the Electric Line.
While each Metra director represents a specific geographic area, "as a board we have to come together and make sure we're being equitable," O'Halloran said.
"I've reviewed some preliminary numbers over the past 30 years, and when you really segregate it by overall market areas, south, southwest, north and northwest, it's not far off at being at parity right now."
Metra planners estimate the agency has $7.37 billion in capital needs over 10 years but only $2.6 billion in funding available.
"The problem is, we're trying to be equitable with such a small pool of capital," O'Halloran said. "We've got to figure out a strategy to increase that bucket. We have to make our voices heard more clearly and more aggressively at both the federal and state governments to get more funds to address the overall needs of Metra."
"State of good repair" is the transit buzzword du jour. Essentially it means focusing on the basics -- nothing sexy like more express trains or line extensions to places like Oswego.
"We can't even address growth right now," O'Halloran said. "What we have to do is catch up on the daily maintenance issues. ... Metra needs everything from bridge work to maintaining the rail lines to upgrading stations to upgrading the rolling stock."
In February, Metra raised fares by a significant margin with 10-ride and monthly passes spiking by about 30 percent. Officials said at the time they needed to stop raiding the capital budget to pay for operating needs.
On Nov. 16, the board voted to raise 10-ride fares by an additional 11 percent, subject to final approval in December. This would raise about $8 million, with $6 million going to capital infrastructure.
O'Halloran said the 10-ride increase is tolerable because it affects only part of Metra's ridership. (Metra puts it at about 25 percent.)
"When you look at it in the overall context, people can make other decisions from a purchasing standpoint," he said. "But going forward, I don't want to have the public surprised anymore."
O'Halloran and other directors advocate using a type of consumer price index tied to transportation in future years so riders know in advance if a fare hike is pending. "Then we can say, 'That's where the index is right now and that's where it's trending,' so they're not surprised and we're not surprised. I want clarity with respect to that."
The vote on the fare hike wasn't unanimous, with two directors dissenting.
"I want a board that has opinions. ... Not everyone will agree, but at least we'll get to a consensus and move on," O'Halloran said.
This fall brought a turf battle between the CTA, Pace and Metra over so-called discretionary funds distributed by the Regional Transportation Authority. The fight was so bitter the RTA now plans to hire a consultant to give advice on how to divide the pie fairly.
"The past is the past," O'Halloran said. "I'm glad the RTA is taking that step. We'll get this information from the consultant ... all the stakeholders are interested ... and we'll see how Metra fares. It's premature to conjecture. I'm looking forward to having a relationship with CTA and Pace."
While the words "strategic plan" may induce drowsiness in some, O'Halloran says riders should be excited about the document the agency is preparing.
The finished version will describe "what's our mission, what's our vision, what are the goals of the authority, how are we breaking that into short-term goals and long-term goals -- which include permanent and fixed assets," he said. "When we're done, we'll have a document that gives us a clear path going forward. ... It will be a living, breathing document."
One more thing
O'Halloran, 57, grew up on Chicago's Southwest Side, not far from Midway Airport.
Early on "trains impacted my life because I had to figure out how to navigate between my house and the (Chicago Beltway) freight train crossing. When you're about 12, it's pretty scary."
O'Halloran studied psychology and marketing at Notre Dame and later received a master's in business administration. His first job was marketing with Colgate Palmolive, and he went on to start a business that operated sports stores at airports, which was bought eventually by an international company. He's back with Notre Dame, working on Michigan Avenue and taking the train frequently into work.
Being a suburbanite who grew up in Chicago is useful on Metra because "it gives me perspective on the differences and the commonalities," he said.
Here's what Larry Mylin of Mount Prospect had to say about the 10-ride issue. "Let's call the Metra fare increase what it is," he wrote. "A money transfer from Metra to the CTA. If RTA funds had been allocated properly, the 10-pass fare increase would not be required."
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You should know
Speaking of fare increases, the CTA is jumping on the bandwagon. Here's a look at proposed increases: A one-day pass would jump from $5.75 to $10, a three-day pass would go from $14 to $20, a seven-day pass would spike from $23 to $28, and a 30-day pass would go from $86 to $100. The hike is necessary to fix a $165 million shortfall, said CTA officials, who contend it puts them in the middle of the pack of transit agencies nationwide. It might have been worse had the agency not reached a tentative four-year contract with its labor unions. If approved, the changes would go into effect Jan. 14.
Good news this time. Work on the central Tri-State Tollway between Rosemont and Oak Lawn is finito. And it cost only $112.6 million.
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