Marty Oberman didn’t know much about railroads before Mayor Emanuel asked him to serve on the Metra Board. But he was undaunted. “I’m a professional question asker,” he says, referring to his training as an attorney. “I’ve asked a lot of questions, I’ve learned a lot.”
One of the first things he learned? Metra is a huge, ridiculously complicated operation. Because it runs some of its own trains, but also purchases service from other railroads, and owns very little of the track over which it operates, some of its problems are beyond its control.
“There are 753 Metra trains that run every day. On a typical day there are about 500 freight trains and about 100 Amtrak trains,” he explains. They’re all trying to use the same over-burdened tracks. And despite the fact that his passenger trains are supposed to have priority right of way during rush hour, it just doesn’t always work out that way. There isn’t one central tower, as in aviation, that coordinates the landings and takeoffs of hundreds of planes.
“The UP is dispatched out of Omaha, the CN is dispatched out of Minneapolis, the BNSF dispatcher is in Dallas, and then we have our own dispatchers for Metra.,” he tells us. “and all these people have to function together so the trains don’t run into each other. No other metropolitan region in the country, including the New York area, has anywhere near this complex of a relationship.”
Further complicating matters are the approximately ten billion dollars Metra needs just to catch up with its deferred maintenance and infrastructure needs. Old rolling stock, sub-standard stations and inadequate track all conspire to delay the trains.
But there’s another problem that Oberman, the political animal and lifelong patronage critic, understands well. It’s the agency’s political legacy.
“Going back many years, Metra, and certainly the CTA (I know that first hand from when I was in the City Council) were very heavily dominated by patronage hiring and political interference,” he says matter-of-factly. “My perception is that when the whole system was created thirty years ago, the Legislature said, OK, the City Democrats, you get the CTA and all their contracts, and the suburban Republicans, you get Metra, and that’s how we’re gonna cut up the pie.”
But in the short few months since Metra’s most recent CEO was fired and half its board resigned, he insists, “That culture has clearly changed at Metra.”
In fact, it’s changed significantly enough that he finds himself largely in agreement with the findings of recent studies that are recommending the dissolution of the RTA.
The RTA, he says, had roles in planning and oversight of the CTA, Metra and Pace, and the planning function is always important.
“There should be some centralized prioritizing of how we’re gonna spend money on mass transit. First of all you don’t want the agencies duplicating themselves.” But there are other existing planning agencies that can take over that function, he tells us.
Governance, he says, is a different matter. “The RTA has some oversight function for the operating agencies. But if you put the right people in charge of the operating agencies – I mean the Metra Board should be charged with the oversight of Metra. If the Metra Board needs oversight, I think we have the wrong people on the Board. And I think I would say the same thing of the CTA.”
In addition, Oberman questions recent proposals to have one central board operate all three agencies. Because the CTA and Metra are so radically different in the way they operate, it would be almost impossible to constitute a board with the expertise in all the unrelated areas, he says.
But in conclusion, Marty Oberman has an optimistic view about the whole idea of regional mass transit. “There’s an ancient political schism between the City and suburbs. I think as we’re moving into this modern era there are more and more voters and political leadership who are trying to put those issues behind us,” he explains.
“The transportation issues for our region are regional. What’s good for DuPage County is actually good for the city and vice versa. And we actually have a very good cooperative relationship with the CTA now.”