Use caution with Union Station redevelopment

IMG_0043Guest commentary: Union Station is key element in Crossrail plan for unified, regional rail service

By Alan Mammoser

Historic Union Station, with grand columns and Great Hall, stands solemnly in the West Loop as is has for nearly a century. But the old station is in the news a lot lately. Recently, Amtrak and Mayor Emanuel announced a $1 billion plan to redevelop this relic of railroading’s golden age. They foresee a new hotel and condos atop the Great Hall, and new towers on adjacent blocks.

It’s an impressive plan that should generate revenue for the city and Amtrak. But it misses the big picture. The big picture for Union Station is much more than a real estate deal. The big picture includes not just the Great Hall but extends across Canal Street to the Concourse. It’s there, in the tracks beneath a nondescript 1960s-era office tower, that the key to revolutionizing Chicago-area transit lay.

Any plan to enhance Union Station’s real estate values should also recognize that its redevelopment can transform Chicago-area transit. Done properly, this plan will give Chicago a world class rail system, one fit for a global city. Done improperly, it could compromise the irreplaceable transportation jewel that Union Station is.

The plan announced in May shows no sense of the need to upgrade the rail network beneath the streets, where Amtrak and Metra face limited space to serve a growing ridership. Worse, its massive scale actually threatens future transit improvements, because its big towers sit directly…

Reformer Martin Oberman leaves Metra board

(My story from TRAINS magazine News Wire)oberman Former Metra Chairman Martin Oberman, who was credited with helping restore public confidence in Chicago’s commuter rail agency after scandal and controversy, departed the board of directors Wednesday.

Oberman, 72, an attorney who built a reputation as a reformer while an alderman on Chicago’s City Council, was named to Metra’s board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September 2013. He was elected chairman in 2014, serving until last October when Norman Carlson took the post.

Oberman tells Trains News Wire that he and Emanuel recently discussed his tenure and decided it was time to leave the board.

“He wanted me to focus on other areas,” Oberman says. “Nothing’s been spelled out yet.”

Metra has an 11-member board of directors appointed by the chairmen of the six Northeastern Illinois county boards, Cook County commissioners, and Chicago’s mayor.

Oberman said two key accomplishments that occurred during his term were helping to professionalize Metra and remove political patronage, and putting the agency on a more secure financial footing.

He refused to take personal credit.

“One person can’t do it,” Oberman says. “Whatever I was able to do required the support of the board and working with the executive director.”

Metra CEO Don Orseno will be leaving the agency this fall after serving more than 30 years in various posts.

Oberman took over at Metra after the agency came under fire for ousting former Executive Director Alex Clifford, who became embroiled in a dispute with some board members over political…

Metra hikes CEO’s pay

Just one month after raising fares an average of 5.8 percent, Metra’s board of directors Wednesday awarded a 9.7 percent pay hike to Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno based on what they termed his outstanding job performance.

Orseno’s annual salary rises to $317,500 from $289,500, retroactive to Oct. 1. It’s the second pay hike for Orseno in just over a year; he received a 10 percent increase in September 2015.

Metra board members said the higher salary was “market-based” in comparison with the railroad industry and that Orseno “exceeded performance expectations” in his annual review. Officials said Orseno also earns less than his counterparts at comparable public transit agencies on the East and West Coasts.

Metra Chairman Norman Carlson said Orseno tallies 60-65-hour workweeks, and cited Orseno’s 42-year railroad career, including early work as locomotive engineer, and the last 36 years at Metra.

“We are lucky to have him,” Carlson said.

By comparison, CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. is paid $239,112 a year, according to the Better Government Association’s public payroll database.

In addition to running Metra, Orseno has leadership positions with national public transportation and commuter rail organizations, Carlson said.

Orseno took charge of Metra in the wake of the board’s controversial ouster of former Executive Director Alex Clifford in 2013.

Fare increases that will take effect on February 1, 2017 include an additional 25 cents on one-way tickets; an additional $2.75 on 10-ride tickets; and an additional $11.75 on monthly passes.

Metra also announced that Uber would pay Metra $900,000 over three years to be the agency’s “official rideshare partner.”

In return, Metra…

Not right time for new Metra chairman

Every railroad needs to operate on schedule, right Metra riders? If the timetable says departure is at 8:15 and arrival is 8:45, passengers expect Metra to stick to it. Doesn’t always happen, of course.

The commuter rail agency’s board has a policy that says that its chairmanship should operate on a schedule, too. That policy, adopted in 2012, requires that the leadership post be rotated every four years among the board members from Cook County, including Chicago, and the board members from one of the five other counties that Metra serves.

It’s kind of like a term limit. That policy was one of the first reforms to emerge from the Phil Pagano scandal, and was aimed at curbing the kind of one-man rule under which Metra operated for decades.

You remember Pagano? He was the autocratic executive director who committed suicide in 2010 after being caught stealing $475,000 in vacation pay and forging memos to cover it up.

For too long, Pagano ran Metra virtually unchallenged. Metra’s 11-member board of directors, comprised of political appointees hand-picked by the six county chairs and commissioners, gave him free rein. For most of this time, Metra’s chairman, from distant McHenry County, was Pagano’s enabler. Patronage was rife. Contracts went to pals. One board member went to prison.

Pagano’s unchecked greed exposed a glaring lack of oversight by Metra’s directors. An outraged public started paying attention, and the politicians – finally put in the spotlight themselves — began feeling the heat.

In 2011, Metra’s then-chairwoman, DuPage appointee Carole Doris, led the effort to bring…

Death by train: Railroads, Metra and suicides

One morning last January, Metra foreman Robert Tellin was startled as he peered out the window of his office at Elgin’s commuter station. There, Tellin saw a man standing in the center of the tracks, just as the PA announced an approaching train.

Hurrying outside, Tellin asked the man what he was doing on the tracks. The man responded: I want to die.

Quickly, Tellin grabbed the man and safely pulled him from the rails, seconds before the train arrived.

It was a heroic effort on the part of Tellin, whom Metra’s board of directors honored with a resolution in March.

Unfortunately, for every moment of heroism there are many more moments of tragedy across the Chicago area’s vast network of railroad tracks. It seems every few weeks a Metra line is shut down due to a “pedestrian accident.” One just incident occurred last Thursday when a woman was struck in Northbrook by an Amtrak train, which shares the same tracks.

Indeed, death on the tracks is a problem that is particularly endemic to the Chicago area.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, in 2015 there were 32 suicides-by-train in Illinois. That’s one-tenth of the national total. And as the Chicago Tribune reported in 2014, the metro area itself has a higher incidence of suicides by train than the national average.

Research by Northwestern University professor Ian Savage found that 47 percent of railroad-pedestrian fatalities in the Chicago area were apparent suicides, versus 30 percent nationally.

One reason, Savage explained, is simply…

metralogo

Metra: Service alerts glitch is fixed

Metra announced this afternoon that it has fixed a “glitch” that has prevented it from sending out service alerts via email and Twitter for the past two days.
The outage affected about 100,000 Metra customers who have signed up to receive the alerts or tweets, the commuter rail agency said — in an emailed announcement.
The problem is thought to have been related to a queuing problem with the agency’s new email service, Metra said. Metra customers can sign up on the agency’s website for the alerts, which warn of delays, cancellations and other service problems.
“While it took longer than we wanted to resolve this glitch, we can now report that the Metra alert system is back online and fully functioning.” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno in a message to customers.
“We apologize for any inconvenience you experienced as a result of this problem.”

trackwork

Civic group: Boost gas tax for transportation

By Richard Wronski

An influential Chicago think tank/planning organization is urging the state’s gas tax be increased by 30 cents per gallon. Here are four reasons why:

  • Experts say Illinois needs to invest $43 billion over 10 years to improve roads, bridges and rail lines and tackle a maintenance backlog.
  • Estimates say motorists are already wasting more than that amount on vehicle repairs due to poor roads; time lost in congestion; and loss of population and jobs to neighboring states.
  • The state’s gas tax, currently at 19 cents per gallon, hasn’t been raised in 25 years.
  • The gas tax hike, along with an accompanying 50 percent increase in vehicle registration fees, would cost the average person $12.25 a month, or $147 a year. That’s about one  lunch tab a month or a Netflix charge, the argument goes.

The recommendation to begin “an honest conversation” on hiking the gas tax came Monday from the Metropolitan Planning Council, an independent, bipartisan, nonprofit civic group. MPC’s board consists of many movers and shakers from Chicago banks and businesses.

MPC issued a detailed analysis (http://metroplanning.org/transportation) of its proposal, which it said it compiled after a year’s worth of discussions with transportation officials and other experts.

It’s not the first call for an increase in the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation needs, either by the MPC or others. Just over a year ago, the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, an aggregation of interest groups ranging from labor unions to truckers to local chambers of commerce, urged an unspecified increase in the gas tax along with a…

Pace has new bus/Metra strategy for DuPage

By Richard Wronski/ Chicago Transportation Journal

Pace has unveiled a new strategy to improve its DuPage County service, introducing a brand-new route along busy Ogden Ave. and restructuring several routes serving Metra stations. The plan would significantly increase the number of BNSF trains served by these restructured routes and give riders more flexibility, Pace said.

The strategy targets what transportation experts call the “last mile,” the gap between a commuter’s home and his/her mode of public transit. In suburbs like Naperville and Downers Grove, Pace tries to fill that gap with bus service to and from some of Metra’s most-used stations.

Pace’s plan, which the agency said represents a $1 million investment, could go into effect this June. But first, Pace will hold public hearings to discuss the proposed changes on March 29, 30 and 31. The affected communities include Naperville, Lisle, Downers Grove, Woodridge and Lombard.

These communities largely feed Metra’s busiest line, the BNSF, which carries some 64,000 riders each weekday on 94 trains.

Mike Bolton, Pace’s deputy executive director for strategic services, told the Chicago Transportation Journal that the changes came about through an ongoing analysis of ridership.

Using data from the new Ventra fare card and other programs, Pace found it could combine some portions of existing routes in both the morning and evening to get better ridership on the trips and we also meet more trains, Bolton said.

“We found that we could save some vehicles that we could then use for the Ogden route that we have wanted to put into place since the Southwest DuPage study that we did nearly 10…

Update: New Metra Heritage Corridor train rolls

By Richard Wronski / Chicago Transportation Journal

Riders on Metra’s Heritage Corridor line metralogocan now get home a little earlier each weekday.

On Monday, Metra inaugurated a 2:45 pm departure train from Union Station. The additional train boosts the number of Heritage Corridor runs from six to seven: three inbound morning runs and four outbound runs each weekday. The line has no weekend service.

The new train will make stops at Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont and Lockport before arriving at its final destination in Joliet at 3:50 p.m.

The Heritage Corridor is Metra’s least-used line, with only 2,400 weekday riders. By contrast, the Electric District line has 170 weekday trains carrying 33,500 riders, and the BNSF Line operates 94 weekday trains, with nearly 64,000 riders.

Metra CEO/Executive Director Don Orseno said the additional train provides more convenience and options for southwest suburban customers.

The new service is the result of years of effort by Metra and elected officials along the route to bolster the Heritage Corridor, Orseno said. The new service required agreements from the Canadian National Railway Co., which owns the tracks and operates freight service on the line, and Amtrak, which owns Union Station.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd), whose district includes much of the Heritage Corridor, has pressed CN for years to allow Metra to add service. In 2013, Lipinski said he was so frustrated with CN that he considered introducing legislation to force the railroad to allow more Metra trains.

Lipinski told the Chicago Transportation Journal he was pleased with CN’s decision but said it was “not…

Metra adding service to Heritage Corridor line

By Richard Wronski / Chicago Transportation Journal

After years of complaints about scant train service, riders on Metra’s Heritage Corridor line are finally getting a break: One new daily train.

Starting March 14, Metra will add a 2:45 pm departure train each weekday from Union Station, Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno announced Wednesday.

The additional train will boost the number of Heritage Corridor runs from six to seven: three inbound morning runs and four outbound runs each weekday. The line has no weekend service.

The Heritage Corridor is Metra’s least-used line, with only 2,400 weekday riders. By contrast, the Electric District line has 170 weekday trains carrying 33,500 riders, and the BNSF Line operates 94 weekday trains, with nearly 64,000 riders.

The new 2:45 pm train will make stops at Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont and Lockport before arriving at its final destination in Joliet at 3:50 p.m.

Orseno said the additional train will provide more convenience and options for southwest suburban customers.

The new service is the result of years of effort by Metra and elected officials along the route to bolster the Heritage Corridor, Orseno said. The new service required agreements from the Canadian National Railway Co., which owns the tracks and operates freight service on the line, and Amtrak, which owns Union Station.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, whose district includes much of the Heritage Corridor, has pressed CN for years to allow Metra to add service. In 2013, Lipinski said he was so frustrated with CN that he considered introducing legislation to force the railroad to allow more Metra trains.

On Wednesday, Lipinski said…