Martin Oberman, former Metra chairman and Chicago alderman, gets railroad regulatory post

Former Metra chairman and Chicago alderman Martin Oberman has been confirmed as a member of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the independent regulatory agency that oversees the nation’s freight railroad industry.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Oberman’s nomination late Wednesday along with that of Patrick Fuchs, a senior staff member for the Senate Commerce Committee.

On Thursday, Oberman told the Chicago Transportation Journal that he expected it to be an interesting, even “momentous” time for the board. There are a number of pending issues that could have a significant impact on the railroad industry, he said.

The STB is the independent federal regulatory body responsible for economic oversight of the freight rail system. Run by a five-member bipartisan board serving five-year terms, the STB has regulatory jurisdiction over railroad rates, mergers, service, line acquisitions, new rail-line construction, line abandonment, and other rail issues.

“I think the board will tackle some of those issues to see if changes should be made,” Oberman said, acknowledging that he was eager to learn more about the industry.

“After 50 years of practicing law, I like to think I’m still a fast learner,” he said. “I’ve been studying a great deal since (being nominated last year). I still have quite a bit of a learning curve, but I look at this assignment the same way as taking on complex litigation. You have to learn the law pretty quickly.”

Oberman acknowledged that there was a case involving Metra brought before the board last year, but the matter has been put on hold. He said he has deliberately chosen not to study the details, and would likely recuse himself if the matter should again come up for board action.

In that case, Metra asked the STB to resolve a disagreement between the commuter rail agency and Amtrak involving its lease and trackage rights at Chicago Union Station.

Oberman, 73, is an attorney who built a reputation as a reformer while an alderman on Chicago’s City Council. He was named to Metra’s board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September 2013. He was elected chairman in 2014, serving until October 2016, when Norman Carlson took the post.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) on Thursday called the Senate’s approval of Oberman “a victory for both our region and the country.”

“Marty’s appointment gives the long-dormant STB a quorum to resume its important work presiding over railroad rate and service issues and rail restructuring transactions,” Lipinski said in a statement.  “I have known Marty personally for four decades and believe he is the right choice to provide broad oversight over our nation’s railroads. His experience as the former chairman at Metra is especially critical at this time.

“As Illinois’ most senior member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I look forward to working with him to improve Metra and Amtrak service, and all other rail service matters of regional and national significance. This is a promising development for the people of Illinois and commuters everywhere.” Lipinski said.

Oberman also served on the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Previously, he served as general counsel to the Illinois Racing Board. Oberman graduated from Yale University and earned his law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

The confirmation of Oberman, a Democrat, and Fuchs, a Republican, brings to three the membership of the STB, with two seats vacant. The Senate chose not to confirm at this time the nomination of Michelle Schultz, a Republican. Republican Ann Begeman has served as STB chair.

Oberman fills the remainder of a five-year term expiring Dec. 31, 2023. 

The STB was created by Congress in 1996 as the successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The agency also has oversight of certain trucking, intercity passenger bus, and pipeline matters.

A Senate committee approved the nominations of Oberman, Fuchs and Schultz on April 25.

— Richard Wronski

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