FOX RIVER GROVE – New Metra CEO Don Orseno stressed a need for cash and a new communication plan to gain back customer trust at a lunch event Thursday.
Orseno, who was appointed at the end of January to replace ousted CEO Alex Clifford, said the agency has infrastructure needs that total $9.9 billion. He spoke to a small gathering at the Fox River Grove Village Hall at an event hosted by the Cary Grove Area Chamber of Commerce.
A winter heavy on subzero temperatures and snowfall combined to give Metra one of its most challenging seasons ever. Ice- and snow-jammed switches, as well as regulations on the hours rail employees can work, were the culprit for many weather-related delays, Orseno said. The winter also affected an aging fleet of train cars.
“The situations we had on January 6 and 7 we could have on June 6 and 7,” said Orseno, who served as interim chief before being unanimously appointed. “We’re on the ragged edge of the equipment. It has passed its useful life.”
Metra owns 380 railcars that are between 30 and 60 years old, Orseno said.
Orseno said the agency is expecting to receive just 20 percent of the $9.9 billion figure in the next 10 years and urged people to think in terms of the next 50 years.
He added that rebuilding trust of customers, legislators and constituents will go a long way toward presenting funding opportunities for future projects.
Rebuilding trust could be a long road, as faulty service during a hard winter is just the latest of Metra’s woes. Lawmakers expressed outrage last year after Clifford was paid a $718,000 severance deal. The former CEO, it came out, alleged he was being forced out because he wouldn’t keep quiet about political patronage requests.
Clifford himself had inherited problems – his predecessor, Phil Pagano, killed himself by stepping in front of a Metra train the same day the Metra board was set to fire him for taking about $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts.
“Every place we go, people look at us right now and think, ‘What’s Metra all about?’ ” Orseno said. “In order for us to go [to Springfield] and to the federal government in Washington and secure the type of funding that we need, we’ve got to have people on board that trust the decisions that we’re making.”
One way to rebuild the trust of customers will be to better communicate service delays and cancellations, Orseno said.
Metra is working on a more responsive online feed to update riders on such changes. Riders who have signed up for e-alerts also will soon be able to better personalize their experience so they receive alerts only about trains they’re interested in, he said.
Orseno said Metra also will look into ways of improving the ride experience. Mobile ticketing, which will allow riders to buy tickets on their smartphones, could be put in place by the end of the year.
And the agency is re-examining the prospect of installing wireless Internet, an idea shot down quickly after an original study found it’d cost Metra $72 million to implement. Orseno said Metra will try to entice bigger Internet providers into partnerships.
“What we’re trying to do is have a no-cost Wi-Fi solution,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s going to pan out or not, but it’s something we’re definitely looking into.”
As for securing funding in the future, Metra could see a larger share of Regional Transportation Authority funding if a plan introduced last week in the Illinois Senate goes through.
The plan would require the RTA to distribute money at the same rate to transportation agencies as other state funding – a change that could mean significant gains for Metra, which received about $7 million of the $185 million in discretionary funding distributed by the RTA in 2013.