By Jamey Dunn
The federal government will provide more oversight for Chicago’s commuter rail service as the number of board members dwindles.
The action from the Federal Railroad Administration is just another development in the ongoing fallout from allegations of political influence being asserted over hiring decisions and contract terms at the agency. Alex Clifford, the former chief executive officer of METRA, has said that lawmakers, including House Speaker Michael Madigan, tried to wield clout over the agency. His claims come as the Regional Transit Authority has launched an audit of Clifford’s severance settlement, which could leave him with more than $700,000. Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer is investigating Clifford’s allegations, and Madigan has said publicly that he did nothing wrong.
After the resignations of four Metra board members — including former chair Brad O’Halloran — the board lacks enough members to name a new chair. U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin wrote a letter asking Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo to intervene while Metra’s “current leadership issues are being resolved.”
Durbin wrote in the letter sent to Szabo earlier this month: “I know the professional, non-political staff at Metra is dedicated to running this railroad in the safest way possible, however the lack of permanent leadership at the board and management levels creates a situation where accountability is hard to find and priorities like safety could become neglected.”
In response, the Federal Railroad Administration will increase the number of train inspections and increase oversight of Metra’s testing and inspection program. The administration also plans to communicate directly with top Metra officials, reach out to labor leaders and attend meetings between labor and management.
“Safety is our first priority,” Szabo said in a written statement. “Historically, Metra has had an exemplary safety record, in large measure due to the dedicated career personnel who oversee and perform the daily operations. Our goal is to ensure that legacy of safety does not erode during this period of transition.”
According to a statement from Metra, the agency plans to welcome the additional federal involvement. “Safety is our number one priority at Metra, and while we believe we are operating as safely as possible, we appreciate the efforts of Sen. Durbin and the FRA to provide additional oversight.”
Gov. Pat Quinn has also called for increased state involvement at Metra and RTA. He said he plans to bring together a group of experts to work up changes that would be ready to present to lawmakers when they return to the Statehouse for the fall veto session in October. “I think we need to have a little bit more direct action on behalf of the public,” he said. “Right now, the role of our department [of transportation] and our state is basically to just hand the money over to RTA and Metra. I think we need far more oversight under law of these entities.”