Metra fare hikes draw Springfield’s ire

Chicago Crain’s Blog – Greg Hinz on Politics

Yet another problem has arisen for Metra, the embattled suburban rail agency that apparently is considering firing its chief executive.

This time, the problem comes out of Springfield, where an effort is underway to make it more difficult for Metra to raise fares.

Under a bill sponsored by Illinois Rep. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, which could come up for a final House vote later this week, both the House Committee on Mass Transit and the Senate Transportation Committee and the Senate Transportation Committee would be directed to hold public hearings anytime Metra moved to boost fares or require riders to pay a greater share of the agency’s costs.

Metra still has the power to raise fares on its own. But the bill would set up a gantlet of sorts with Metra officials required to justify their action before what quite possibly would be skeptical lawmakers.

“They need to explain their fare increase,” Mr. Riley said. A recent 11 percent hike in the 10-ride ticket “sort of flew through under the radar,” he added. “It wasn’t like they made a big attempt to get out the news that they were raising fares.”

The 10-ride hike came a year after the agency raised all fares by an average of 25 percent after several years of fare stability.

The original version of the legislation also would have required hearings for hikes by the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace. But Mr. Riley said that was “a drafting” error, and that his intent was to affect just Metra. He said he might sponsor separate legislation later that also would affect the CTA.

Mr. Riley’s bill comes as Metra’s board apparently is considering firing or not renewing the contract of Alex Clifford, the agency’s chief executive officer.

Mr. Clifford was hired to replace Phil Pagano, who committed suicide in 2010 after being accused of misappropriating Metra money and forging memos to cover it up. Mr. Clifford still has eight months left in his three-year contract.

Metra’s board held a special meeting April 12, and the agency and board members have said almost nothing except that Mr. Clifford’s status is under review. My sources are divided on what’s up, with some saying he was slow to clean house after the Pagano years and others saying he made enemies by moving too fast. But multiple sources say Mr. Clifford has an especially poor relationship with Metra’s new chairman, Brad O’Halloran. He didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Metra is set to hold its regular monthly board meeting April 19. The agenda is not yet available.

Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregHinz.

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