Metra’s board of directors on Wednesday renewed contracts with six politically connected lobbying firms for new, five-year periods for almost $2.7 million.
Four of the six contracts were set to expire at the end of the year, but will now be renewed through 2022.
Metra negotiated with the firms, and the new contracts reduce the cost of monthly retainers by 15 percent, resulting in $500,000 in savings over the next five years, said Metra spokeswoman Wendy Abrams.
Metra officials have said the commuter rail agency needs $12 billion to keep the system in a state of good repair over the next 10 years, and it relies on funding from the state and Washington, D.C.
Federal successes in recent years include Metra’s $14 million grant for the Fox River Bridge and an increase in federal formula funding from the FAST Act, Abrams noted. On the state side, Metra has lacked a capital bill to fund improvements like new Metra cars and engines since 2009 and has been pushing for one.
Metra CEO Don Orseno said he “absolutely” thinks Metra is getting its money’s worth from the lobbyists, despite the fact that Illinois has gone without a budget for close to three years and has been late in making public transportation funding payments to the Regional Transportation Authority, which distributes them to Metra and other transit agencies.
“At some point in time, the state’s going to come out and they’re going to have a budget, and there will be a capital bill,” Orseno said. “Do you want to start all your work at that point in time or do you want to make sure that all your needs are known and everything is where it needs to be?”
The state funding situation has recently gotten more worrisome, said Metra Chief Financial Officer Thomas Farmer. That’s because the RTA, which has been borrowing to make up for late payments from the state, is now close to “tapped out” and, if the state does not keep paying the RTA, Metra, the CTA and Pace will receive less funding than they had expected, Farmer said.
The five state lobbying firms on Metra’s agenda already had three-year contracts, but the renewals extend those deals another five years. Among those firms is Capricorn Communications LLC, run by Democratic former U.S. Rep. William Lipinski. The newly minted extension means the firm will get up to $255,000.
The board OK’d lobbying contracts on state legislative work for Cullen & Associates for $255,000; McGuire Woods Consulting for $367,710; O’Connell & O’Shea Legislative Advocacy and Consulting for $259,233; and Raucci & Sullivan Strategies for $301,749. The Raucci & Sullivan contract would be renewed through March 1, 2023, while the other state lobbying contracts will be renewed through 2022 if the board approves.
Thomas Cullen is a former high-level staffer for House Speaker Michael Madigan; a McGuire Woods senior vice president is John Dunn, who had been an adviser to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley; John O’Connell is a former Democratic state legislator, and Matthew O’Shea was former chief of staff to Republican state representative Tom Cross. Andrew Raucci is a Chicago attorney who specializes in election law, while Dave Sullivan is a former Republican state senator.
The Metra board also voted to give a $1.26 million contract to Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell LLC, extending a contract that runs from 2015 through 2019 another five years to 2024. The firm’s president is Jason Tai, former chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, the most senior Illinois member on the transportation and infrastructure committee
Metra approved the contracts before the arrival of the new, yet-to-be selected chief executive officer of Metra. Orseno, who is retiring at the end of the year, said the contracts are for five years because it brings “stability.” He noted that they could be canceled at any time.
Also, Wednesday was the last board meeting for attorney and former Chicago Alderman Martin Oberman, who is stepping down after four years, including almost three as chairman. Oberman has said that Rahm Emanuel, who appointed him to the board in 2013, has “other things in mind” for him.
Oberman, who represents Chicago and went without the $25,000 annual director stipend and the $15,000 chairman’s stipend during his term, has been credited with helping to repair the commuter railroad’s reputation after years of scandal. He told the board he fell “in love with Metra” during his term, and received a standing ovation from fellow board members and Metra staff.
Oberman said Emanuel has not yet told him what he wants him to do instead. In a statement, Emanuel praised Oberman for tackling “tough situations” and developing “serious solutions” both as an alderman and on the Metra board.
“I deeply appreciate his service to the people of Chicago and am confident this does not mark the end of his service to our city,” Emanuel said.
During the past four years, Oberman has worked with Orseno on a 10-year modernization plan, which included regular fare increases. The agency also has expanded the rail car and locomotive rehabilitation program and deployed the Ventra app, which enables riders to buy tickets on their phones. The system’s on-time performance improved to 96.1 percent last year, compared with 95.4 percent in 2013.
Orseno said after the meeting that Metra expects to have his replacement as CEO in place in mid-September and that the selection process is going well, with about five interviews left to do. Candidates have come from both inside and outside Metra, he said.
Also on Wednesday, after a yearlong pilot program to test a new style of seats with armrests and cup holders, Metra announced plans to purchase and install new seats on an ongoing basis as it rehabilitates its fleet of rail cars. Metra’s board approved a five-year contract with Kustom Seating Unlimited for almost $17 million.
Based on customer feedback, the new seats will have bigger cup holders than those in the test program, armrests will be added to aisle seats and seats will be modified slightly to widen aisles to their original width. The new seats will be stationary, which will not please riders who like to be able to change the seats’ direction.
In a statement, Metra said that it hoped the new design will prevent injuries to customers and employees who pinch fingers and strain muscles flipping the older seats. Metra said it is not spending any extra money on the new seats, which cost the same as the old style of seats, but that they are being installed in cars whose seats need replacement. There are more manufacturers of this style of seats in the industry, which is expected to keep prices competitive in the future, Metra said.