Cook County commissioners tap Palmer for Metra board
Stephen Palmer was selected to fill the Metra board vacancy by the Cook County board of commissioners earlier this month.
The La Grange restaurateur will serve the remainder of Brian Reaves' term, which expires on June 30, 2019.
Palmer is an active member of the business community. He is the owner and operator of the family-owned Palmer Place restaurant in the village of La Grange.
Under Palmer's leadership, the restaurant has more than doubled its business. He brings his experience in overseeing and managing the business to the board.
"Stephen Palmer will bring his successful business acumen to the oversight responsibilities of the Metra board of directors, which makes him an exceptional choice," Commissioner Sean Morrison said. "I’m very confident Stephen will represent suburban Metra District 3 with the highest level of integrity and professionalism."
Metra has faced numerous challenges in recent years. The 2013 effort to remove CEO Alex Clifford from his position erupted into a scandal that cost Metra approximately $1.3 million in attorney fees, public relations professionals and Clifford's negotiated settlement with the rail agency.
Clifford alleged that he was being pushed out of his position because he refused to condone political hiring. His allegations that House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) and other lawmakers tried to influence hiring and raises for Metra employees resulted in several investigations.
Clifford's $652,363 settlement outraged legislators and the public. To quell the tempest, former Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran authorized a payment of $41,434 to public relations firm Culloton Strategies. Instead of quieting the outrage, it put fuel on the fire and resulted in the resignation of the board chair and a number of Metra board directors.
"Not only are we releasing this full accounting of Metra's costs relating to Mr. Clifford's departure, but we're applying what we learned to make critical changes that address issues that arose during this matter," Chairman of the Board Martin Oberman said in a statement at the time.
After the furor subsided, the Metra board set out to improve by passing a 10-year, $2.4-billion modernization plan in 2014, which included purchasing rail cars and locomotives.
The cost estimate for 367 new rail cars came to approximately $1.2 billion, or $3.3 million each. Metra signed a $91 billion contract to rebuild and acquire 52 new locomotives, as well.
As part of the modernization plan, the board passed an 11 percent fare increase in 2015. That year saw more than 81 million passenger trips on the Metra, yet the rail agency incurred a nearly $350 million loss. The 2015 Metra budget also included a $100 million bond sale to help finance the modernization.
The state budget impasse of 2015 changed Metra's plans. More than $300 million in state funding is in a holding pattern due to these budget problems.
Metra has already initiated one solution to the rail car issue. Virginia Railway Express (VRE) had an option to purchase 21 rail cars from Nippon Sharyo for approximately $2.5 million each. Both railways use the same types of cars. VRE sold the option for those cars to Metra at a savings of approximately $800,000 per car.
In addition to the cost-saving measures, Metra approved a third rate hike on Nov. 11. It raised fares 2 percent in 2016, and the latest hike increases fares by 5.8 percent for commuters. With $11.7 billion in capital needs, the rail agency faces continuing shortfalls despite the rate increases and its efforts to economize.
"I recognize the numerous tasks that lie ahead for Metra, and they’re quite significant: stabilizing finances; upgrading equipment and infrastructure; investing in new innovations and technologies; and providing the very best customer service," Palmer said. "I look forward to working with the administration and the entire board to be proactive and solution-based with ideas, recommendations and constructive criticism when necessary."