'Overworked' Metra CEO gets raise for Christmas; riders to get fare hike
An “overworked and undercompensated” Metra executive is scheduled for a $28,500 raise after the system’s board recently approved the adjustment, retroactive to Oct. 1, further boosting his already-six-figure salary following a substantial fare hike for passengers.
Don Orseno’s compensation will jump from $289,000 to $317,500, a nearly 10 percent increase. The rationale was not tied to the urban commuter railway system’s performance, but rather based on observations by the board that he was “overworked and undercompensated in comparison to other big-city commuter rail CEOs."
By comparison, New York City's suburban Metro-North railway president earns $338,692, and California's Metrolink rail system chief receives $330,000 annually.
The Illinois Policy Institute suggested that if the reward were instead based on Metra's perforamnce, Orseno likely would not have received such a generous increase.
“Metra has shown time and time again an inability to handle even the slightest of easily foreseeable problems,” the institute said, citing statistics from recent years, as well as observations in recent months.
Some of Metra’s problems were tied to specific incidents, such as handling crowds during large public events, while others were chalked up to technical ineptness.
Just this past November, regional sports fans encountered compromised customer service layered on top of severe delays following the Chicago Cubs’ historic World Series victory.
Metra’s handling amounted to a mere tweet suggesting that people simply stay downtown as local news stations and fans themselves covered the crisis, citing a “mass exodus” causing problems at Metra’s Ogilvie and Union train stations. A backlash erupted across social media as cell phone users and mobile bloggers captured the crowded scene.
“Downtown stations are very crowded,” Metra tweeted. “Please consider spending some time downtown enjoying all of what Chicago has to offer. Update to follow.”
Adding salt to the wound, this month brought commuters unexpected delays with sharp drops in temperature impacting equipment and causing mechanical problems on the train tracks. The cold, although extreme, was not unheard of for the Midwest, known for its rough winters.
Fortunately for Orseno, Metra had the foresight to approve a fare hike, before awarding him his raise, in November, to take effect in 2017.
Once implemented, the increase will raise passengers’ cost approximately 5.8 percent, with one-way adult fares jumping 25 cents, 10-ride passes going up by $2.75, and regular commuters about to pay an extra $11.75 for individual monthly passes.
This increase is the system’s third hike in as many years, and Metra considers it vital to its 2014 long-term plan, an upgrade encompassing a decade of improvements to the tune of $2.4 billion.
Based on the past year, however, Metra’s overall fiscal management may undermine the outlay. The organization spent approximately twice as much as it received in 2015, registering almost $350 million in losses before depreciation calculations.
Close to 81 million passengers regularly rely on the system. Analysts debated the wisdom of burdening the system’s middle- and working-class commuters, many of whom are already feeling the extreme pinch of Illinois’ famously disproportional property taxes, as well as fallout from other state-level financial problems.
“Instead … the Metra board should cut costs and reform its bad practices in order to run as efficiently and cost-effective as possible,” the Illinois Policy Institute said, suggesting that the board re-examine its priorities when it comes to outfitting executives. “This regressive raise in fares will come at the expense of people who can least afford it.”
Analysts also warned that Metra may be faced with dwindling ridership if Illinois’ living conditions don’t reverse course and begin to improve.
Taxpayers “have the option to vote with their feet if the price of bad government gets too high,” the Illinois Policy Institute’s Joe Kaiser said recently, explaining why public officials, including Metra’s board, should stop burdening taxpayers to compensate for budget oversights.
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