By Ben Joravsky

For the last few years Chris Cohen has been gently suggesting ways that RTA and Metra officials could run a better railroad.

And those officials have been just as gently telling Cohen thanks but no thanks.

It’s nothing personal, they say; Cohen’s a fine fellow and some of his ideas are swell, if a little impractical. It’s just that when it comes to running commuter railroads, well, better leave these things to the professionals.

Yet Cohen is relentless–he keeps coming back. They say no; he says why not? It’s like a little dance with railroad bureaucrats who seem to say no as a reflex. His latest proposition–linking CTA and Metra lines at six sites throughout the city, including both baseball parks–makes so much sense it might even prevail. “I have given myself a job without portfolio or paycheck,” says Cohen. “I have taken it upon myself to solve transit problems for the same and simple reason a mountain climber climbs a mountain–it’s there.”

It was Cohen’s father who taught him how public systems operate. In 1934, 21-year-old Wilbur Cohen went to Washington to work for FDR and the New Deal. He stayed there for much of his adult life, helping shape social security, medicare, and many other antipoverty programs as he rose through the ranks of the federal bureaucracy. (In 1967 President Johnson made Cohen secretary of HEW, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.) “My father started advocating for medicare in 1934, but it didn’t pass until 1965,” says Cohen. “I learned to take a long-range view of things. Around the dinner table we talked about getting things done in 30-year patterns.”

In 1967 Cohen, then 25 and just out of law school, moved to Chicago. By 1971 he was, of all things, an alderman. As he tells the story, the regulars were looking for a candidate who was “young, Jewish, and liberal–I guess I fit the bill.” With the regulars’ backing, he won about 60 percent of the vote and was elected alderman of the Uptown-based 46th Ward.

“I never really felt at home in the council,” says Cohen. “During my first year I voted with the regulars most of the time. However they got so ridiculous with some of the absurd positions they wanted us to take that I began to excuse myself. Eventually I began to vote against them on a number of issues–it was part of my metamorphosis, part of the transformation into what I am now. I remember an aide to the mayor telling me, ‘You’re not here as a legislator. There is no legislative branch in Chicago; the mayor brings in experts and captains of industry and they decide what the law will be and leave it to you to vote.’ I ran for reelection in 1975 but I wanted to get out.”

In 1977 President Carter appointed him midwest regional director of HEW. After Carter lost to Reagan, Cohen went to work for a large downtown law firm. He married, had a daughter, and in 1987 moved to Glencoe. That’s when he became a self-taught expert on commuter services, specifically Metra and the RTA. “You know what happened? I became a commuter and I started paying closer attention to Metra and its trains.”

It’s definitely a complicated relationship. He loves riding the trains and readily acknowledges that for the most part Metra does an outstanding job: the trains are clean, the conductors courteous, the service on time.

But it could all be improved. “I notice things,” he says. “Things that go wrong, things that could be better. I ask questions, I read, I want to know.” By the mid 90s he’d found allies in other commuters and train lovers (particularly Eugene Friedman, Alan Rubel, Saul Wexler, and Douglas Davidson). They rode the lines, inspected stations, examined budgets, read plans, studied the minutes of Metra’s board meetings, and began asking their questions. Why, for instance, were there signs at some stations and not at others? Why did some stops not have public phones? Why weren’t there more direct links between Metra and the CTA?

“There are six sites in the city where Metra lines pass close by CTA stops, but the Metra doesn’t have stops there so commuters can get off and make a connection,” he says. “For instance, it would make so much sense to put a Metra stop near each ballpark. And you can do it.”

At 35th Street, not far from White Sox park, the Rock Island line darts between two CTA stops as it shoots up from the southwest suburbs on its way into the Loop. Cohen suggests that Metra could run a White Sox express directly servicing the team’s rich southwest-side and suburban base. It could mean fewer cars on the expressway and more fans in the ballpark. At the very least it would offer a faster and more convenient trip for Sox fans who already ride the train. “Now commuters ride right past Sox park, stop at the downtown LaSalle Street station, and have to walk at least five blocks to the CTA, pay another fare, and come back on the elevated,” says Cohen. “Does this make sense? Is this logical?”

In addition, the new stop would be a convenience for students and teachers commuting to IIT and residents of the Robert Taylor Homes trying to get to suburban jobs.

“Metra also has a train line that runs from the North Shore crossing Addison at Ravenswood, which would be a perfect stop for North Shore fans going to Wrigley,” says Cohen. “The RTA and its service boards have already recognized the suburbanites who come on the Kennedy Expressway, park at the Belmont and Central public parking lot, and take CTA’s special Cubs buses east on Addison to Wrigley Field. Why not let suburbanites come south on the Union Pacific, get off closer at Addison and Ravenswood, and take the CTA’s 154 shuttle to the ballpark? Actually, this new stop would be close enough for people to walk to the park. Either way, it cuts down on Lakeview traffic.”

Convinced the stops made sense, he began making calls. According to Cohen, White Sox boss Jerry Reinsdorf basically told him that “the Sox would like it, but this is not our fight.” Cubs general manager Ed Lynch told him to talk to Mark McGuire, vice president for business, who told him that “we don’t want to use up any of our political chits trying for a Metra stop.” And Metra board chairman Jeffrey Ladd told him that it would cost too much to make the stations accessible to wheelchairs. “Ladd’s response was a perfect example of a public official saying no just to say no, so I would quit and go away,” says Cohen. “So I looked at where the Rock Island station would go at 35th and LaSalle and I concluded that there’s enough space to put ramps up to the station and you don’t have to build expensive elevators and escalators. Then I began looking at other recently renovated Metra stations and found that at Forest Glen they have a single ramp leading from parking lot to platform. In other words, they had done it without expensive elevators.”

By 1996 he was calling and writing midlevel officials of the RTA, which funds Metra, asking them to fund the stops. These RTA officials told Cohen he should talk to Metra; when he asked for the business addresses and phone numbers of RTA board members, they refused to provide them. So Cohen filed freedom of information requests seeking not only these listings but also an account of how much the board members “were reimbursed for travel, lodging, transportation, health insurance, and other benefits.” In other words, if they didn’t have the money to build stops in Chicago, where was the money being spent?

The RTA refused to provide him with any of that information on the grounds that “if disclosed [it] would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

So Cohen did a little research and rounded up the home addresses of President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and Illinois’ congressmen, as well as the business addresses and phone numbers of Chicago’s aldermen and Metra’s board members. “I thought it was odd that Metra gave out that information but the RTA did not,” says Cohen. “I mailed all these addresses to the RTA to let them know that in a democracy citizens should be able to contact their officials. Listen, if RTA’s board members don’t want to be public officials, they shouldn’t take $25,000 a year for sitting on the board.”

Meanwhile, Cohen and his allies were creating their opus, a 94-page memorandum to Metra’s executive director, Philip Pagano, that reads like a chronicle of Cohen’s greatest hits (or laments). For instance: Why isn’t there a Metra stop at the new DuPage County courthouse (there was one at the old courthouse)? Why does Metra run regular service to Ravinia for summer concerts but not to Comiskey Park or Wrigley Field, which draw far more people? What about the phones that still haven’t been installed on various platforms?

Metra spokesman Frank Malone says the agency can’t comment on the memo because officials haven’t had time to read it. “I think you will find that Metra likes a number of things Cohen proposes,” says Malone. “Other factors have to be considered. We don’t get a penny from the city. Questions of adding more stations in Chicago–and we already have roughly 30 percent of our stations within the city–raise funding issues.”

RTA officials say most of Cohen’s proposals are for Metra to decide. “We can’t tell PACE, the CTA, or Metra what to do,” says Chris Robling, an RTA spokesman. “We appreciate what Chris has to offer but these are Metra’s issues.”

Privately, many insiders think Cohen’s cause is hopeless. “Metra’s not really interested in expanding service in the city,” says one RTA insider. “They see their future in the suburbs. They’re more interested in expanding a route by 12 miles in Kane County than building a stop at Addison, no matter how much sense that idea may make.”

Indifference only hardens Cohen’s resolve: “Metra says it’s up to the RTA and the RTA says it’s up to Metra and nothing gets done. It’s a sandbox syndrome–each agency worries about its sandbox and that way no one gets in trouble. It’s so territorial, like one dog peeing in a square to keep the other dog out. Well, I’m not giving in to that. It may take a while, but I’m willing to work and wait. Remember, I’m the son of a man who took 30 years to get medicare.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chris Cohen photo by Terri Wiley Popp.