Monday, December 07, 2009

Chicago area Metra on track to rehab, rebuild dozens of stations

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Lattes flow for commuters at Tinley Park's $5-million Metra station, an architectural gem. But the only thing flowing at Cicero's dreary train stop is the rainwater that blows through the corrugated-metal shelter, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"A lot of people are understandably upset with the way this place is now," said commuter Merrill Shepro, 56, of Cicero, as he recently waited at the open-faced structure. "With that [wall] being open, when it rains, the benches get all wet and you can't sit on them. That's just one of many problems."

But that will change next year when Metra is expected to rebuild Cicero's platforms and decrepit shelters, at an anticipated cost of $6.5 million. The project is part of a $136-million, state-funded public works program that includes three new Metra stations and rehabbing 24 dilapidated facilities.

Metra has more than 230 stations serving about 315,000 daily riders. Some, like the one in Tinley Park, are Taj Mahals, while others are transit tenements.

The improvements, some long overdue, are needed to build ridership at a time when fares are increasing while revenues are dropping because of the slack economy, Metra says.

"We don't want to go back to the bad old days, the days of Metra's inception, when the system was in such a deteriorated condition ... that it affects service and ultimately costs more to run the railroad," Metra Chairwoman Carole Doris said.

The Cicero station served as a poster child for decay last April when transportation officials toured it as they lobbied legislators to approve the public works program. Cicero and Metra officials have talked for years about fixing the open-air shelter. But the only work done so far -- replacing some rusty metal from the wall with plywood -- has made things worse by opening the platform to the elements, commuters said.

Cicero commuters aren't going to get a fancy station, even though the project will cost $1.5 million more than Tinley Park's.

Metra says one reason the Cicero project is so expensive is because an access tunnel and ramp need to be rebuilt to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, the work, expected to take 18 months, will be particularly complicated by the nearness of one platform to a freight railroad yard.

Other Metra stations due for a rehab include several along the Electric District line that are as dilapidated as the one in Cicero. Crumbling concrete abounds on platforms at Hazel Crest, Flossmoor and Calumet.

Meanwhile, two historically significant stations on Chicago's South Side, at 91st Street in Beverly and at 115th Street in Morgan Park, will be restored at a cost of $8 million each. Dating to the 1890s, both were built for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway. The Queen Anne-style buildings have been stripped of their original exteriors over the years, according to rail historians.

All three new stations are needed to meet increasing commuter demand and fill service gaps, Metra says. Metra provides money for the basic cost, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said. The amenities at each station are generally determined by ridership and by the communities themselves.

One will be built in Romeoville on the Heritage Corridor line, with $2 million coming from the public works program. The fast-growing community long has sought a station, Gillis said.

Another station, with $11.5 million coming from the program, will grace the Rock Island line in the South Side's Auburn Park neighborhood. Auburn Park is currently bypassed by trains that run nonstop between Gresham and downtown.

The third new facility will be built on the North Side at Peterson/Ridge avenues on the Union Pacific North line with $5 million from the program. The station is intended to relieve crowding at the Rogers Park and Ravenswood stations, Metra said.

In Flossmoor, Metra will spend $5 million to rebuild platforms and shelters.

Apart from the state program, federal stimulus money is being used on two other stations, one of them a $5 million project to rehab Winnetka's station on the Union Pacific North line.

Construction recently began on a new Bronzeville station at 35th Street on the Rock Island line, work funded through a combination of $6.8 million in stimulus money and $4.9 million in other federal funds.

Local funds played a large part in building the Oak Park Avenue station in Tinley Park in 2003. The station includes a coffeehouse and a three-story clock tower. Tinley Park officials hope to outdo themselves by building an even fancier station at 80th Avenue at a potential cost of $8 million. The facility would include a clock tower as well as a full-service kitchen for a restaurant, an Internet cafe and a great hall.

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