Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Funding keeps Metra in neutral

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Two planned Metra stations could transform neighborhoods on Chicago's South and North Sides -- spurring economic development, curbing carbon emissions and making it just plain easier for residents to choose public transportation, proponents say, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. But when that vision will become reality is uncertain.

Metra officials say state money must be in hand before preliminary engineering work can begin on planned stations at 79th Street on the Rock Island District line and Peterson and Ridge avenues on the Union Pacific North line. The state is paying for the new construction, while also rebuilding and repairing more than two dozen other stations, with $136 million from its public works program.

Once construction starts, it would be two to three years before the new stations would open. But that timeline is "contingent on getting state money. It could be delayed," said Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile.

Money for the projects has been approved but depends on the sale of general obligation bonds, which will occur early in 2010. Even then, the money will not come as one lump sum and state transportation officials will determine which projects get priority. They could not be reached to explain how the projects will be prioritized.

"My concern is I don't want them to run out of money and everyone else's project is funded and we run into another economic downturn," said state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, whose district would house the 79th Street station. "Can they guarantee my project is a priority?"

Collins and community leaders have pushed for the new Metra station at 79th Street in the Auburn Gresham community as part of an effort to revitalize the once-vibrant business thoroughfare. They see the Metra station as an anchor that would usher in new businesses and boost employment opportunities for residents. Though vacant lots remain, new businesses are sprouting up along 79th Street, a dense and bustling artery that is the Chicago Transit Authority's busiest route -- almost 35,000 riders board on weekdays.

Many of those bus riders might instead ride Metra, which would reduce environmentally unfriendly bus traffic, said Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. Professionals who drive to work downtown also could opt for the train, he said.

"There are few Metra stations in the South Side communities," said Nelson, who provided Metra officials with a needs assessment in 2004.

Metra trains leaving the LaSalle Street station downtown don't stop until 87th Street.

"That's more than 10 miles of no stops into the Loop," Nelson said. "That just doesn't make sense. The demand is definitely there."

Metra officials were unable to provide ridership projections for the two planned stations, citing thin staffing during the holiday week. Reile, the Metra spokeswoman, said the sites on the South and North Sides were selected because "they are what we see as gaps in service." Both sites had stations in the past.

Lobbying by elected officials played a large role in making those areas a priority for new stations, Reile said.

Metra will spend $11.5 million on the 79th Street station and $5 million on the station at Peterson and Ridge. The money will pay for engineering costs and basic station construction such as platforms and stairways. Elected officials must find money for any enhancements like parking or a nicer station building.

Collins plans to ask for $10 million in federal funds for an enclosed station through U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill.

On the North Side, state Rep. Harry Osterman, D-Chicago, said an additional $10 million from the state capital bill should suffice for now. He wants the station at Peterson and Ridge avenues to have ample parking and a design that's "a nice fit for the community."

The station would be an added stop on the Union Pacific North line that runs from downtown Chicago to Kenosha, Wis. It would help ease heavy traffic between the city and suburbs, especially the bottleneck at Ridge, said Osterman, who has advocated for a new station for at least five years.

New stations can attract new businesses and help reduce traffic congestion, said Douglas Ferguson, senior transportation policy analyst for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which is not involved in the Metra projects.

Denise Nicholes, co-owner of Perfect Peace Cafe & Bakery in Auburn Gresham, looks forward to a Metra station on 79th Street. Since opening in 2007, business has been slow because of the poor economy.

"I think that would be great," she said. "We really do need one. It may even bring more passengers to Metra because it would be more convenient."

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