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Monday, September 13, 2010

Illinois' woes put Metra's plans at risk

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February 14, 2001  Illinois' ongoing financial crisis could thwart plans to expand the Metra line that runs through McHenry County, Ill., the Northwest Herald reports. About $29 million in federal funding has been earmarked to pay for the next step in improving the Union Pacific Northwest line and three other commuter rail projects. But unless the state can match those funds dollar for dollar, Metra will lose access to the money.


"We need a financial plan that has a commitment in place," said Mike Gillis, a Metra spokesman. "It will be a challenge."

The other catch? The federal appropriations expire Sept. 30.

Gillis said Metra was working with Sen. Dick Durbin to have the appropriations extended. If they aren't, Metra will have to reapply for the money.

In either situation, the state must be able to provide matching support for the project - which adds Metra to the long line of public agencies waiting for Springfield to get its act together.

In terms of ridership, the UP-Northwest is the second most popular of all Metra's commuter lines. Only the BNSF line has more riders.

The UP-Northwest line currently runs from Chicago to Harvard, with McHenry County stops in Fox River Grove, Cary, Crystal Lake, McHenry and Woodstock. Metra hopes to build three new stations to serve Prairie Grove, Ridgefield and Johnsburg, as well as add two new coach yard facilities in Woodstock and Johnsburg to allow for more train capacity and expanded service.

About $7.2 million of the federal appropriations funds would have covered the cost of preliminary engineering for the UP-Northwest improvements. The total cost of the UP-Northwest project is estimated at $530 million, Gillis said.

Both Johnsburg and Prairie Grove already have begun incorporating the new Metra stations into their long-range plans.

Johnsburg recently asked the state Legislature for eminent domain powers so the village could turn over the land needed for a station if the line does get extended north from McHenry. To serve Johnsburg, the McHenry branch of the UP-Northwest line would be extended 1.6 miles north.

And in June, the Prairie Grove Village Board approved a long-range town center plan for the area where the station would be built. The plan, which was paid for by a $118,000 grant from the Regional Transportation Authority, suggested single-family houses, office space, and small retail stores be built around the proposed station area.

Prairie Grove Village Administrator Jeannine Smith said the financial snag was disappointing.

"It's disconcerting that the state is in financial trouble, period," Smith said.

She said she was hopeful that the project would move ahead - especially because adding a stop in Prairie Grove would not require as much infrastructure work as adding a stop in Johnsburg, and residents from Prairie Grove and the surrounding communities have expressed excitement about the station.

"As far as Prairie Grove is concerned, the line currently exists. They don't have to put down any tracks," Smith said. "Metra's role is to place a platform at the planned location."

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