Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rockford, Ill., officials seek commuter trains

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Rockford, Ill., area officials pushing to bring commuter train service Metra to Winnebago County are using Amtrak to help deliver the service – and their efforts threaten to derail DeKalb County’s bid for passenger rail service, according to the Northwest Herald.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is seeking to restore Amtrak service from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa, by way of Rockford. Two routes are being considered: One would follow the Canadian National rail line and make a stop in Genoa, and the other would utilize a northern route along the Union Pacific rail line and stop in Belvidere. A 2007 Amtrak study looked at four routes and found that using the Canadian National rail line through Genoa would be the fastest and had the greatest potential ridership. At $32.3 million to get it in shape, it’s estimated to be $11.5 million less than going through Belvidere, with an annual operating expense $300,000 less than the northern route.

Stephen Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning, argues that the Amtrak study is skewed to some extent because the cost estimates for the Belvidere route includes $8.7 million in contingencies, while the Genoa route includes none. He said IDOT officials told him that was because they already negotiated the cost with Canadian National.

DeKalb County officials were caught off guard in April when an IDOT official reportedly said the Belvidere route had been chosen. Officials in Winnebago and Boone counties long have been considering the Union Pacific route for commuter rail service: A feasibility study done in 2002 led to the formation of the Northern Illinois Commuter Transportation Initiative. In 2008, as part of an alternatives analysis study, that group selected the Union Pacific route its Locally Preferred Alternative, a decision that was required before they could take the project further.

Amtrak released the findings of its study at about the same time. NICTI was within two months of selecting their LPA when the Amtrak study was released, Ernst said. Once Ernst had the data, he and other Rockford-area officials believed that they had good arguments to advocate for the Belvidere route. Support was enlisted from officials in Boone, Winnebago, McHenry and Stephenson counties, and after at least two meetings where Ernst said representatives from the entire study area were included, the message was given to IDOT that Belvidere was the preferred route.

But Genoa City Manager Joe Misurelli said there was little uncertainty as to the route. The primary question was funding the project. Misurelli said one of the positive features of the Genoa route was that there only were two rail lines used – Canadian National and Amtrak – as opposed to four for the Belvidere route – Amtrak, Metra, Union Pacific and Canadian National. But the primary argument Rockford officials use for the Belvidere route is to leverage its use for both passenger and commuter rail.

“If you just look at Amtrak investment, the routes are roughly the same,” Ernst said. “But when you add the additional investments that’s going to be made in the next couple of years for commuter service, then there’s no comparison.”

A report issued by RMAP in December calls passenger rail the “top regional priority” for the Rockford region. It calls for bringing Amtrak’s once-a-day round trip passenger train into Rockford along the same route as a Metra train coming through about seven times daily.

A RMAP report estimated the capital cost of bringing both passenger and commuter rail to Rockford at $247 million, although Ernst said that had been trimmed to $200 million. Of that, $65 million is targeted for physical upgrades to the rail track and its surroundings, and $30 million of that could come from Amtrak if the Belvidere route is chosen. Another $26 million is targeted for commuter stations in downtown Rockford, Rockford’s east side, Huntley and Marengo.

“If we could combine the rail stations for Amtrak with rail stations for commuter, we don’t have to build two stations,” he said. “You start to see how the money gets leveraged as we move toward full-blown commuter service.”

Still, Misurelli is skeptical that the region could come up with the money for commuter service, let alone the annual operating costs, which RMAP estimates to be $10 million.

Ernst said he was confident the capital costs could be paid for largely through the state capital project and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as programs through the Federal Transportation Administration. He also was hoping for a Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recover grant, stimulus funding intended for areas in economic distress.

Although neither Boone nor Winnebago counties is part of the Regional Transportation Authority that runs Metra, Ernst said officials would seek a contractual service with Metra and raise funds locally to pay operating expenses.

Ernst said he asked state Sen. Brad Burzynski, R-Rochelle, to take the lead in getting Rockford and DeKalb County officials together to try to find a consensus. But he realizes that might be difficult.

“There may not be any common ground, and we may agree that we both have opinions that need to be advocated for, and somebody at the state of Illinois will have to make a decision,” he said. “If it’s Genoa, we won’t be happy, but we’ll be supportive.”

Misurelli said he was glad to have a shot at what once seemed to practically be a done deal.

“The consensus was Canadian National, and there’s no support in this area to change that,” he said. “It’s better in terms of cost, ridership and everything else. Hopefully, that understanding will be reached.”
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