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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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