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

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."