Metra resumes BNSF extension plans; seeks $3M for PTC

Written by Jenifer Nunez, assistant editor
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Chicago's Metra is resuming work on engineering and environmental studies to extend the BNSF Line past Aurora in Kendall County, after local officials said they strongly supported the planning work despite the challenges of securing funding to build and operate the extension.


After local elected officials secured $7.5 million in federal funding in the mid-2000s, Metra initiated preliminary engineering and environmental assessment studies on the proposed BNSF extension from Aurora toward Montgomery, Oswego, Yorkville and possibly Plano and Sandwich. The goal of those studies is to determine the costs and potential environmental impacts of the project so that local stakeholders in Kendall County can determine if and how they will secure the necessary capital and operating funding needed to move the project forward.

Metra suspended the studies in June 2015 to determine if there was consensus among local officials to spend the remaining $6.6 million in planning and design funds on the unfunded railroad extension rather than other infrastructure needs in the area, given Metra’s inability to fund construction of the project due to its $11.7 billion in state of good repair needs over the next decade. An order of magnitude estimate indicates the BNSF extension could cost more than $200 million.

Local leaders recently indicated that there was consensus to continue the engineering and environmental studies for the project that would require the creation of an additional dedicated funding stream provided for by Kendall County residents to cover the remaining costs of the extension.

“I am impressed by the deliberate and thoughtful way the leaders of Kendall County came together to show their support for the extension of the BNSF extension,” said Metra Chairman Martin Oberman. “They clearly understand the financial demands that will be facing them and I look forward to working with them in the future.”

“We are humbled that local officials are so convinced of the value of Metra service that they are willing to take on this challenge,” said Metra Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Don Orseno. “We thank Senator Kirk and Congressmen Hultgren and Foster for their leadership and support of this project.”

Now that work is resuming, the two studies are expected to be completed in about 18-24 months.

Additionally, Metra said it applied for a federal grant to help the railroad fund a $3.7-million disaster recovery system for its Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system.

PTC is expected to cost Metra more than $350 million to implement. In addition, PTC is expected to add $15 million to $20 million annually to Metra’s operating costs.

“Nationally, the cost to carry out the PTC mandate is estimated to exceed $10 billion, including $3.48 billion for commuter railroads,” said Orseno. “We will continue to look for new revenue sources to help pay for this complex system as we plan for full implementation of PTC by 2019 or sooner.”

Metra has so far allocated $187 million in capital funding toward PTC. Metra is counting on additional state and federal funds to provide the remaining funding needed to complete PTC. Also, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act authorizes $199 million in fiscal year 2017 to assist in financing the installation of PTC.

Metra plans to house its disaster recovery system at its Kensington Yard facility on Chicago’s south side. It will run simultaneously with the primary PTC server system and will allow trains to continue operating throughout the Chicago region in the event that the primary server system fails or requires maintenance. In addition to providing a fail-safe operating capability for PTC technology for Metra’s entire rail system, the project will lay the groundwork for Metra to eventually establish a second, fully redundant dispatching center.

The grant is being sought through the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Safety Technology grant program. This program was established through the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 to facilitate the deployment railroad safety technologies. For 2016, the FRA has limited eligible projects to those that implement a PTC system or will otherwise benefit overall PTC system implementation. Under this program, projects receiving grants will have up to 80 percent of costs covered and require a 20 percent local funding match. Metra is requesting $3 million in grant funding and has identified $750,000 in local matching funds for the project.