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updated: 1/18/2012 5:50 PM

Do fast buses on I-90 mean falling STAR line?

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Bus rapid transit along I-90 could be combined with plans for an express lane, but first it will cost $782,226 to study the concept.

The Illinois tollway and Regional Transportation Authority Wednesday jointly authorized sharing costs of the study to be led by Delcan Corp., a global company with offices in Schaumburg.

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The consultants will look at options for buses running between O'Hare International Airport and Rockford, analyze potential ridership, and also explore how to integrate passenger cars onto the express lanes and at what cost.

The idea would be to mesh bus rapid transit with the widening of I-90, which is part of the tollway's $12 billion new construction program.

The focus on bus rapid transit might seem to sound a death knell for the STAR line, a proposed suburb-to-suburb commuter rail system. The STAR line would have connected points such as O'Hare, Hoffman Estates and Joliet using the former EJ&E tracks, now owned by the Canadian National Railroad.

With almost no money for major transportation projects or for transit trickling out of Washington or Springfield, funding for the STAR line seems a remote possibility while the express buses offer a much less expensive prospect. Past estimates for the STAR line have come in at more than $1.2 billion.

RTA officials said the study doesn't preclude the STAR line, although as Metra wraps up an analysis of the project "there are no plans for taking the project further," agency senior deputy executive director Leanne Redden said, adding the lack of funding put up major roadblocks.

However, "assuming the economy gets better, you could put light rail there, although it's a long way off," RTA Board Director William Coulson of Glenview said.

A federal grant of $528,840 will cover the majority of study costs for bus rapid transit.

It's unclear right now what the eventual I-90 express lanes will consist of. Options include a carpool lane in which vehicles with more than one occupant would pay a lower toll or a congestion-priced lane in which drivers would pay a premium to use it during peak travel times in exchange for a guaranteed faster trip.

The lanes would be shared with the express buses.

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