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updated: 7/16/2012 10:59 AM

What do you want? Tell Metra about it

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  • Want more train cars? Metra wants commuters like these at the Arlington Heights station on the UP Northwest Line to contribute to its strategic plan.

       Want more train cars? Metra wants commuters like these at the Arlington Heights station on the UP Northwest Line to contribute to its strategic plan.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • David Kralik, of the Metra Strategic Capital Planning group, talks with Glen Ellyn resident Chris Fiebig during an open house on Metra's new strategic plan Thursday in Glen Ellyn.

       David Kralik, of the Metra Strategic Capital Planning group, talks with Glen Ellyn resident Chris Fiebig during an open house on Metra's new strategic plan Thursday in Glen Ellyn.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

After completing Metra's online strategic plan survey, I feel all the better for it.

I angsted over prioritizing safety (want train to stay on tracks) versus efficiency (want train that's on time) versus "sustaining infrastructure for future generations" (want train to be around five years from now).

And I offered my wish list -- less shaking on the BNSF Line express and a train that goes to downtown Chicago at around 11 a.m.

But that's just me. You might want a station in your town, an express train during the morning rush or more night runs from the city to the suburbs.

This is your chance to comment either online or in a series of open houses this month.

It's empowering to tell Metra what to do but before you get too carried away, here's a reality check. The agency is facing a $5 billion-plus gap in funds simply to keep the system in a state of good repair.

That means replacing old cars, renewing tracks and renovating aging stations will get done before an Oswego or Marengo stop gets built.

So why fill out the survey?

"We need the most comprehensive list of projects across the system we can get," Metra CEO Alex Clifford said at a public hearing Thursday in Glen Ellyn.

"That list will get prioritized and we'll plug in the funding that we think will occur, and it will show the gaping holes where we need funding. The important thing is we will have a document. When I go to Springfield or Washington, D.C. (to ask lawmakers for funding), I can put a document across the table that says, 'We have a plan. We surveyed the entire six-county region -- here's what we need and here's where the holes are.'"

You can insert your own joke about Congress' or Illinois' budget crises, but Metra has a point. At least now, we'll know exactly what priorities we can't afford.

You also can cast your vote on the agency's vision and mission. And yes, before your eyes glaze over, this is needed.

"It's the strategy of where the agency moves (next) and how it prioritizes projects and what projects it then invests in," senior director of strategic planning Lynette Ciavarella said. "So, it's important to get feedback on our mission and vision so we're all talking about the same thing."

I am old enough to remember 2003 when the STAR line -- the ambitious commuter rail system on I-90 and the EJ&E Railway -- seemed just a few years and a few billion dollars away. The I-90 portion would run from O'Hare/Rosemont to Hoffman Estates; the EJ&E section would continue through Naperville to Joliet.

Oh, 2003. It's a different economy now.

It took Congress more than two years to pass a frugal two-year transportation funding bill in June, allocating only $500 million for projects like the STAR line that all 50 states will fiercely compete for. Instead of the heady days when the feds paid 80 percent of the bills for transportation construction, it's now a 50-50 split. And the days of juicy earmarks for pet projects are gone.

That doesn't mean the STAR line is dead, Clifford said. But it will be evaluated along with other projects dear to specific towns and counties in the region.

McHenry County is begging for additional stations. The south suburbs want more service. Folks on the North Central Service line would like trains on weekends. And Oswego is lobbying for the BNSF to extend out to Kendall County, which isn't in Metra's coverage area.

All the more reason you should tell Metra what's important to you.

"We are not constraining what people can share with us," chief communications officer Robert Carlton said.

At the Glen Ellyn open house, fellow BNSF commuter and Naperville resident Myron Sawyer is pretty satisfied with service. But "there's a blank spot in the middle of the day where they could put another train in," he said.

Glen Ellyn planning intern Dan Dickerson commutes from Chicago to the suburbs. The survey is "a great opportunity to push Metra for more service," he said, explaining that additional trains will help the village attract businesses to locate in its downtown.

To participate in the online survey, visit https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PublicPlan2012. The deadline to comment is Aug. 8.

And please share your wish list with me at All events are 4 to 7 p.m.

Gridlock alert

Lake County drivers, brace yourselves. IDOT is replacing the traffic signals at Route 22 (aka Half Day Road) and Hewitt Drive in Lincolnshire starting Wednesday. Expect lane closures and traffic snarls until completion Oct. 1. For more info on other IDOT road work, check out ">mpyke@dailyherald.com;[/URL].

Upcoming

Want to give your two cents in person? Here's where and when the next Metra public hearings are: Tuesday at the Libertyville Village Hall, 118 W. Cook Ave; Wednesday at the Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave.; July 24 at the Crystal Lake City Hall, 100 W. Woodstock St.http://www.dot.state.il.us/projects.html#District_1;Your voice

Mike Balogh of Palatine weighed in on a recent column about how much revenue each toll road produces. (To recap -- the Tri-State Tollway was the winner hands-down but the agency did not provide operating costs for each road.) He writes:

"I believe you have oversimplified figuring out the cost of operating a toll road in your column. Operating costs are affected by many factors including traffic volume, type of road surface, number of bridges and grading. Likewise the amount of tolls collected are a product of the number of miles driven on each road. These factors must be taken into account if you are trying to make sense of the system.

"I would be surprised if the tollway system doesn't really know how much is spent to maintain each road. I believe they do not want to publicize those figures."

One more thing

IDOT is hoping to curb traffic fatalities by posting daily counts on its digital message boards across state highways. The message boards are usually reserved for Amber Alerts or traffic accident information. Crash deaths jumped this year to 479 as of July 5 compared to 418 a year ago.

Final word

The world of those who actually know how railroads work is a small one and that's why Metra officials gave an especially fond farewell to George Hardwidge, 64, this month. The agency's deputy executive director is retiring after 47 years in the industry, including 26 years at Metra.

"I'm an old-school railroader," Hardwidge said. "Railroading is in my blood."

Sounds like it. Both grandfathers were conductors -- one on the CTA and another in St. Louis, and his father and uncle worked on the Rock Island train line.

"I've always believed in commuter rail," he said. "What we do well, we do better than any other mode of transportation. But commuter rail can't be all things to all people."">.

You should know

Changes are in store for O'Hare International Airport with United Airlines shelling out millions to add new routes and upgrades. The airline is phasing in service to: Jackson, Miss., Nov. 4; Monterrey, Mexico, Dec. 19; Nassau, Bahamas, Dec. 19

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