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The Illinois Commerce Commission receives $39 million a year for railroad crossing safety improvements on local roads.
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It's not nearly enough, experts say.
About $115 million in requests for funding from towns and counties wanting to fix problem crossings is left out of the ICC's latest five-year plan.
That revenue gap plays out amid a persistent toll of death, injury and damage across Chicago and the suburbs, where 9.5 million people and 1,200 trains a day coexist.
The deadly numbers give rise to questions about funding and fairness. For example, millions of dollars are being poured into sophisticated gates for high-speed rail downstate while the metropolitan region lags behind.
Meanwhile, a look at suburban crossings shows an inconsistent picture. While one town might boast a $60 million grade separation, neighboring municipalities get by with more minimal protections.
Despite the hurdles, some communities are beating the funding odds with creative engineering solutions and persistence.
A Daily Herald analysis found a total of 641 railway incidents occurred in the six-county Chicago area between 2006 and 2011, including vehicle-train collisions, pedestrian fatalities and suicides. The numbers equate to three deaths a month and at least two incidents a week.
To reverse the trend, safety advocates look to engineering solutions they say could keep vehicles and people away from moving trains.
• Quad gates that keep people from driving around barriers at crossings
• Pedestrian tunnels or overpasses
• Closing crossings
• Another Train Warning Systems, which alert pedestrians with lights and sounds when a second train approaches while one is at the station.
Finding the money for prevention is elusive in a post-recession era when municipalities are scrambling to pay the bills, state dollars have dried up and Congress has yet to approve a long-term transportation funding bill because of partisan bickering.
Since the start of the recession, many see solutions such as tunnels or overpasses "as an unaffordable luxury," DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman said.
Under the most recent, two-year federal funding bill, the Illinois Department of Transportation will receive about $10 million annually for railway crossing safety. To put that in perspective, one quad gate can cost at least $400,000 to $500,000, a pedestrian tunnel built in Winfield in 2010 came to about $4 million, and a recent underpass in Downers Grove totaled about $60 million. Even basic pedestrian gates at stations can cost from $40,000 to $50,000.
Ten million dollars "is not a very big number -- obviously there is more work that needs to be done than federal funding can pay for," said Congressman Dan Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat who sits on the House Transportation Committee.
One area where federal dollars are forthcoming is downstate for Illinois' high-speed rail project between Chicago and St. Louis.
About $117 million is budgeted to pay for 247 quad gates on the high-speed rail route between Joliet and East St. Louis. Supporters say it's necessary to protect the public at rural crossings where high-speed trains will travel at up to 110 mph.
Others argue the money would be better spent in the metropolitan area protecting the population from commuter and freight trains.
Lipinski backs high-speed rail but said, "In general, I'm always in favor of more funding being spent in northeastern Illinois where the greater population is."
From the state perspective, funding for transportation from gas taxes is declining as people use more efficient vehicles, IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider said, adding that rising pension costs for state employees are cutting into revenues to the tune of $184.6 million in 2014.
"(Pensions) are eating away at what we're able to do," Schneider said.
On the private-sector side, railroads are having to divert a large chunk of their safety improvement dollars to Positive Train Control, a system using technology to warn engineers when a collision is imminent and if necessary override manual controls.
The new system, which Congress has mandated must be in place by Dec. 31, 2015, is estimated to cost about $5.2 billion nationwide for freight and commuter railroads. For example, the Canadian National Railroad will pay $220 million and Metra is expected to expend a similar amount.
Industry experts also explain that while it makes sense for railroads to pay for safer crossings, there's a flip side, since improvements at one location will lead to cries for similar upgrades at others.
Locally, while municipalities may want safer crossings, many don't have the deep pockets to pony up matching funds, let alone pay for improvements independently.
"Everyone understands the need to do them, but the lack of funding is a major detriment," ICC Rail Safety Program Administrator Michael Stead said.
That means common-sense solutions turn into sagas, as was the case in Winfield.
It took years of pleas from children and officials beating the bushes for grants before the village finally opened a pedestrian underpass in 2010.
The effort to build the $4 million tunnel gained momentum in 2004 when a student died crossing the tracks in downtown Winfield late that year and classmates started a letter-writing campaign. The high-priced project caused political friction, as well.
"The debate was whether the village needed to pay a significant portion," Village Manager Kurt Barrett said.
Eventually, separate grants from the federal and state governments along with Union Pacific and Central DuPage Hospital paid for 100 percent of the tunnel.
Meanwhile, in Lake Forest, where a Grayslake woman died in 2009 at a mid-platform pedestrian crossing, the village is working with leaders including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to secure the cash to construct a $4.5 million to $5.5 million pedestrian underpass.
Lake Forest Village Manager Bob Kiely said the village has $2 million in hand, but the remainder is a question mark.
In Villa Park, leaders say they appreciate a joint Metra and Union Pacific collaboration that resulted in pedestrian gates and an Another Train Warning System at its Metra station. But just a few stops to the west, Lombard will get a pedestrian underpass and Wheaton a pedestrian overpass in 2014 as part of the project.
UP officials said each station was assessed independently for safety needs in 2007-2008, which resulted in the upgrade plan.
"We were pleased to get the upgrades," said outgoing Villa Park Mayor Tom Cullerton, who will take a seat in the Illinois Senate in January.
But "we would have loved a pedestrian underpass and a bike underpass over by the Salt Creek Greenway Trail. Obviously, the village doesn't have the funds to accomplish that and neither does UP or the ICC."