Plans to install Wi-Fi in Metra train cars hit a $72 million roadblock Thursday with officials experiencing sticker shock regarding what had been intended as a free service.
Board members asked staff planners to come back with ideas for sponsors and advertising to offset projected costs ranging from $3.1 million for a six-month pilot project on the Rock Island Line to $72 million over five years on the entire system.
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The Wi-Fi idea has been floating around since at least 2011 when officials sought bids from companies to undertake the project at no cost to the agency.
But with no viable free offer forthcoming, the agency this January hired consultants Xentrans for up to $250,000 to advise the board on getting the Wi-Fi project back on track.
"My impression was that this would be cost-neutral," Director Mike McCoy of Aurora said during a committee meeting. "Now I see $3 million for a pilot project -- I'm taken aback."
Director Norman Carlson of Lake Forest asked staff members to "build a business case" for Wi-Fi and evaluate where it fits on Metra's priorities. The agency needs about $7 billion in the next 10 years for infrastructure like tracks and equipment but is $5 billion short.
An estimate of "$72 million brings out the Luddite in me," board Director William Widmer of Evanston said.
Executive Director Alex Clifford told board directors that Wi-Fi was something customers said they wanted and it's an idea backed by Gov. Pat Quinn.
However, administrators also acknowledged there's a concern that technological advances could render the Wi-Fi service obsolete within a few years.
An alternative to Wi-Fi the agency will explore involves getting sponsorships for an air card that could be tied in with monthly pass purchases.
The expense projections came the same day financial analysts told board directors passenger revenues for the first quarter were $73.5 million -- 6 percent below budget projections of $77.4 million.
The Wi-Fi issue will be reviewed by the full board later this month.