In the same week that brought a preventable Amtrak crash and cuts to federal transit funding, Metra officials approved spending half a million to study an expansion of its BNSF Line into Oswego that may never happen.
Sound paradoxical? Wait, there's more.
Numerous drivers in Kendall County understandably would prefer to take Metra to work in Chicago than spend hours a day commuting. Trouble is they're outside of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, where a sales tax is levied to subsidize Metra, Pace and the CTA.
That means the burden of coming up with millions to build new stations, a rail yard and more -- plus cover daily operating expenses -- is all on Kendall County.
Yet there's no official consensus or guarantee from local mayors or county leaders that Kendall will find the money.
The current Metra board didn't instigate the Oswego project. It goes way back to before the Highway Trust Fund was broke and earmarks were taboo.
During the mid-2000s, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Kendall County clouted an earmark worth about $7.5 million for engineering studies and sent it Metra's way.
Fast forward to 2015. Consultants have burned through $2.26 million of the pie and the project now stretches to Yorkville, with Plano and Sandwich wanting a piece of the action, too. Metra's BNSF Line currently ends in Aurora.
The Metra's board vote to hire more consultants May 15 puts the total expended to nearly $3 million.
Apparently $4 million-plus is still available to assess what could be a train to nowhere.
The spending comes at a time when Metra is so cash-strapped it's put all service expansions in the six-county area on hold. In fact, the agency raised fares to update its trains and help pay for an automatic braking system known as Positive Train Control that triggers when a crash is imminent. Metra won't meet a Dec. 31 deadline to install the system partly because the $300 million to $400 million to pay for it is lacking.
NTSB investigators think the braking system could have prevented a fatal Amtrak derailment May 12 in Philadelphia.
That same week, a U.S. House committee moved to slash funding for Amtrak and mass transit grants.
So, a chunk of cash is already gone on the Kendall extension. But with millions still in play, should officials, at a time of austerity, spend money on a project that may never materialize?
"It's a perfectly legitimate question to raise," Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said.
Up until now, conventional wisdom at the agency has been (a) it's not Metra or RTA money being spent, (b) if we don't use it another transit agency will receive it and (c) getting federal bureaucrats to change an earmark is impossible.
Oberman, who's been with Metra a year and eight months, promised he'll look into the issue.
It's true that "this was money that Kendall County petitioned their congressman to get from the federal government for a specific purpose and the purpose was to look at expanding mass transit" in Kendall County, Oberman said.
Yet, "in the real world, when is it likely Kendall County will come up with the funding to enable us to do that? It seems very far down the road," he added.
Looking for a cheerleader for the project, I contacted Kendall County Chairman John Shaw and asked: (a) where the county stands on the project, (b) if anything has changed since it voted in support of the idea a few years ago and (c) if the board and residents would be willing to pay an RTA sales tax.
Shaw emailed back, "This has not been in front of us since 'a few years ago.'"
What do you think? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
My mailbox overfloweth with your pet peeves about other drivers after last week's column.
Glen Gast of Elgin writes, "I drive 50 to 100 miles a day and conservatively at least one-third of drivers are using a hand-held phone. Please, someone, raise the fine to the same amount as parking in a handicap space ($375) and enforce it."
Marilyn Furer of Mount Prospect waits her turn in construction when instructed to "merge into one line." She fumes when "people who think they are the president and don't have to wait in line like the rest of us, zoom past to cut in at the beginning. To stop this continuous stream of cars, I pull halfway into the other lane. Sometimes other drivers behind me get the idea and begin staggering their cars also. It works."
Fun for gear-heads
Get your fix of hybrids, electrics and alternative fuels from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at Chicago Area Clean Cities Green Drive$ Conference and Expo at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton. The event is free to the public. Highlights include auto executives talking advanced-propulsion technology and the latest eco-friendly cars and trucks, including the VW Golf TDI diesel, BMW i3, Toyota Prius V and C, and Honda Accord and Civic hybrids. You can test drive some models between noon and 1:30 p.m. Registration is required. To find out more, go to chicagocleancities.org.
• If you're heading north on I-55, it will get even harder to exit onto Route 30 this week. IDOT's downsizing the left-turn lanes from two to one as it patches concrete.
• Plan your route in advance if you drive through the Loop this summer. Lane closures on Washington Street now extend from Wacker Drive to State Street and lanes also are reduced on Madison Street from Michigan Avenue to Wacker Drive.