Funding gap big obstacle in train crash prevention

As they contemplate a multimillion-dollar shortfall for crash-prevention technology, Metra leaders are taking some comfort that the agency isn’t alone.

And there may be strength in numbers when it comes to persuading Congress to extend a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline to install Positive Train Control systems in trains and to provide cash for what officials call an unfunded mandate.

Next week, Metra administrators will meet with other transit agency executives from the East Coast to coordinate strategy for a looming problem.

In 2008, Congress required all major freight roads and commuter rail organizations to add the new technology, which overrides engineers and stops trains when a collision appears imminent. The legislative action occurred after a commuter train disaster in California caused by an inattentive engineer killed 28 people.

But it’s also expensive. Positive Train Control will cost freight railroads about $7 billion, and Metra estimates it will pay about $214 million. Although the state of Illinois will provide a majority of the funds, a $77 million shortfall is anticipated, Chief Engineering Officer Joe Lorinzini said. Metra also is unlikely to complete the transition until 2016, he added.

But working together with its sister agencies, perhaps Metra can bend the ears of lawmakers, officials agreed at a Friday meeting.

Metra also aims to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to provide the radio frequency required for the system to public agencies for free. That move would save about $5 million.

But as far as any federal grants go, one board director was pessimistic. “I don’t see any money coming,” Director Jack Schaffer of Cary said.

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