Is spending millions to extend Metra to Oswego needed -- or a 'complete waste'?
It's been seen as a train to nowhere, but a proposal to extend the Metra BNSF Line from Aurora to Kendall County is gaining momentum.
Last month, the commuter railroad allocated $4.5 million in federal funds to study stretching the BNSF Line to Oswego and other towns while Gov. J.B. Pritzker's capital program -- which passed this weekend -- allocates $100 million for Metra expansion into Kendall County.
The idea of spending millions pushing Metra past the six-county Regional Transportation Authority border while riders on existing lines endure crowded trains has some fuming.
"From what I understand, Metra has no way of ever funding the extension of service, so this is a complete waste of money," Sugar Grove Village President Sean Michels said.
Oswego Village Administrator Daniel Di Santo contends the project is a win-win. "We needed public transit 20 years ago, we need it now and we'll really need it as the population doubles," he said.
What's at issue?
With the exception of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Metra operates just in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties and gets a chunk of funding from a sales tax in the metro region.
"Kendall County is not in the RTA service area and does not pay RTA sales tax," Michels said. As an alternative, officials from Sugar Grove and Kane County have identified land southeast of routes 30 and 56 where a Metra station could accommodate Kendall County riders and remain in the RTA area, he said.
Republican state Sen. Donald DeWitte of St. Charles, who is on the Transportation Committee, said, "I have very grave concerns about any state or federal money being invested into any Metra extension to Kendall County until Kendall County decides if they want to become a member of the current six-county RTA region."
In the 2000s, then-U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert of Yorkville used his clout to secure a $7.5 million federal earmark to extend commuter rail to his constituents, which Metra is using for the engineering study.
"We're not taking money away from anyone," Di Santo said. Asked how Pritzker's capital program singles out $100 million to extend Metra into Kendall, he said it helps to have the eight different state legislators who represent the community lobbying for the project.
One of those is Aurora Democratic Sen. Linda Holmes. "I am and have been a huge proponent of an Oswego Metra station," she said.
Di Santo said extending the BNSF is a "once-in-a-generation project that will totally change a region," and he noted that Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Naperville also is supportive. Underwood did not return a request for comment.
So far, so good, but a preliminary cost-benefit analysis shows a BNSF extension would cost $440 million to construct and $5.1 million per year to operate and maintain the service (in 2016 dollars), Metra spokesman Mike Gillis said. How officials would make up the difference is still undetermined.
"We knew backers of the extension were seeking funding because we told them that's what they would have to do. But as you know, our priority right now is to maintain our existing system, and funding for this project is not part of our $5 billion ask," Gillis said, referring to Metra's needs for track, trains and other infrastructure.
And so far, there's no consensus in Kendall on how to help pay for the project or whether to climb aboard the sales tax train.
One more thing
Pushing the BNSF Line to Sugar Grove wouldn't be cheap either. An extension would cost $370 million to construct and $4.5 million per year to operate and maintain the service (in 2016 dollars), Gillis said.
Still, it's cheaper than the Kendall option and stays within the RTA service area, Michels said.
"Time and again, funding is allocated to another study, which keeps moving the project closer and closer to becoming a reality," Michels said.
But, Oswego Village President Troy Parlier said, "it's not going to happen tomorrow. We're just going one step at a time."
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- Courtesy of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield
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