Suburban worries that Metra troubles may end up giving Chicago more influence

DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin doesn’t want the troubles with Metra to give Chicago an opportunity to grab more power over regional transit:

As Metra tries to function amid scandal, it’s essential the suburbs maintain their influence on the board, DuPage Chairman Dan Cronin warned Friday.

With state lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn pushing to reinvent the troubled agency, there’s a danger whatever emerges will shift the balance of power to Chicago, Cronin said.

“I’m here representing the nearly 1 million people in DuPage County,” Cronin said. “I want to make sure their voice is heard. We have to be mindful of transit needs in the suburbs.”…

Friday marked the first time the board of directors has met since its game-changing session in June when they approved a separation agreement with former CEO Alex Clifford that’s been called a golden parachute at best and “hush money” at worst…

Other fallout included the departures of Kane County appointee Mike McCoy and DuPage’s Paul Darley. McCoy, a civil engineer and former county chairman, and business owner Darley were considered independent voices on the board.

There is not much context here about Cronin’s statements. However, this statement hints at larger issues. This is part of a ongoing power struggle in the Chicago region between the city and suburban interests. There are transit needs in DuPage County including rail lines to Chicago and major highways and roads (plus a lack of mass transit to points within the county itself outside of Metra lines). And Metra is not the only flashpoint; the Regional Transit Authority is another issue. But, this could also simply be a manifestation of something many suburbanites, particularly conservatives, fear: Chicago is a power-hungry entity that can’t wait to dictate more policy to the rest of Illinois. And this may be the reason many suburbanites live there in the first-place or now justify their suburban presence: they wanted to get away from Chicago.

A $3 billion funding shortage for relieving Chicago area railroad gridlock

A House hearing suggested there is a major funding shortage for the construction necessary to relieve railroad traffic in the Chicago region:

A potential drop of more than 60 percent in Metra delays.

That number alone makes an ambitious $3.2 billion fix for rail congestion in the Chicago region attractive in the eyes of area commuters. And railroads, with the backing of the business community, also support the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE.

But where funding for the $2 billion worth of work remaining will come from is a question both U.S. congressmen and industry officials pondered at a Monday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

The Chicago region hosts about 1,300 trains a day — 800 Amtrak and Metra trains and 500 freights. But the outdated infrastructure and numerous street level crossings make it a major chokepoint for freight trains, not to mention the delays caused for drivers.

State dollars for the project run out this year and there’s nothing forthcoming in the federal government’s latest transportation plan.

Funding is hard to come by these days. Yet, these are infrastructure improvements that affect not only the Chicago area but perhaps the entire United States railroad system. A large amount of freight traffic in the United States moves through the Chicago region. The railroads as well as local, state, and federal government have been chipping away at this for years including moving intermodal facilities and switching yards further from the city and making at-grade crossings safer and rarer.

Another question that could be asked: should money be spent on high-speed rail if there are still significant problems in the regular railroad system?

Better to expand Metra service to Oswego and Yorkville or use money to solve problems within the region?

Discussion is growing about expanding Metra commuter rail service to Oswego and Yorkville but where the money will come from is an issue:

Metra board directors on Friday supported increasing a consulting contract by $439,631 for a total of $2.26 million to review the Yorkville option. The funding for the engineering study comes from a federal grant, earmarked in 2003 by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Yorkville.

The agency has been considering locating stations in Oswego but Yorkville is being added since it offers an optimal site for a yard to house trains. Montgomery is also in the mix as a new station.

But how to pay for operating the expansion and related construction — since most of the route is outside the six-county region that Metra serves — is an unknown. A sales tax in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties subsidizes part of the costs of running Metra, but it isn’t levied in Kendall County…

Oswego Village Administrator Steve Jones said the Metra station was “extremely important. Up until the housing crash, Oswego and the immediate area was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. As residents move to the area, they have some expectations for transportation for employment and cultural matters … just being linked to the city.”

Since Oswego and Yorkville have been growing, this makes some sense. Yet, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to find money, grants and otherwise, to expand train service within the six county region. As currently constituted, Metra service is based on a hub and spokes model where riders have to go into the city before heading back out. Why not find money to develop belt lines where riders can move between job centers, particularly places like Naperville, Schaumburg, and Hoffman Estates as well as O’Hare Airport? Indeed, there are already plans for such a line that involve expanding an existing beltway rail line. Read more here about the STAR Line.

More broadly, this is a question of whether officials should encourage continued expansion of metropolitan areas through the construction of new infrastructure or help deal with the existing issues of metropolitan regions. People may choose to move to places like Oswego or Yorkville but officials don’t necessarily have to find the money to support it.

Mapping Chicago area income inequality by Metra route

Crain’s Chicago Business put together an interactive map that shows income levels by Metra train stop:

The geographic disparity in Chicago’s wealth can be seen by tracking household income in the ZIP codes of Metra train stations. The Union Pacific North and Milwaukee District North lines pass through some of the wealthiest ZIP codes, while the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines go through some of the poorest.

Several quick thoughts:

1. This reflects historic settlement patterns in the Chicago region.

2. I wish there was another set of data layered on top of this: daily ridership from each stop. This way, we could see if income is related to ridership. Could these mass transit lines primarily benefit people from wealthier areas in the Chicago region? In other words, do these commuter lines reinforce income differences? Are these train lines generally a boon for communities compared to Chicago suburbs without commuter train stations?

3. Of course, looking at ZIP codes of the train stations is inexact. Depending on the location of the station, people might drive from other zip codes. What we really need is more exact information from riders themselves: where do they live, what is their income, why do they utilize this particular stop, etc.

4. Also, why use average household incomes rather than median household incomes? Using the average likely increases the variation among train stations but also allows outliers in income to have more influence in the data.

h/t Curbed Chicago

The importance of the railroad to Will County’s projected growth

When Will County officials look at a map of Metra commuter rail lines in the Chicago region, they see limited services for a growing region. Indeed, communities like Joliet and Plainfield are quickly growing. Will County officials came together Monday to praise a new study that will look into improving train options for this area:

Several communities have pegged developments to improved service on the Heritage Corridor. But those suburbs have been frustrated in recent years by the slow pace of adding Metra trains.

Local officials said Monday they were pinning their hopes on the Heritage Corridor to help residents get downtown now and in the future.

“I truly believe the need is there more than ever, and the consensus is we are going to see Will County in the next 20 years jump to (more than) 1 million people to become the second-most populated behind Cook,” said Will County Executive Larry Walsh.

The study will help establish the line as part of the proposed high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and St. Louis, Hannig said.

Several pieces of information are interesting:

1. Many might think that the railroad ceased to be important for suburbs around the time that interstates were built (late 1950s in the Chicago area). But these railroad lines still play an important role: they are a commuting option but also give suburbs a flow of people in and out of the downtown as well as a center for which development can be anchored. Along other Metra lines, numerous communities have built condos and mixed-use developments.

2. Will County will have more than 1 million residents in 20 years? This would require growth rates like the county has experienced since the 1950s: in every decade except the 1980s, the county has experienced at least 30% growth. I wonder what DuPage County, the current 2nd most populous county in the region, thinks of this projection.

3. There is some Metra service to Chicago but the options are limited. The article suggests that this limited service leads to limited use: this line is “Metra’s least-used line, with an average weekday ridership of 2,600 passengers.” (A little comparison with these numbers: I believe both Naperville train stations easily exceed this each weekday.) So if the rail service is improved, will this necessarily lead to more riders as the political leaders suggest? Why can’t the officials look at some commuting data to figure out how many Will County residents work in Chicago versus in other suburbs?

Chicagoland residents prefer more spending on mass transit

A new poll from the Chicago Tribune and WGN shows that more suburbanites would prefer to spend money on mass transit than on highways and roads. According to the poll:

Fifty-two percent of suburbanites said they agree with investing more of limited government resources in public transit, versus 32 percent who chose improvements to highways and toll roads. In a 1999 Tribune poll, 34 percent of suburban residents said more money should be spent on mass transit than on roads.

Even in the collar counties, half said public transit deserves a higher priority in spending decisions.

These are some surprising figures as suburbanites typically prefer road spending in their auto-dependent lives. How exactly this increased mass transit spending might happen is less clear with the state of Illinois facing a major budget crisis.

One citizen interviewed for the story mentioned adding “an around-Chicago rail line.” This would help improve rail service to the suburbs as the current Metra system is a hub-and-spoke model where travelers have to go into Chicago before heading back out. A plan for this has been in the works for a long time as the Star Line would use the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern right-of-way (just recently bought by Canadian National) to connect Joliet and O’Hare while crossing a number of Metra spoke lines. Read more about the Star Line here.