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Genoa train route would save money

Rockford area officials pushing to bring commuter train service Metra to Winnebago County are using Amtrak to help deliver the service – and their efforts threaten to derail DeKalb County's bid for passenger rail service.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is seeking to restore Amtrak service from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa, by way of Rockford. Two routes are being considered: One would follow the Canadian National rail line and make a stop in Genoa, while the other would utilize a northern route along the Union Pacific rail line and stop in Belvidere.

A 2007 Amtrak study looked at four routes and found that using the Canadian National rail line through Genoa would be the fastest and had the greatest potential ridership. At $32.3 million to get it in shape, it's estimated to be $11.5 million less than going through Belvidere, with an annual operating expense $300,000 less than the northern route.

Stephen Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning, argues that the Amtrak study is skewed to some extent because the cost estimates for the Belvidere route includes $8.7 million in contingencies, while the Genoa route includes none. He said IDOT officials told him that's because they already negotiated the cost with Canadian National.

DeKalb County officials were caught off guard in April when an IDOT official reportedly said the Belvidere route had been chosen.

"We were scratching our heads," DeKalb County Administrator Ray Bockman said. "They said it was based on regional consensus. We dug a little further and it appeared people in Belvidere wanted the route to go through there."

Officials in Winnebago and Boone counties have long been eying the Union Pacific route for commuter rail service: A feasibility study done in 2002 led to the formation of the Northern Illinois Commuter Transportation Initiative. In 2008, as part of an alternatives analysis study, that group selected the Union Pacific route its Locally Preferred Alternative, a decision that was required before they could take the project further.

Amtrak released the findings of its study at about the same time. NICTI was within two months of selecting their LPA when the Amtrak study was released, Ernst said.

"We didn't yet have the data to corroborate or challenge some of the findings that were in the Amtrak study," Ernst said.

Looking for consensus

Once Ernst had the data, he and other Rockford area officials felt they had good arguments to advocate for the Belvidere route. Support was enlisted from officials in Boone, Winnebago, McHenry and Stephenson counties, and after at least two meetings where Ernst said representatives from the entire study area were included, the message was given to IDOT that Belvidere was the preferred route.

"We were not aware that Genoa was still tying to pursue inner-city passenger service," Ernst said. "As we moved our project forward, there was no indication Genoa was not going to be on board."

But Genoa City Manager Joe Misurelli said in his mind there was little uncertainty as to the route. The primary question was funding the project.

"Our understanding was that everybody understood the Canadian National route was the one that was the best," Misurelli said.

Misurelli said one of the positive features of the Genoa route is that there only two rail lines are used – Canadian National and Amtrak – as opposed to four for the Belvidere route – Amtrak, Metra, Union Pacific and Canadian National.

But the primary argument Rockford officials use for the Belvidere route is to leverage its use for both passenger and commuter rail.

"If you just look at Amtrak investment, the routes are roughly the same," Ernst said. "But when you add the additional investments that's going to be made in the next couple of years for commuter service, then there's no comparison."

A report issued by RMAP in December calls passenger rail the "top regional priority" for the Rockford region. It calls for bringing Amtrak's once-a-day round trip passenger train into Rockford along the same route as a Metra train coming through about seven times daily.

Paying for it

A RMAP report estimated the capital cost of bringing both passenger and commuter rail to Rockford at $247 million, although Ernst said that has been trimmed to $200 million. Of that, $65 million is targeted for physical upgrades to the rail track and its surroundings, and $30 million of that could come from Amtrak if the Belvidere route is chosen.

Another $26 million is targeted for commuter stations in downtown Rockford, Rockford's east side, Huntley and Marengo.

"If we could combine the rail stations for Amtrak with rail stations for commuter, we don't have to build two stations," he said. "You start to see how the money gets leveraged as we move toward full-blown commuter service."

Still, Misurelli is skeptical that the region could come up with the money for commuter service, let alone the annual operating costs, which RMAP estimates to be $10 million.

"They have some pretty huge hurdles," Misurelli said. "Coming up with the operating costs becomes a huge challenge. Then you drive up the cost of Amtrak by pushing the operating subsidy from the Amtrak side because you're not going to have the ridership."

Ernst said he's confident the capital costs can be paid for largely through the state capital project and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as programs through the Federal Transportation Administration. He's also hoping for a Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recover grant, stimulus funding intended for areas in economic distress.

"There is no region more in economic distress than Boone County," Ernst said. "And Winnebago County is not far behind that."

Although neither Boone nor Winnebago counties are part of the Regional Transportation Authority that runs Metra, Ernst said officials would seek a contractual service with Metra and raise funds locally to pay operating expenses.

Common ground

Ernst said he has asked state Sen. Brad Burzynski, R-Rochelle, to take the lead in getting Rockford and DeKalb County officials together to try to find a consensus. But he realizes that may be difficult.

"There may not be any common ground, and we may agree that we both have opinions that need to be advocated for, and somebody at the state of Illinois will have to make a decision," he said. "If it's Genoa, we won't be happy, but we'll be supportive."

Misurelli said he's glad to still have a shot at what once seemed to practically be a done deal.

"The consensus was Canadian National, and there's no support in this area to change that," he said. "It's better in terms of cost, ridership and everything else. Hopefully, that understanding will be reached."

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