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Petition started to bring Metra to DeKalb; cost one of biggest obstacles

DeKALB – David Gregoire of DeKalb said he supports the idea of bringing commuter rail service to town, because it would be easier to visit his grandma and other family in Batavia.

“I’m born and raised in Batavia, and I don’t have a license, and Elburn’s the closest one,” he said. “So I don’t see why they don’t do [it] with that [train station] right there.”

For Eric Gardner of DeKalb, the convenience would be a closer drop-off place for loved ones going out of town.

“I drove to Elburn last week and dropped my girlfriend off at the train station,” Gardner said. “It would be nice, so I didn’t have to drive so far.”

The call for passenger train service in DeKalb has resurfaced with a petition calling to bring it back after nearly half a century, but the barriers that have prevented a train from stopping in town remain.

The last passenger train, called the Kate Shelley, stopped in DeKalb in April 1971, 118 years after the first had ridden the same rails. The passenger service, which connected DeKalb with Chicago as part of a line between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa, was discontinued because it was not considered profitable.

An online petition that started in February to bring Metra service to DeKalb has slightly more than 1,000 supporters. It cites the limited options for traveling to the nearest train station, located 18 miles away in Elburn, for Northern Illinois University students and others without cars.

It also lists a potential short-term solution as expanding the existing shuttle service, which runs between NIU and Elburn twice a week on Fridays and Sundays.

DeKalb County Board Chairman Mark Pietrowski Jr. said a more consistent shuttle bus is a more feasible option, as the cost of installing a third track for passenger service would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We can always keep an eye on the possibility, but it would take a major U.S. investment,” he said. “We would have to rely on lots of grants.”

To have commuter rail service through Metra, DeKalb County also would have to become part of the Regional Transportation Authority and contribute sales tax to the agency – something public officials have found to be a turn-off when the issue has come up in the past, Pietrowski said.

RTA has oversight over the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace and serves Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.

The RTA tax is 1.25 percent on sales in Cook County and 0.75 percent on sales in the collar counties of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will, according to the RTA website.

Susan Massel, RTA’s director of communications and public affairs, said any county or part of a county can become part of the RTA region; however, the RTA is not currently looking to expand because of its own budget constraints.

“The six-county geography of the RTA region is defined in the RTA Act, a state statute,” she said. “The geography has never been amended, and it would take an act of Legislature to do so.”

Pietrowski said voters also would have to approve a referendum to become part of the RTA’s taxing authority.

“We would have to put a referendum out to voters to see if [DeKalb County] should be included in the RTA district,” Pietrowski said. “We’re not at that stage at all; it would be years and years off, if ever.”

The RTA’s recent capital assessment report projected that $37.7 billion is needed over the next decade for maintaining, repairing and replacing existing infrastructure.

“The region has significant unmet capital meets and is focused on maintaining the existing system,” Massel said.

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said based on the RTA’s estimate that Metra will need $12 billion over the next decade to maintain its system, the train system is not currently focused on expansion projects.

Gillis said if Metra service were to expand to DeKalb, it would use the Union Pacific West Line, which passes from West Chicago to stops in Geneva, La Fox and Elburn.

John Heckmann, associate vice president for facilities, management and campus services at NIU, said the university is supportive of bringing passenger train service to DeKalb but also aware of hurdles like the RTA sales tax.

“We know it would facilitate better access for students and others from the Chicago area,” he said. “We fully recognize that there is no easy answer.”

Heckmann, who was involved in DeKalb County’s Metra Rail Exploratory Committee and the DeKalb-Sycamore Area Transportation Study, said improving bus services in the interim would demonstrate the demand for transportation options when the possibility for train service is revisited.

Pietrowski said DeKalb County has donated land to the Voluntary Action Center for an expanded facility and a park-and-ride bus shuttle system for the train; however, VAC has been turned down several times for the federal TIGER grant needed for the project.

“I’m encouraged by the passion of the people passing out this petition; it would be a big boost for the local economy,” Pietrowski said. “Hopefully, they can be just as energized with plan-B at the moment.”

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