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It’s Chicago versus Wisconsin: Rail projects vie for federal money

It’s Chicago versus Wisconsin: Rail projects vie for federal money

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A Metra commuter rail train pulls into a station outside Chicago recently. Dane County may put a referendum on the November ballot asking the public to vote on bringing commuter rail to the county. (AP File photo)
A Metra commuter rail train pulls into a station in a Chicago suburb recently. Both Chicago and Wisconsin are fighting for a piece of federal rail money. (AP File photo)

By Justin Kern
Special to The Daily Reporter

Two potential rail partners are competing for the same pool of federal money for projects in Wisconsin and Illinois.

In Wisconsin, the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority expects to hear a response from the Federal Transit Administration by September or October on a grant request for the first portion of work on the estimated $232.7 million Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line. The federal New Starts program grants could cover as much as 60 percent of the KRM project, said Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, which is working with SERTA on the application.

It is the first standing application for federal backing for the KRM line, but the FTA will judge the request against other projects, such as commuter lines planned by Metra in Chicago. Metra and KRM organizers are discussing linking KRM’s possible Kenosha station with Metra lines going into Chicago, Yunker said.

He noted Metra’s repeated success with the grants but said the KRM application, submitted in June, should be weighed on its own ridership merits and not against Chicago proposals.

“I think we have a good working relationship with Metra,” he said, “but we are competing for the same thing.”

The absence of a New Starts grant would put the KRM line “in question,” Yunker said, because the project then would require full backing from state or local sources.

New Starts provides millions in discretionary federal grants for locally planned, implemented and operated major transit capital investments, including commuter rail, light and heavy rail, buses, streetcars and ferries, according to the FTA’s New Starts website. The federal agency determines the level of need and effect of a transportation project as well as matching money.

For engineering and planning on four line additions to the Metra service, Chicago commuter rail advocates received millions in New Starts grants. However, Metra is applying for New Starts money for construction of those lines, the second phase of a federal step-by-step review process that would pull from the same pool of money as the KRM.

Meg Reile, Metra spokeswoman, acknowledged the Illinois and Wisconsin rail projects would compete even though they also would connect. She said there are concerns about the capacity increases from a new Wisconsin line, but the Chicago organization would not hesitate to work with KRM officials.

“Of course we would be cooperating with connecting service if that came about in a funded project, but we will actively be pursuing our projects” for New Starts money, Reile said. “Everybody wants to get what they consider to be their share.”

According to federal criteria, the KRM project ranks medium-to-low based on comparisons between project cost and reduction in travel times. According to the KRM application, the 33 miles of commuter line would follow existing freight lines with stops at nine stations.

The SERTA application anticipates 8,000 weekday riders on the KRM commuter line, which connects to existing Chicago lines but not directly with those competing for New Starts money.

Metra’s four new lines would add thousands of additional riders and tack on 100 more communities to the existing system, according to the 2010 Metra budget. The Chicago system would seek $500 million to $800 million in local money to match any additional New Start grants, Reile said.

The KRM line has been under some form or planning or review by state officials for nearly 30 years. The lack of a standing regional transit authority led to the revocation of a previous New Starts grant, Yunker said.

So it’s not Packers versus Bears, but who do you think will win the regional rail fight? Let us know in our new CONSTRUCTION FORUM. Signup is FREE.


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