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Metra Chairman: Major Hurdles to Clear Before Kendall County Commuter Rail Service

Aug 25, 2015 02:06PM ● By Steven Jack

Metra Board Chairman Martin Oberman (right) discusses commuter rail service to Kendall County at Oswego Village Hall Tuesday morning.

Commuter rail service in Kendall County will have to clear some major hurdles if it’s ever to become a reality.

That’s according to Metra Board Chairman Martin Oberman, who met with the Kendall County Metra Task Force Tuesday morning at Oswego Village Hall to provide an update on a long-discussed commuter stop in the county. With Metra facing $11 billion in unfunded capital improvements to its existing system, Oberman said finding funding for Kendall County service will be a serious challenge.

“I think what people need  to understand is that operating a commuter railway is an enormously costly undertaking,” said Obmeran, who estimated the cost of Kendall County service at several hundred million dollars. “… “(Metra) is just concerned that if we’re going to talk about commuter service to Kendall County then there has to be a realistic way to fund it.”

Oberman said many costly improvements would need to be made to the existing two lines of track that run through Kendall County owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. 

Several miles of a third line of track would need to be added along with countless other infrastructure improvements and construction of stations. All that work quickly adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars, and currently a funding source does not exist. 

“I don’t think people’s expectations should be falsely raised or falsely doused,” Oberman said. “It’s an ongoing process, and everyone believes that mass transit is a good thing, but is it practical in these economic times to say that this is going to happen in the foreseeable future? We don’t know that yet.”

Oberman said funding for Kendall commuter rail could come from a number of sources, including the federal, state and local governments. He stopped short of saying, however, that Kendall County would have to join the Regional Transportation authority, which would require a voter-approved RTA sales tax in Kendall County. 

 “That’s a very preliminary question,” Oberman said. “There are legal ways to extend service out of the Metra geography (without Kendall County joining the RTA). It’s never happened, but the (legal) groundwork is there.”

While Oswego Village President Gail Johnson said Tuesday’s meeting was constructive, she acknowledged any optimism over quickly bringing Metra to Kendall County has been “premature.”

“I think today we’re more realistic,” she said. “… I don’t feel pessimistic. I feel we’re on a reality track where we’re going to get some hard costs and find out where the dollars are. We have fewer dollars available to us from our state. That’s obvious.

"The question we’re going to grapple with along with Metra is ‘Is Kednall County big enough to justify this?’ Some of this funding is going to have to be local. So, we’re going to have to decide as a county if that’s something we want to do.”

In the short-term, Johnson said village and city managers from the five communities within the Task Force will continue to meet to discuss a process for nailing down real costs of bringing commuter service to Kendall County. She said she expects another meeting within a month. 

Despite Oberman’s Tuesday reality check, Johnson insisted that Metra rail service in Kendall County is still a high priority.

“I have to look out 50 years from now,” she said. “I have to look down the road and see that our county is going to be 250,000 to 300,000 people. We need public transportation, and what form that takes I don’t know yet.”