Proponents of southeast Metra line say project still on track

2014-03-29T20:30:00Z 2014-03-30T22:03:16Z Proponents of southeast Metra line say project still on trackGregory Tejeda Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
March 29, 2014 8:30 pm  • 

CRETE | Supporters of the proposed southeast Metra line linking Chicago with the south suburbs have taken notice of recent developments to extend the South Shore line to Dyer.

But whether that project in Northwest Indiana will have an effect on the Metra plan linking Chicago's LaSalle Street station to Balmoral Park in Crete depends on who you listen to.

Crete Village President Michael Einhorn said he believes the Metra project has lingered for so long without action he wonders if it ever will be built.

“We have been talking about this since about 1986,” Einhorn said. “We’re no further along on this. All of the opportunities to do something have been lost.”

Balmoral Park General Manager Mike Belmonte expressed a similar thought about the time that has passed without actual construction taking place.

“We’ve been hearing about that project for 10 years, yet it doesn’t seem to go anywhere,” he said, meaning that it has not provided any benefits to the racetrack to date.

“If it ever gets built, it would be a help to us because it would make it easier for people to come visit us,” Belmonte said. “But we’re going to wait until that happens before we start counting the benefits.”

The latest threat to a proposed southeast commuter line is the South Shore line extension to Dyer championed by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority pledged an $8 million contribution to an expanded South Shore commuter rail. Earlier this month, Indiana General Assembly officials approved an additional $4 million to the authority to be used for the project.

Indiana communities that would gain commuter train stops along an expanded South Shore line are being asked to kick in some funds to help advance the project, with Visclosky taking up the cause in recent weeks to urge local support.

The Southeast Commuter Rail Transit District is a Lansing-based group trying to develop the Illinois-based alternative that may someday become a part of the Metra commuter rail system. Its leaders said they believe their project has progressed too far for it to suddenly become defunct.

John DeLaurentiis, the district’s executive director, said the federal government gave the district a grant of $340,000 that will help pay for the preliminary engineering studies, which are expected to take up much of 2014 to complete.

Federal funds won’t cover the entire cost of those studies, but DeLaurentiis said Illinois state government provided grants of $42,500 from the Illinois Department of Transportation, and $250,000 from the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to pay the remainder of the cost.

“This (money) will allow us to stay on track,” DeLaurentiis said.

Funds are sufficient enough that rail district board Chairman J. Wynsma said the board will not have to ask for any contributions this year from any of the south suburban communities with an interest in developing a new railroad line.

It was in 2011 that Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a measure creating the rail district and the concept of a southeast suburban line. It is meant to offer transportation alternatives to the Metra Electric line that now runs from Chicago’s Millennium Park to University Park, with branches that take people to the South Chicago neighborhood and to Blue Island.

The preliminary engineering studies being done now are the second of three stages that must be completed before construction could begin.

DeLaurentiis said he realizes some people will see this as a long time period. But he also said that when dealing with the U.S. government on transportation projects, it is a lengthy process to be completed for anybody who is serious.

“You don’t rush your way through these things,” he said, adding that Indiana officials will find the same process when they try to move forward with a South Shore expansion.

Wynsma said the fact that federal and Illinois transportation officials are including the southeast commuter line on their list of projects that will continue to get funding in future years is a sign that government officials are committed to the project.

Einhorn said he does not necessarily see a South Shore expansion as a competition to the southeast proposal, in part because the two wind up at different stations at opposite ends of downtown Chicago.

“If anyone might lose riders to a South Shore expansion, it’s the Metra Electric, since they both wind up on Michigan Avenue,” he said. “The South Shore and southeast lines would allow people who live near the state line to choose which destination they want to use in their commute.”

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