After multiple false-starts, Huntley is on track to get a Metra or an Amtrak stop as plans to reconnect Chicago and Rockford by train move forward for the first time in decades.
The Illinois Department of Transportation took an important next step in the push to restore passenger rail service between the two cities when it reached an agreement to hire a new project manager, state Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, said in a news release.
"People across northern Illinois are excited about the prospect of a rail link with Chicago, and I think it’s important to keep everyone fully informed and to include as much public input as possible," Stadelman said in the release.
The new route would follow the Metra Milwaukee District West line from Union Station in Chicago to Big Timber Road in Elgin and then the Union Pacific railroad line to Rockford with stops in Huntley and Belvidere, IDOT Passenger Rail Communications Manager Scott Speegle said Monday.
“Having train connections between Chicago and Rockford, with Rockford being one of the major cities in Illinois outside of Chicago, it provides tourism and business connections,” Speegle said. "We do not currently have train service in that north, northwest part of Illinois ... so that's one of the reasons why this project is so important."
In past iterations of the movement to bring passenger rail service through Huntley, it was always Amtrak that was being considered, Mayor Chuck Sass said Monday. After attending a virtual meeting with local mayors, IDOT officials and state Sen. Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles, Sass said Metra service is now a very real possibility.
“It was a complete surprise,” Sass said. “I thought it was going to be on Amtrak, and here it was more about Metra. The way it sounded, they're talking to both of them still, but it looks like Metra is more in the lead position now.”
Metra service would be more beneficial for Huntley's commuters because trains would run more frequently as compared to Amtrak which was offering stops only a few times each day, he said.
One complication with getting Metra service from Chicago to Rockford is that Belvidere and Rockford are not a part of the Regional Transportation Authority that includes Metra, Sass said. Including them would likely require residents in those areas to pass a referendum agreeing to pay a tax to the agency, he added.
The question of whether the two cities will be connected by Metra or Amtrak service has not yet been determined, Speegle said.
“It’s a matter of looking at what makes sense in terms of potential ridership, the needs of the communities as well as ease of operation and what would be the most cost efficient,” he said.
IDOT has been in contact with the mayors and public works departments of impacted municipalities like Huntley to incorporate their perspectives and to aid them in planning and designing rail stations to accommodate the new route, Speegle said.
The project's team is still in the "early phases" of the engineering process around improvements and modifications needed to ensure that the new service line can be operated safely, he said.
Estimates around when the route might be up and running are not yet available.
“The state is committed to getting this done as quickly as possible,” he said. “But we don't want to get into saying when service would begin until we really know what we're getting into.”
The department is transferring project information over to its new contractor, WSP USA, which will now be responsible for the project as well as any subcontractors they may choose to hire, according to the release.
The journey to provide direct service between Chicago and Rockford has been long and marked with complications and political obstacles. After a 2014 attempt to fund Amtrak services in the area was killed by a newly-elected Bruce Rauner, the village of Huntley lost $50,000 in consulting fees and engineering plans for a train station that was never built, according to reporting by the Northwest Herald.
The village of Huntley also purchased a plot of land downtown where the station would have been built, which it still owns and hopes to use, Sass said.
Plans to restore passenger rail service in Northern Illinois were given new life last year with the passing of Gov. JB Pritzker's Rebuild Illinois plan, which allocated $275 million to the project, according to the press release.
"A strong passenger rail network is a cornerstone of our commitment to building and maintaining a safe, reliable multimodal system of transportation that serves all residents throughout our state,” Acting Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman said in the release.
Marengo resident Peter Janko, who helped start the Amtrak 2 Huntley movement, said he and his fellow activists plan to remain vigilant of the plan as it continues to gain momentum and will utilize their connections to ensure that local politicians and IDOT officials act in the best interest of the Huntley community.
"This is just the start," Janko said. "Until that first train stops in Huntley, we're not done."