Annual Metra operational costs could range from $8.2M to $12.8M for DeKalb, feasibility study shows

DeKalb releases results of Metra feasibility study as it aims at commuter passenger train

A train arrives Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, at the Elburn Metra Station.

DeKALB – A person wanting to commute during a weekday via Metra train from DeKalb to downtown Chicago might expect a 90 to 105-minute trek, according to a feasibility study recently released by the city of DeKalb.

To operate that DeKalb line from the city to Elburn train station – about 18 miles east of downtown DeKalb – estimates show early stage costs could be between $8.2 million and 12.8 million annually, according to the study. That’s on top of one-time infrastructure improvement costs estimated between $250 million and $388 million to prepare for a local train station.

DeKalb city officials said they’re continuing to pursue a commuter train in the city’s future because they believe it will be a significant drive for professionals commuting to or from work and Northern Illinois University students, and contribute to the type of industry the city has coveted in recent years with the addition of employer and tax revenue giants such as Amazon and Meta’s DeKalb Data Center.

NIU, the city’s largest employer, is the only state university in Illinois without a commuter passenger train.

“Having a Metra station would quite literally put DeKalb on the map, demonstrating its proximity and connection to the Chicago Metropolitan Area,” city staff wrote in documents released for its May 22 City Council meeting.

City officials have been vocal throughout the year in support of a Metra extension.

Whether that becomes a reality or not is up to many stakeholders, officials said. Union Pacific owns the train tracks between Elburn and DeKalb, and would need to give Metra permission to extend its service, which Metra also would need to agree on, documents show. The Chicago Regional Transportation Authority also would need to lend its permission to an extension. The authority helps secure funding for regional transit.

“There is an exciting opportunity here. There is a lot of potential. The key to everything is partnerships and thinking about how to collaborate with regional stakeholders, with state of Illinois.”

—  Matt Orenchuck, principal for Sam Schwartz Consulting

Metra costs, feasibility findings

Findings from a comprehensive commuter rail study – commissioned by the transportation firm Sam Schwartz Consulting, at the request of the city of DeKalb and Northern Illinois University – recently were presented to the DeKalb City Council.

The report’s findings also were the subject of two community meetings inviting residents to weigh in.

“There is an exciting opportunity here,” said Matt Orenchuck, principal for Sam Schwartz Consulting. “There is a lot of potential. The key to everything is partnerships and thinking about how to collaborate with regional stakeholders, with state of Illinois. There are dollars out there. … There is potential to share that cost with other stakeholders. It’s not just all on the burden of the city here.”

A train arrives Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, at the Elburn Metra Station.

As part of the study, Sam Schwartz Consulting took a close look at capital costs needed to make the new service connection from DeKalb to Elburn possible.

According to the report, the city’s two best options the consulting company highlighted to help pay for the costs include: creating a mass transit district or petitioning for the city to become part of the Chicago Regional Transportation Authority, a government agency that coordinates and helps secure funding for the region’s public transit system. The authority services Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, according to the website.

Since the DeKalb line would be outside of the Chicago RTA service area, according to the report, DeKalb would need to purchase commuter service from Metra, at an annual estimated cost of between $8 million and $12 million. That would allow for 12 roundtrips on weekdays, documents show. At that rate of service, annual costs are estimated at about $11 million, documents show.

Other potential costs could include the hundreds of millions the study estimates would be needed to pay for infrastructure improvements to accommodate a passenger train line in town.

According to the study, setting up DeKalb for a train could cost between $258 million and $388 million. Work would include adding a third mainline train, retaining walls, rehabilitating the existing downtown DeKalb train station so people have a place to board.

“That would be a singular expenditure,” Orenchuck said of the infrastructure costs.

Orenchuck acknowledged the infrastructure improvements figure may seem large, but said the DeKalb could look into grants and earmarks that could lessen the costs.

Orenchuck said Union Pacific had expressed the need for another mainline track should commuter rail service be extended from Elburn to DeKalb.

“They [Union Pacific] have two train tracks between Elburn and DeKalb,” Orenchuck said. “They indicated during one of our early meetings that a third mainline track would be very important to them. It would be the thing that they would be looking for out of an infrastructure project. In order to get them to be agreeable or to negotiate on the service that was one of the things that we learned in the course of our exploration here.”

Second Ward Alderwoman Barb Larson questioned who owns the the right-of-way that would enable the third rail.

“Between Elburn and DeKalb, we have Cortland and Maple Park and part of Elburn,” Larson said. “Who’s responsible to make sure there’s enough room in those communities to have a third rail?”

Orenchuck replied, saying DeKalb owns the right-of-way that would enable the third rail.

“There is 100 feet of right-of-way on the Union Pacific Railroad,” he said. “You can actually fit a third track within that right-of-way. … We don’t have a lot of cost for right-of-way in there because it already exists.”

Metra plans to offer early departure schedules for most of its lines through Labor Day, including the Union Pacific Northwest line that runs through McHenry County.

During a recent City Council meeting, DeKalb resident Mark Charvat called for greater transparency from elected officials regarding the cost to bring commuter rail service to town and what it means for taxpayers.

“I’m not against the project, but the true cost needs to be expressed to the public,” Charvat said.

Orenchuck said the city plans to explore grants and other funding options.

Another option before DeKalb is to green light the creation of a Mass Transit District, which would have the authority to levy taxes – up to 0.25% property taxes in accordance to the terms of a referendum – to help secure funding. Taxes could be levied for residents living in within the boundaries of local governments that would contract with the district. Such Districts exist in Rockford, Peoria, Springfield and Urbana, for instance.

The project also would encompass 14.8 miles of crossings from DeKalb to Elburn, which Larson called into question.

Orenchuck acknowledged Larson’s concern, saying decisions need to be made on the project’s regional appeal.

“I think it’s interesting because that’s one of the questions here, right?” he said. “How much of a regional project is this? How much of an important project is it for NIU versus the very local concerns that you have here?”

Ridership estimates

About 10,800 people travel daily between DeKalb County and the communities along the Union Pacific-West line, including the city of Chicago, according to city documents. Transportation options are limited in the absence of a commuter train line from DeKalb to Chicago.

According to estimated ridership numbers from the study, about 259 weekday daily trips and 189 daily weekend trips take place between DeKalb and the Chicago Metropolitan Area.

The city of DeKalb already has been testings its own local hunger for Elburn Metra service. Earlier this year, the city devoted a downtown lot to free parking for those wishing to take the transit bus to Elburn instead of parking at the Elburn train station. Elburn bus trips also have increased in frequency since the mid-January change. According to city documents, from 2019 to 2022 the average city bus ridership to Elburn was 240. In the first four months of 2023, the bus ridership was up 112% compared with its same period in 2022.

Orenchuck said the community has demonstrated a growing interest in expanding its options now that bus service trips to the Elburn station have increased.

“Ridership has really taken off with that increase in service,” Orenchuck said. “Basically, that’s there’s a recognition that there’s a lot of demand for that connection there.”

First Ward Alderwoman Carolyn Zasada questioned if having a commuter rail service positively impacts communities.

“When you add commuter rail, do you see that property values are increased?” Zasada asked.

Orenchuck replied, saying that he believes that communities with a robust commuter rail access fare better with property values than those that don’t.

City officials are expected to continue conversations with NIU officials on next steps for further feasibility assessments.

This story was updated at 5 p.m. June 6, 2023 to correct a misspelling of the Meta DeKalb Data Center.

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