A ‘perfect opportunity’ for Metra from DeKalb to Chicago as city assesses commuter future, says mayor

A new commuter connection, if added, will bring rail service from DeKalb to the Elburn Metra station, which connects to downtown Chicago.

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

DeKALB – A commuter rail stop could make it more convenient for commuters traveling from DeKalb to get to Chicago.

A comprehensive public transportation study approved at a recent City Council meeting will examine if it’s feasible to establish the service in DeKalb and DeKalb County.

It will allow the city take a close look at potential ridership needs, current transportation options, environmental impact and how much it would take to bring a commuter rail service to DeKalb.

“There’s real opportunity right now with a lot of the federal money that’s going to be available as part of the infrastructure act that’s going to get passed onto Illinois,” Mayor Cohen Barnes said. “It’s going to be all about roads, bridges, rail. It’s the perfect opportunity. The dollars are going to be out there.”

City Manager Bill Nicklas said that for a long time, the city hasn’t had the opportunity to explore the idea of bringing a commuter rail service to town.

“Until only recently, we’ve always been discouraged even trying to investigate this,” Nicklas said. “Because a quick consultation with our state and federal political partners has usually resulted in discouraging commentary that, ‘Well, there really isn’t enough money anywhere in your area or even at our levels to help you, and our commitment is to major metropolitan centers and so forth.’ But it has been happening.”

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

A new commuter connection, if added, will bring rail service from DeKalb to the Elburn Metra station.

The project would be conducted in phases, with participation from local and regional public officials.

Nicklas lauded NIU for its efforts to collaborate and partner on this matter, saying the commuter rail service would greatly benefit the university much like the city of DeKalb.

“The word is out: We’re not only becoming an interest for worldwide private corporations,” Nicklas said. “NIU is at a point where we are with their own star shining in many areas but in particular in research and related fields a place where businesses would want to come. But fundamentally… maybe our biggest asset are the students and staff and faculty who commute daily to the city of DeKalb to either study or work at NIU. That creates a critical mass.”

Northern Illinois University is the only state university community in Illinois that does not have a commuter rail stop.

Barnes said something has to give.

“We need to bring equity to NIU since they’re the only one without it,” Barnes said. “I think that’s an absolute necessity going forward.”

Nicklas said he doesn’t want the city to keep missing out on funding opportunities at the federal level.

“A lot of that is still available,” Nicklas said. “We continue to see on a monthly basis calls for proposals. They generally have to be – if they’re not shovel-ready – they at least have to be thought through. There has to be community engagement and community involvement and community commitment. And we don’t have that.”

How can the city work toward getting its share of federal funding?

Nicklas said the city has learned it needs to have a comprehensive public transportation study performed.

A $98,379 contract was awarded at a recent City Council meeting to the Chicago-based firm, Sam Schwartz Consulting LLC, for consulting services to help make it possible.

“This is exciting, I think, even just to be at this point and to have interest from two people who did respond to our [request for proposal],” Nicklas said. “We actually had about a dozen people – individuals, some of them were principles and consulting firms, some of them were public officials, appointed officials – who were just interested in what are you doing out there.”

A commuter waits to board the train Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, at the Elburn Metra Station.

As part of a way of gauging the public’s interest in a commuter rail service, the city recently announced that it is increasing the frequency of bus trips to the Elburn Metra station during regular service runs Monday through Friday.

The morning trips will increase from two to five trips, and the evening trips will increase from one to three trips, according to a news release. On Saturday and Sunday, however, the regular service run will not change but the times may have been adjusted, the news release states.

Barnes said he believes bringing a commuter rail service to DeKalb would make for a win-win all around for the community.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of students and professors that would love to be able to take advantage of commuter rail just to be able to engage with the university,” Barnes said. “All of us residents just to be able to hop on the train and get all the way downtown Chicago, I think, would be a wonderful opportunity for not only entertainment purposes but then also people that might end up working in the [city] to be able commute back and forth from via the commuter rail.”

The consulting firm anticipates there will be a 90-day to 120-day review process after which results would be presented to the City Council, officials said.

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