Monday, November 12, 2007

Setting STAR Line?

Crain's reports that a group of suburban municipalities is gearing up to oppose the Canadian National Railway's purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway's line that stretches in a giant circle from Waukegan to Gary. CN is going to use this line to reroute freight trains that currently have to travel through the City of Chicago. This will allow railroad properties in the City to be developed for other uses. As anyone who had taken Metra's Aurora and Geneva lines to Chicago can observe, railroad property in Chicago has been extensively developed with relatively high density housing.

As previously reported, Metra has designs on part of the EJ&E line for the western branch of its much-anticipated STAR Line. Metra will find it much harder and certainly more expensive to acquire this right of way if CN proceeds with transforming it into a key link in the nation's rail transportation network. It will be interesting to see if Metra gives aid and comfort to the suburban NIMBY group (meant only to be descriptive in this case). According to the article, the opponents of the CN move are unlikely to be able to block CN's acquisition of the EJ&E line.

The juxtaposition of a group of suburban municipalities with low density/auto-centric development patterns opposing the expansion of a rail line that will free up space for higher density, more transit-friendly development elsewhere in the region is instructive. It does not appear that there is any public body--be it the RTA or the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning--whose job it is to weigh the cost and benefits of the CN takeover from a regional perspective. In terms of CO2 emission reduction, for example, which will do more--build the STAR Line in areas that are mostly sprawling and auto-centric or build walkable, transit friendly development is an area already comparatively well served by transit (at least until the 1/20/08 Doomsday).

Even if the STAR Line wins that contest, is it time for Metra to put the STAR Line to rest anyway? Metra seems to be having a hard time developing believable projected ridership numbers that would support such a major new capital investment. The fact that the proposed State capital plan has a 10:1 highway/transit funding ratio (compared to a 2:1 ratio in the last capital bill) certainly does not indicate strong support for the STAR Line specifically and public transit generally. Metra can't pay its bills now without raiding its capital funds. Adding a new line that will surely operate at a substantial operating loss would only make its financial position worse.

Put these all together--a weak business case, lack of public/political support for the STAR Line in the State capital bill, Metra's operating funding challenges, and arguably other transit investments that will do more to reduce congestion and auto travel than the STAR Line--and maybe it is time for the STAR Line to be mothballed.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amen Bro. Now tell Larson.

Rick Powell said...

Should an essentially private industry, that pays taxes and does not rely on public subsidy, be subject to public approval for buying another private asset to improve its operations, absent any evidence of an intolerable public nuisance?

My favorite quote: “For them to meddle in interstate commerce like that, it’s just not going to happen,” Chicago railroad attorney Michael Blaszak says.

It's interesting to note that Barrington is north of where the STAR line proposes to divert off the EJ&E. If the other communities are similarly non-STAR line communities along the EJ&E, the "community nuisance" issue and the "STAR line" issue appear to be unrelated.

I do agree railroads get some latitude with their operations (e.g. eminent domain, not having to stop for highway traffic) that they should trade for mitigation to the surrounding communities when their impacts increase. However, the people live next to a railroad now and should not expect "no impacts". Increased Quiet Zones and fair participation in overpasses or underpasses at the busiest highways should be in the mix here.

Anonymous said...

As far as that goes, the various doomsday scenarios may have put the kibosh on all of the transit agencies grandiose expansion plans. A year or so ago, CTA claimed that it could both execute all of its New Starts and bring the existing system into a state of good repair at the same time. The Moving Beyond the Future plan had Pace setting up express bus corridors all over the place, including in competition with Metra. Now, you don't hear any of that, only that if there isn't an immediate funding source, bus service areawide will be cut by about one third.

At least CTA is being momentarily honest when it says it is "going back to basics."

You seem obsessed with Metra capital projects. How about writing about whether the Circle Line and Ogden-Carroll New Start projects should be killed? As well as whether the CTA's south restructuring study, which was supposed to go to 159th St. should be properly put out of its misery, especially in light of the Auditor General's findings about service overlap.

Anonymous said...

Barrington has opposed the STAR line since the idea first arose in the early 90's when it was published in the Metra wish-list "Future Alternatives for Suburban Tranpsortation (FAST)" which also included Pace projects. At that time (and in the future if you believe Phil Pagano) the line was envisioned to run from Waukegan, through Barrington, and on to Joliet and Indiana. Barrington feels they have enough rail traffic through their downtown already. Since Metra says that grade separations are too expensive to consider, the rail-caused traffic jams there would only get worse. Grade separations are an important component to safer commuter rail travel and reduction of rail-caused congestion.

The rail right of way should be protected if the rail line proposed to abandon it -- but they are not doing that. It is a freight rail facility and is very important to our regional and national economy. I don't think we can can justify treating rail corporations and rail corporate decisions differently than other corporations. Private property can be bought and sold to anyone, only a significant change in use invites public input.

edna welthorpe said...

8:48--
I'd bet Metra's cap project get singled out for derision because they go to almost unique lengths to blow the most capital and operating funds to move the fewest people. Metra could move a lot more people with infill stations and connecting the spokes at the hub, but instead aims for Elburn and Johnsburg.

As for Carroll/ Ogden, it isn't the worst idea out of CTA by far--that honor goes to the Airport Exp, of course, tho the Circle Line is right down there.

Anonymous said...

Edna: Ogden-Carroll wasn't initially the CTA's idea. Bill Lipinski suggested it because his father was a motorman on the trolley on Ogden. Of course, it is necessary to curry favor with who then was controlling the transit appropriations, so CTA embraced it. Dan Lipinski doesn't have that kind of clout, and lives in Willow Springs, which is losing its one bus a day.

The real folly is that $390 million was invested in the Pink Line in the same corridor. Maybe CTA tacked on Carroll to provide some independent justification (or revive the defunct Downtown Distributor plan, although threatening to eliminate depot shuttle buses sure puts that rationale into doubt).

The bottom line--no project is dead until the consultant money runs out.

I and Crain's Chicago Business agree with you with regard to the Airport Express.

edna welthorpe said...

Naw, the Pink Line's no folly...well, not a complete one. It does carry people, and unlike the Ogden whatever, it's up and running now, and it runs through densely populated transit- oriented neighborhoods. So far, it seems to be building ridership nicely.

Whether it was necessary to split the Blue line branches and run the Douglas around the Loop is another story. That likely had more to do with getting the first few miles of the Circle Line camel's nose into the tent.

Anonymous said...

Metra's Elburn and Johnsburg stations provide locations for new rail yards so trains could be moved out of McHenry and east of Geneva (West Chicago? I don't remember). This allows more efficient operations and land for more parking. Most people who ride Metra in the farther out suburbs do drive and park, so parking is very important.

In some ways, infill stations are good but don't forget that for each station you add, the trip for people who are already riding gets longer -- this includes extra time for accelerationa, deceleration and stopping.

Anonymous said...

Edna: I meant to say that Ogden is the folly because the area is already served by the Pink Line, in which there already has been a sizable investment. Not that ridership is what one would expect on the Pink Line, either.

PCC said...

Ogden was Lipinski's idea; the Carroll alignment seems to have been tacked on later. Carroll is the only part which makes any sense, of course, so the suspicion I've heard is that the alternatives analysis will find that the Carroll segment is, magically enough, the only part worth funding.

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