By Thomas V. Bona
Posted Apr 30, 2008 @ 11:05 AM
Last update Apr 30, 2008 @ 10:44 PM
Commuter rail service between Rockford, Belvidere and the Chicago
suburbs could do more than give 5,000 people a ride to work every day.
It could also encourage more people to move to Winnebago and Boone
counties and keep their jobs in the suburbs. And businesses that want
to move here, where it's cheaper to operate, could keep their
"It would put Rockford on the map," said Nellisha Fricks, 20, of
Rockford, who travels to the Chicagoland area almost weekly to visit
The Northern Illinois Commuter Transportation Initiative, a group of
local leaders charged with finding a mass-transit link to Chicago,
unanimously recommended the Rockford-Belvidere-Elgin route Wednesday
because it would draw more passengers than other rail and express bus
Tax hikes may be needed
The project would cost about $247 million to get the rail line ready
and another $10 million a year to operate, and it could need a
property tax or sales tax hike to fund at least some of it. Other
potential funding sources include federal and state governments and Metra.
The best-case scenario for the $247 million project would be that
service would start in three to five years. It could take years longer
as planners seek federal, state and local funds to pay for it.
"I hope it's something that is coming here," William Woodard, 37, of
Rockford said. "I travel back and fourth a lot. Anything going that
way is much cheaper than gas."
Thousands of passengers a day
The commuter rail service could draw 5,200 riders a day and 1.3
million riders a year, according to NICTI's consultants, TranSystems.
Under the recommendation, the route would include two trains in each
direction every weekday morning and another two every weekday evening
between Rockford and the Big Timber Metra station in Elgin. It would
include another morning and evening train in each direction between
Rockford and Bensenville. Passengers could transfer to Metra at those
places to reach Chicago.
Service could be expanded to include weekends or to add trains during
It would take just over an hour to get from Rockford to Elgin and 95
minutes to get to Bensenville.
"Economies develop around exits on interstates because businesses like
the `get on, get off' aspect," said Janyce Fadden, president of the
Rockford Area Economic Development Council and a member of the group
planning for the commuter rail route. "Transit centers are the same
way. You'll have housing and retail and commercial operations. You may
have office developments that you don't have now."
The commuter rail route would create both a "physical and
psychological link" with Chicago, said project manager Jim Ryan, who
also is Rockford city administrator.
"For many decades, we tried to turn our backs on the third-largest
global marketplace in North America," Ryan said. "There's a
recognition that we are part of that third-largest market."
About 42,600 people in Winnebago and Boone counties commute to work
outside of those counties, according to a study commissioned last year
by local economic groups. Many use Interstate 90, which sees about
40,000 vehicles a day around Belvidere, 100,000 a day around Elgin and
150,000 a day around Schaumburg.
The project might not qualify for federal funding, planners said
Wednesday, because it costs too much per potential rider. Instead,
they might have to pay for it through local bonds, state funding and
partnerships with Metra, Amtrak and Union Pacific Railroad.
There could be a tax increase referendum for Winnebago and Boone
counties to pay for much of the project. If local government sells
bonds to pay for $200 million of the project, it would need property
or sales tax proceeds to pay it back over 40 years.
Details on a possible referendum would come together in the next few
Any state funding likely would come from a long-debated capital plan.
Local officials talked Wednesday about trying to get the Illinois
Department of Transportation to move its proposed Amtrak service to
this route to combine capital investment. Under that idea, Amtrak
service would start first, and commuter rail later.
Other options seriously considered were a commuter rail route from
Elgin through Genoa and Davis Junction to Chicago Rockford
International Airport; and two "rapid-bus" routes along the Jane
Addams Memorial Tollway (Interstate 90) from the Chicago suburbs to
Fadden said new commuter rail stations in Rockford and Belvidere could
invigorate those areas with new developments, similar to the areas
around Metra stations in the Chicago suburbs.
For example, Boone County is planning a high-density mixed-use
development in the area between a train station and a proposed new
interchange along Interstate 90 at Irene Road. And Rockford city
officials hope a downtown station here could lead to more offices and
Staff writer Thomas V. Bona may be contacted at 815-987-1343 or
Q&A: Commuter rail
1. Where would the commuter rail line go?
The recommendation is for two Rockford stations one at an
undetermined spot downtown, one at Perryville Road near Interstate 39
and two Boone County stations one near Irene Road and U.S. 20, one
in downtown Belvidere. Other stations would be at Marengo, Huntley,
Big Timber Road in Elgin, Chicago Street in Elgin, Medinah and
2. How long would a trip take?
Planners estimate it would take just over an hour to get from Rockford
to Big Timber, and 95 minutes to get from Rockford to Bensenville.
With a transfer to Metra at either location, it would take between 2
hours and 15 minutes and 21/2 hours to get from Rockford to Chicago.
3. How much would it cost?
Ticket prices won't be set until service starts, but preliminary
estimates have Rockford-Big Timber at $6.50 each way,
Rockford-Bensenville at $10 each way and Rockford-Chicago (including
Metra ticket) at $13.45 each way.
4. Who would operate the service?
A government agency would oversee the service either through
expanding an existing body, starting a new transit agency or joining
Chicago's Regional Transit Authority and hire someone to run the
trains. Metra, Amtrak or a private rail company are possibilities.
5. How will they pay for this project?
That also is unclear. Planners will be seeking federal and state funds
for both capital costs and operating costs. But they also might
propose a new property tax or sales tax increase for Winnebago and
Boone counties, and possible other areas. Planners estimate they'd
need $10 million a year in local money to pay off bonds and subsidize
the service. According to planners, a 0.25 percent property tax
increase would yield $13 million a year in the two counties, and a
0.25 percent sales tax hike would yield $9.5 million. A referendum
would be needed for either.
6. What about bus and car connections?
Plans would include bus service to destinations such as Chicago
Rockford International Airport, the Schaumburg area and O'Hare
International Airport from train stations. Each station would also
have a "park and ride" lot.
7. When will this start?
The best-case scenario is three to five years, but it could take years
longer to secure funding.