DeKalb’s commuter rail roadmap, ignored


City of DeKalb is spending $98,000 on a study of the feasibility of bringing commuter rail service to our city. But the information is already available.

DeKalb County examined feasibility at the end of 2015. Led by then-county board chair Mark Pietrowski, an informal meeting of the Metra Rail Exploratory Committee included representatives from DeKalb, Sycamore, Cortland, NIU, the state legislature, Union Pacific, and Metra.

If attendees had seen a promising outlook, the county would have formalized the committee to tackle the next steps.

Spoiler: the outlook was not promising. According to the railroad representatives, the total investment required to bring rail from Elburn to DeKalb at the time was an estimated $400-$500 million. In the context of the DeKalb County daily ridership of 150, the group made the decision to concentrate on improving bus service to the Elburn train station for the time being, to grow demand for new infrastructure.

A couple years later, locals started a petition to bring commuter rail to DeKalb, and this discussion brought forth new information. RTA — which DeKalb County would need to join to bring rail service here — wasn’t looking to expand because of budget constraints. From a 2017 Shaw story:

John Heckmann, associate vice president for facilities, management and campus services at NIU, said the university is supportive of bringing passenger train service to DeKalb but also aware of hurdles like the RTA sales tax…Heckmann, who was involved in DeKalb County’s Metra Rail Exploratory Committee and the DeKalb-Sycamore Area Transportation Study, said improving bus services in the interim would demonstrate the demand for transportation options when the possibility for train service is revisited.”

RTA’s situation has since worsened, the transit authority described last year as poised on the verge of operational collapse. Commuter rail is expanding westward-ho no time soon.

Yet until they hired the consultant, DeKalb either ignored or didn’t grasp the importance of the assignment to improve bus service to the Elburn station in the meantime. What’s more, management told council before the vote on the consultant’s contract that the project would cost $80 to $100 million, a huge discrepancy from what the railroad reps told us.

City officials seem to require remedial education on this issue. A competent city council would be preferable, but until that happens it’s up to us to know the score. That way we can try to prevent them shopping for answers they can already acquire for free.