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Despite COVID headwinds, study recommends ways to expand Metra NCS service

An NCS train at the O’Hare station. Photo: Jeff Zoline

According to a new report, Metra North Central Service Line riders would like weekend service and more frequent weekday runs. But that was a tall order even before the pandemic decimated transit ridership and revenue. The line runs from Union Station, past O'Hare Airport, to Antioch, Illinois, just south of the Wisconsin border.

On June 29, 2017, the Village of Mundelein, which is served by the NCS Line, applied for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency of Planning's Local Technical Assistance grant to study ways to improve service and pay for those improvements. The report became part of the Regional Transit Authority’s  2018 community planning program, with the village and RTA contracting Chicago-based SB Friedman Development Advisors to conduct it. The results were released on May 19.

The study laid out three options: adding weekend service and slightly increasing the rush hour service; increasing midday and evening service without adding weekend service; and increasing weekday service even further, so that the frequency is closer to most other lines. The study suggests using some combination of local funding, including a transit tax-increment financing district, with municipalities along the line contributing at least some of the costs.

Of course, all of this was before COVID-19, which saw Metra cut the North Central Service schedule down to one trip in each direction per weekday. But transit officials still praised it as a solid starting point, and said they would work with the municipalities as they try to figure out the next steps.

The Current Status

Between The Loop and River Grove, the NCS Line shares tracks with the Milwaukee District West line. The NCS heads west out of the West Loop and stops at the Western station in Chicago’s Smith Park neighborhood before heading north onto the tracks currently owned by the Canadian National railroad.

Even under normal circumstances, North Central Service’s schedule has several gaps. It is one of only two Metra lines without any  weekend service. On weekdays, only 10 trains in each direction, with schedules geared toward delivering commuters to Chicago. There are only two reverse commute runs in each direction during rush hour, and evening service is limited.

To complicate things further, one of those evening trains, Train No. 120, is technically both a North Central Service line and Milwaukee District North line train. It leaves Antioch at 7:02 p.m., makes the regular North Central Service stops until the Washington Street station in Grayslake, then moves over the Milwaukee District North Line, where it stops at Libertyville and Lake Forest before running express to Union Station. This means that most of the NCS stations don’t have inbound evening service after 6:30 p.m.

But the NCS line does have several things going for it. The O’Hare Transfer station is the closest Metra station to the airport, although, unlike the Blue ‘L’ line, it doesn’t provide direct access. The Buffalo Grove station is located in the heart of the village’s business park. And the River Grove and Prairie Crossing stations provide convenient transfers in either direction to the Milwaukee District West line and Milwaukee District North line, respectively.

The study found that there is a demand for more service. 57 percent of businesses surveyed said the current schedule “limits their ability to recruit or retain employees.” Out of all riders surveyed, 44 percent wanted weekend service.

However, the study also pointed to several factors that hinder any service expansion. Any major schedule change will have to be negotiated with Canadian National. There are two stretches where the line has only one track, so Metra would need to build a second track, or at least some sidings to avoid bottlenecks. Union Station has limited train capacity and, depending on how much the service is expanded, Metra may need to buy more train sets. And the reports notes that, out of 11 Metra lines, the North Central Service has the second-lowest ridership

What are the options?

The study looked at three different service expansion scenarios. The “Limited” scenario calls for restoring two rush hour trains that were cut in 2018, adding a morning inbound rush hour train and an afternoon rush hour train,  and running three weekend trains in each direction. The weekend schedule would be orientated toward day trips to Chicago, with inbound trains running in the morning, mid-day and early evening; and outbound trains running mid-day, late afternoon and early evening. The study estimates that it would cost around $70-99 million to buy new train sets for the weekend service, build a second track at the Grayslake segment and add a siding in Mundelein. Metra will also need around $5 million a year to keep the extra service going.

The “Intermediate” option calls for six additional weekday trains in each direction, beefing up rush hour service in both directions to allow for reverse commuting, as well as adding one inbound evening trip and two outbound evening trips. The option doesn’t call for any weekend service. This scenario would require $452 million to add an extra track near Union Station and near Des Plaines, buy new train sets and expand the Antioch train yard to store the extra equipment. However, since the track improvements near the Union Station would benefit Milwaukee District lines as well, some of that cost could be offset. The regular operating costs would increase by $8 million.

The “Full” option beefs up the intermediate option, adding a total of 16 trains in each direction. It doesn’t include weekend service, either. This option would cost $501 million to pay for all the improvements included in the Intermediate option, as well as to add a siding at Mundelein. The additional operating costs would go up to $15 million.

Consultant SB Friedman held two pop-up meetings at the Prairie Crossing station and the O’Hare Transfer station to get feedback from riders about which option they would prefer. At O’Hare Transfer, the Intermediate option got 54 percent of the vote, with the Limited option getting 31 percent. At Prairie Crossing, the Limited option got the most votes at 48 percent, with Intermediate option garnering 38 percent. That is especially noticeable since those riders can use the nearby Milwaukee District North line, which does have weekend service.

One major issue that stands in the way of implementing any of those options is funding. None of these options are eligible for federal grants, the Rebuild Illinois capital bill doesn’t allocate any funding for them and they're not a priority for Metra (remember that it's Mundelein, not Metra, that commissioned the study. Therefore the report recommends pooling something together from regional and local sources.

The study looked at several options, including a transit TIF district (similar to what Chicago created for Red Line improvements), sales tax revenue, Motor Fuel Tax revenue and taxing ride-hail companies. And it found that, while a transit TIF that includes all properties within 1.5 miles of the line would generate around $141 million over the course of 35 years -- enough to cover the capital costs for the Limited option -- none of the funding mechanisms would be enough to cover the costs of the Intermediate and  Full options. All of the other funding sources wouldn’t even cover the Limited option. So the options would most likely require several different revenue sources.

The study also brought up the possibility of having municipalities along the line serve share the costs. The exact amount each municipality contributes would be based on how many residents would be served, the size of the area that would be impacted and how many more trains a station would get. The municipalities would need to work out the exact funding formula.

In response to the report, RTA executive director Leanne Redden stated, “This study takes a productive first step to understand the scope and bring together leaders from along the corridor to discuss solutions. The RTA hopes to be part of a continued dialogue about the future of the NCS.”

Jim Derwinski, Metra’s executive director, said that "while Metra has ongoing funding challenges to deliver regular service levels," he thought that the ideas in the study were sound. “Metra is committed to working with the NCS communities to explore those possibilities going forward."

Amanda Orenchuck, Mundelein’s community development director, urged municipalities along the line to keep working together. “As a line in its infancy, there is much untapped potential that requires significant investment that can only be realized by communities and agencies working together to understand this line’s benefits and challenges,” she stated. “This complex issue can only be improved through mutual cooperation and understanding.”

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