U of I's rail transportation center calculates cost of delayed maintenance on Chicago's Metra system

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As members of the Metra Board of Directors, and as mayors of cities in the Chicago area, we are doubly concerned about the commuter railroad’s serious capital funding crisis. Without a large infusion of funding from the state of Illinois, we likely will have to shrink the Metra system to match our shrinking resources. If that happens, it will impact our communities and scores of others all across northeast Illinois.

What makes our situation so dire is illustrated by a white paper that was commissioned by Metra and prepared by the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This paper documents the cost of delay: the failure to spend $1 in preventive maintenance now can cost $4 in deferred maintenance later. “Too often maintenance and renewal needs are deferred or reduced to make up for budget shortfalls because the consequences may be minimal in the short term, but this is a false economy,” the study states. “Deferring maintenance and renewal has a negative spiraling attribute; the more things degrade, the more rapid the subsequent rate of degradation, so putting things off only makes the situation worse.”

The point at which the rate of degradation turns from a relatively linear curve into a geometric curve is referred to as the “point of inflection.” We can tell you Metra is very close to that point. We have the oldest fleet of locomotives and cars in the United States. Because of funding shortfalls, we are neither replacing nor rehabbing them on the recommended schedule, and the result is more mechanical breakdowns, more delays. More than half of our 800 bridges are older than 100 years. We can afford to replace about three a year, which means it would take us a 150 years to finish the job. They are safe to use, but the cost to maintain them will only increase.

One of our biggest points of vulnerability is a complex of switches known as A-2, where three Metra tracks cross four Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Western and Grand in Chicago. Every day more than 350 Metra trains from seven of our 11 lines pass over this complex. A major failure there would seriously impact service across all six counties in our service area. While the switches themselves have been updated recently, the machine that controls them dates from the 1930s. We have to maintain the machine with parts salvaged from other old machines or fabricated ourselves. The entire switching complex rests on a bridge over Western that was built in 1905 and requires constant maintenance and attention. The ideal solution? An extremely expensive, and at this point unaffordable, bridge carrying one set of tracks over the other.

Metra’s importance to the Chicago region cannot be understated. It provides benefits to our riders, by saving them time and money. And it provides benefits to the region, by reducing pollution, cutting congestion and fueling the economy. We know our communities and many others would suffer if Metra were forced to shrink.

We describe these conditions not to scare the public, nor to imply that Metra is unsafe. We will never operate an unsafe railroad. Rather, we describe them as a call to action: we must start to significantly invest in the Metra system if we want it to continue — and grow to meet the region’s needs. The cost of not addressing our significant capital funding needs far exceeds the cost of addressing them now.

Rodney S. Craig, is mayor of Hanover Park, Timothy Baldermann is mayor of New Lenox and Don A. De Graff is mayor of South Holland.