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Chicago, Illinois/North Central Corridor

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North Central Corridor

Chicago, Illinois

(November 1998)


Metra, the commuter rail division of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) of northeastern Illinois, is proposing to construct 12 miles of an additional (second) mainline track along the existing 53-mile North Central Corridor (also known as the Wisconsin Central Limited Corridor). The corridor extends from downtown Chicago to Antioch on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, traversing suburban Lake County. The proposed project also includes track and signal upgrades, construction of five new stations, parking facilities, expansion of an existing rail yard, and the purchase of one new diesel locomotive and eight bi-level passenger cars. The total estimated capital cost for the North Central Corridor is $204 million ($escalated).

The North Central Corridor is a 12-mile area located along either side of the Wisconsin Central Limited track between Antioch and Franklin Park in Lake and Cook counties and along the Milwaukee-West Line between Franklin Park and the City of Chicago. The corridor includes the two most significant hubs of employment in the six-county northeastern Illinois region, namely, the Chicago Central Business District (CBD) and the area surrounding O’Hare International Airport. Metra estimates that 8,400 daily new riders will use the system in the year 2020.

North Central Corridor Summary Description

Proposed Project Commuter Rail Line (upgrade, multiple improvements)
12 miles, 5 stations
Total Capital Cost ($YOE) $204.00 million
Section 5309 Share ($YOE) $130.60 million
Annual Operating Cost ($1997) $5.50 million
Ridership Forecast (2020) 8,400 daily new riders
FY 2000 Financial Rating: Medium-High
FY 2000 Project Justification Rating: Low-Medium
FY 2000 Overall Project Rating: Not Recommended

The overall project rating applies to this Annual New Starts Report and reflects conditions as of November 1998. Project evaluation is an ongoing process. As new starts projects proceed through development, the estimates of costs, benefits, and impacts are refined. The FTA ratings and recommendations will be updated annually to reflect new information, changing conditions, and refined financing plans.


In April 1997, Metra initiated a Major Investment Study (MIS) for the North Central Corridor. The primary purpose of the MIS was to analyze the ability and cost effectiveness of various alternative investment strategies to serve the growing need for travel from the corridor to employment in the Chicago CBD. As a secondary purpose, Metra also analyzed the need for travel from the corridor to the area surrounding O’Hare International Airport.

Based on the results of the MIS, Metra selected the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) to be Rail Alternative R2 which provides for the enhancement of commuter rail service in the North Central Corridor. The LPA was included in the Chicago Area Transportation Study’s (local Metropolitan Planning Organization) 2020 Long Range Plan and Transportation Improvement Program in November 1997.

FTA approved (in December 1998) the North Central Corridor to initiate preliminary engineering and the environmental review process of project development. Section 3030(a)(10) of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA- 21) authorizes the "North Central Upgrade – Commuter Rail [Metra]" for final design and construction. Through FY 1999, Congress has appropriated $2.98 million in Section 5309 New Starts funds for the project.


The following criteria have been estimated in conformance with FTA’s Technical Guidance on Section 5309 New Starts Criteria. For reporting purposes, Metra provided criteria for the "Existing Airport Improvements (EAI)" socio-demographic scenario. Data from the EAI socio-demographic scenario was used to evaluate the proposed new start project against both the No-build and TSM alternatives. N/A indicates that information for a specific criterion was not available.


Mobility Improvements

Rating: Low-Medium

Metra estimates the following annual travel time savings for the North Central Corridor:

Mobility Improvements New Start vs. No- Build New Start vs. TSM
Annual Travel Time Savings (Hours) 0.3 million hours 0.1 million hours

Based on 1990 census data, there are an estimated 1,516 low-income households within a ½ mile radius of the proposed five stations. This represents 7 percent of the total number of households within ½ mile radius of the proposed stations.

Environmental Benefits

Rating: Medium

Northeastern Illinois is classified as being in "severe" nonattainment for ozone. The region is in attainment for carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter (PM10). Metra reports a slight increase in hydrocarbon emissions for the New Start compared to both the No-Build and TSM alternatives. Metra estimates that in the year 2020, the proposed project will result in the following emissions reductions:

Criteria Pollutant New Start vs. No- Build New Start vs. TSM
Carbon Monoxide (CO) reduction of 159 annual tons reduction of 78 annual tons
Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) reduction of 21 annual tons reduction of 8 annual tons
Hydrocarbons (HC) increase of 50 annual tons increase of 44 annual tons
Particulate Matter (PM10) N/A N/A
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) reduction of 9,433 annual tons reduction of 4,166 annual tons

Metra estimates that the proposed project will result in the following decreases in regional energy consumption (measured in British Thermal Units – BTUs):

Annual Energy Savings New Start vs. No- Build New Start vs. TSM
BTU (million) reduction of 123,963 million BTU reduction of 54,964 million BTU

Operating Efficiencies

Rating: Medium

Metra estimates the following systemwide operating cost per passenger mile in the year 2020 for the New Start, No-Build, and TSM alternatives.

Operating Efficiencies No-Build TSM New Start
System Operating Cost per Passenger Mile (2020) $0.23 $0.23 $0.23

Values reflect 2020 ridership forecast and 1997 dollars.

Cost Effectiveness

Rating: Medium

Metra estimates the following cost effectiveness indices, comparing the proposed project to the No-Build and TSM alternatives:

Cost Effectiveness New Start vs. No- Build New Start vs. TSM
Incremental Cost per Incremental Passenger $8.93 $11.41

Values reflect 2020 ridership forecast and 1997 dollars.

Transit-Supportive Existing Land Use and Future Patterns

Rating: Low-Medium

The Low-Medium land use rating reflects both the moderate to low densities as well as the relatively few transit-supportive policies that currently exist within the proposed corridor, outside of the Chicago Central Business District (CBD). The North Central Line connects rapidly expanding suburban residential communities in northern portions of Lake County, Illinois to medium and low density employment areas surrounding O’Hare International Airport, and the high-density employment center located in the Chicago CBD. Low-density residential neighborhoods, separation of land uses, and a hierarchical collector/arterial street network characterize development around suburban stations. Exceptions to the low-density characteristics of development along the North Central Line include a new "Neo-Traditional" residential development immediately adjacent to the Vernon Hills and River Grove stations that include several pockets of multi-family housing, as well as nearby retail activity. Regionally, RTA operates a Technical Program that provides funding and informational tools for communities that are interested in creating transit- friendly developments.

The current development characteristics of station area development along the proposed corridor reflect, in part, the relatively recent initiation of Metra service that began on the North Central Line in 1996. The Line utilizes an existing freight rail corridor that passes through the urban periphery of communities in its path. Development characteristics may change in response to the new stations over the long term. Metra, in coordination with local municipalities, provides park and ride lots in close proximity to commuter rail stations on the North Central Line. The 2020 Regional Transportation Plan contains specific policies which encourage higher density development at transit facilities. In the Chicago CBD, which is a primary destination for the North Central Line, the City maintains a ban on new parking structures or lots in the area inside "the Loop." Outside of the CBD, however, few policies exist to restrict parking supply in order to encourage transit use.

Local Financial Commitment

Proposed Non-Section 5309 Share of Total Project Costs: 36%

Metra proposes $130.60 million (64 percent) in Section 5309 New Start funds and $73.40 million (36 percent) in State funds for the proposed North Central Line Upgrade and Improvements.

Stability and Reliability of Capital Financing Plan

Rating: Medium

The Medium capital plan rating reflects that Metra is reasonably financially capable to provide the non-Section 5309 share of project costs. However, a proposed financial plan was not submitted to FTA for review. The financial capacity of Metra is considered strong. A financial plan outlining the combination of federal, state, local sources will prepared during the next phase project development. Metra, through its relationship with the RTA, has a successful history of advancing capital projects that have required significant resources beyond the federal formala and rail modernization program. Metra relies on its own resources from sales tax receipts and farebox revenue to provide significant funding for its capital program. Farebox revenue dedicated to capital expenditures is considered an innovating financing tool, which generated $8 million in 1997. Metra would have to commit this revenue source over seven to eight years to provide the local share for the project. A combination of Federal, state and local grants from Metra’s retained earnings usually fund capital expenditures. Metra had cash and cash equivalents of $56 million as of December 31, 1997. The State of Illinois General Assembly typically provides about $40 million each year to fund public transportation capital projects in northeastern Illinois. Metra’s share is approximately $14 million. Metra also receives annual allocations of dedicated sales tax revenues from the RTA. Metra estimates that communities that directly benefit from the proposed project will contribute $17 million in Federal flexible funding to the project.

Stability and Reliability of Operating Finance Plan

Rating: High

The High operating plan rating reflects the strong financial structure of existing operations of Metra and the availability of existing resources to assist with potential operational funding deficits. This is one of three new start projects that Metra has under development. A financial plan, focusing on each proposed new start project outlining the funding and operating mechanisms will be finalized during the next phase of project development. As provided under the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) Act, Metra was established in 1980 to serve as RTA’s operating rail corporation. Metra receives revenues directly from the operation of Rock Island, Milwaukee Road, Metra Electric, Heritage Corridor, North Central Line, and the Southwest Service Line, as well as financial operating assistance from the RTA. Metra demonstrates strong financial capacity to support operations of the proposed project in addition to ongoing system operations. Metra is proposing operating budgets through the year 2001 that will attain a 55 percent revenue recovery ratio. The North Central Line upgrade will require an operating subsidy of $5.5 million (1997 dollars). This represents an increase of 0.3 percent in operating assistance requirements. Metra’s share of RTA’s sales tax revenues is projected to increase by approximately 4 percent during this time period.

Locally Proposed Financing Plan

(Reported in $1997)

Proposed Source of Funds Total Funding
Appropriations to Date
Federal: Section 5309 New Starts $106.53 $2.98 million appropriated through FY 1999
State/Local: $61.15 N/A
Total: $167.68

Note: Funding proposal reflects assumptions made by project sponsors, and are not DOT or FTA assumptions. Totals may not add due to rounding.

[North Central Corridor Map (PDF)]

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