Perfect storm: Metra threatens line closures as Chicago mulls ‘congestion tax’ for commuters

Perfect storm: Metra threatens line closures as Chicago mulls ‘congestion tax’ for commuters

A federal mandate threatens to shut down Metra lines while Rahm’s ‘congestion tax’ would make it costlier for commuters to drive into the city.

A federal mandate could shut down Metra, which serves nearly 300,000 commuters each day, indefinitely.

At the same time, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is considering a “congestion” tax that would charge drivers a fee for commuting downtown from the suburbs by car.

It’s the perfect storm for suburban dwellers, who now face the possibility of no good option to get to work.

First, the mandate. In 2008, the federal government approved the Rail Safety Improvement Act. This mandate required the implementation of Positive Train Control, or PTC, by Dec. 31, 2015. PTC is a computerized system that prevents certain types of train-to-train collisions, derailments and other accidents caused by excessive speed by using an integrated GPS system that can automatically stop a train.

Train systems that do not implement PTC cannot continue to operate after Dec. 31, 2015. Metra officials have repeatedly told the federal government they cannot make all of the necessary adjustments until 2019.

Metra officials estimate PTC updates could cost $350 million. Operating in violation of PTC standards could cost $9 billion, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune reported that the Federal Railroad Administration will fine the railroads up to $25,000 a day if they operate without PTC.

In a letter to John Thune, chairman of the U.S. Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Metra Executive Director Don Orseno wrote:

“PTC implementation is an unfunded mandate and expected to cost Metra more than $350 million. Our agency receives approximately $150 million each year in federal formula funding for all of our capital needs, such as bridges, track and signals. Thus, to fully fund PTC, Metra would need to spend 100 percent of its federal funding for two and one-half years.”

Now, Metra is scrambling to figure out what to do with thousands of riders should any of its commuter lines have to shut down. The Chicago Tribune reported that the BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad have already announced plans to shut down service by Dec. 31 if Metra doesn’t secure a compliance extension.

Second, Emanuel’s “congestion tax.” Chicago officials are in a mad dash to scrounge up revenue to fill a $750 billion budget gap. That includes taxing commuters – under the guise of cutting down pollution connected to congested roadways. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the city hopes to generate $195 million per year by charging drivers for using city streets (not federal or state highways) during rush hour, between 6-10 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. The Sun-Times reported that Alderman Ed Burke, 14th Ward, persuaded Emanuel to form an exploratory committee to study the viability of the possible new tax.

The problem is the city is aiming to incentivize drivers to seek alternate methods of transportation just as the area’s most viable public alternative is facing a massive service shutdown.

Unfunded mandates from the federal government, even when well intentioned, can have unintended consequences. The federal PTC policy sprang out of tragedy in 2008, when a Union Pacific train collided with a commuter train outside of Los Angeles, killing 25 people. Instead of federal mandates, it is incumbent upon local train systems to maintain responsible safety standards that make sense for each locality.

Tacking on a money-grab like Emanuel’s congestion tax in the wake of a potential Metra shutdown is irresponsible and unfair to the people who have to get in and out of the city for work each day.

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