Metra Tries to Quell Ridgefield Land Purchase Firestrom

Look what just popped into my email inbox:

Frequently Asked Questions about
the Ridgefield Metra parking lot purchase ten days ago.

You will notice that no mention is made of McHenry County College in the FAQ’s below:

I am in receipt of your correspondence sent to the Metra Board recently in which you raise questions about Metra’s procurement of land in unincorporated McHenry County near Ridgefield. Because the questions you raised were asked by others, Metra staff has created a “Frequently Asked Question” information sheet that will likely answer them and provide you with additional information.

I hope this will answer the questions you raised.

Sincerely,

Metra Board

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS REGARDING RIDGEFIELD

Q: Why is Metra buying property near Ridgefield?

A: Planning studies have shown that there will be a need to address additional commuter rail service options between Woodstock and Crystal Lake in McHenry County. Population in the area is projected to grow 73% by 2030. McHenry is one of the fastest growing counties in Illinois and Metra needs to stay ahead of this growth by being prepared to provide this population viable, commuter rail transportation opportunities.

Q: Why is Metra buying property from the McHenry County Chairman?

A: Metra has been interested in acquiring property on the north side of the tracks in this area for a number of years. McHenry County Chairman, Ken Koehler, through a trust, is a part owner of property located on the north side of the tracts that is about 3.2 miles North West of the current Crystal Lake station. Metra’s Board of Directors, comprised of 11 directors representing all six counties and the city of Chicago, are aware of this transaction and voted 9-0 in favor of this acquisition.

Q: Did Metra’s McHenry County Director vote for this project?

A: Director Jack Schaffer’s advertising company has a small billboard located on the Ridgefield property that will be removed if Metra actually closes on the real estate transaction. While Director Schaffer stated in the public session in August 2009 that he was very much in favor of the purchase and had a legal right to vote on the transaction, after consulting with Metra’s General Counsel, however, he decided to abstain from actually voting so that there would not be even an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Q: Why is Metra not building a station on the south side of the tracks near Ridgefield?

A: Metra recognizes that there are issues that need to be addressed with locating a station at this location, but Metra’s primary desire and experience has been to keep our morning commuters on the same side of the inbound tracks as much as possible, which happen to be the north tracks on this line.

If you look at the location of stations on all three Union Pacific lines operating Metra service, almost all of them are located on the north or east side. In addition, a south side location would necessitate purchasing some property on the north side to build a depot or significant waiting areas for in-bound morning commuters. Also, with a south side parking location in Ridgefield, a north side Crystal Lake Fire Rescue Department access road from the existing public street to the depot site would be required.

Q: Will Metra build a station on the north side of the tracks after the purchase?

A: While it is our desire to build a station on the north side of the tracks, we are realistic. We acknowledge that there are many factors at play wherever a station is considered, including cost, traffic, safety, environmental, and many others.

Q: What will prevent Metra from purchasing the Ridgefield property?

A: There is some confusion here. Metra’s Board of Directors voted to give the Executive Director the authority to purchase the property; however, the contract has various pre-conditions before Metra actually goes forward and closes on the purchase and sale agreement. For instance, Metra requires that the City of Crystal Lake and Metra enter into an acceptable annexation agreement, an operation and maintenance agreement, and, if applicable, a recapture agreement for any direct improvements Metra installs that would benefit future developers.

Q: How can I express my concerns, opposition, or support for a Ridgefield station?

A: Contrary to what some citizens may say, Metra is not short circuiting the normal development process relating to the construction of a station. Local citizens can always express their opinion when Metra approaches the City of Crystal Lake during the annexation process.

If there are other units of government, such as McHenry County, that have jurisdiction over road access or environmental requirements, citizens can bring their concerns or comments to them as well.

This is a process that Metra has been through dozens of times over the past 25 years, and we encourage citizen participation.

Q: Why isn’t Metra building a station near my hometown instead of Ridgefield?

A: Just because Metra is purchasing land at Ridgefield it doesn’t mean that Metra is precluded from pursuing other station developments.

The selection of station sites is a dynamic process. Many different factors are considered as part of station selection, including: the proximity of the station to the communities that would be served, the proximity to residential developments (existing and future), as well as the proximity to employment and/or recreational destinations and major highways or access roads. Any environmental conditions including wetlands, floodplains, heavily wooded areas, or other sensitive locations, should be minimally or not impacted by the station development. Another significant factor that is considered when selecting station locations is the availability of property needed for station and parking facilities. From an operational perspective there are other factors too, including the amount of improvements needed to add to or upgrade the railroad tracks and any signaling.

In 2007, Metra completed an Alternatives Analysis (AA) for the Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW) Line Upgrade project. The Locally Preferred Alternative that was selected during this process includes extending the UP-NW Line to Johnsburg, constructing new modernized coach yards in Johnsburg and Woodstock, building three new stations on the line at

  • Johnsburg,
  • Prairie Grove, and
  • Ridgefield,

adding rolling stock and improving signaling, track infrastructure, and stations along the line.

All of these improvements will enable Metra to decrease travel times for existing customers, extend additional service to outlying areas in McHenry County, and add capacity to accommodate projected ridership growth throughout the line. Metra is currently undertaking an Environmental Assessment on the project, and is awaiting approval from the Federal Transit Administration to begin Preliminary Engineering. In addition to the UP-NW Line, Metra completed an AA on the Union Pacific West Line Upgrade in 2007, and AA’s for the STAR Line and SouthEast Service are on-going, with anticipated completion in fall 2009. These four projects comprise the Metra Connects program, and are Metra’s priority projects. Additional system expansion beyond these four projects will be contemplated once these projects have sufficiently advanced through the planning and environmental phases of project development.

Q: Was Metra pressured into buying the Ridgefield property?

A: No. While many sellers are often anxious to sell their properties, especially in the current real estate market, Metra’s determination of when and where to buy property is now, and has always been, determined by an evaluation of what is in the best interest of our regional commuter rail system. The same holds true for where a station is ultimately built. Metra is considered by many in the industry to be the premier commuter rail system in the country.

A large part of our success is our ability to work cooperatively with local communities, while always keeping in perspective the regional needs of the system.

Metra recognizes there will be some neighbors who have legitimate concerns about how improvements might affect their community, property values, and daily lives. As always, we look forward to working with constructive community leaders in maintaining a good working relationship that will benefit our commuters.

= = = = =
The top map from Google shows approximately where on Country Club Road, the Ridgefield commuter parking lot will be.

Next is the 17.3 acre site with the “For Sale” sign. Alexander Lumber’s new site is in the background where 84 Lumber used to be.

Next is an aerial look at Downtown Ridgefield. It shows the narrow roads through which much of the traffic to the 757-vehicle parking lot would travel. (Can you see a Walgreen or CVS on the north side of the intersection where the antique shops now sit? A traffic critique is here.)

The site can be seen from the other side of the tracks in the photo with Seeger’s grain elevators in the foreground.

Below is the site (circled in yellow) offered on the Route 14 side of the tracks by Craig Steagall. It could have a pretty straight shot to McHenry County College. More of Steagall’s critique here and here.

Next is the 575-vehicle parking lot. Click to enlarge and you will see there is no station, but there are drainage ponds on this portion of the Crystal Lake watershed.

Below outlined in blue is the 57-acre McHenry County College Gilger property that was bought last year by McHenry County College for $67,000 per acre. (Metra is paying $81,789 an acre for 17.3 acres.) Note that MCC’s land is right across Ridgefield Road from the train tracks. If Metra were interested in best serving McHenry County College perhaps an arrangement could be worked out where MCC would provide a 737-space parking lot and Metra could use the money it would spend on the parking lot to build an elevated walkway over Ridgefield Road and the Union Pacific tracks with commuter stops and shelters on both sides of the tracks. Metra made no contact with MCC from January 5, 2009, when the site was preliminarily selected and August 14th, when the Metra board authorized its purchase. A meeting will occur now that the decision has been made.

Another view of Metra’s Ridgefield commuter site is seen next to the barb wire fence of soon-to-be Alexander Lumber.

An aerial view of the area from McHenry County College to McConnell Road on the edge of Bull Valley is show in the bottom picture from Google. The real estate on Country Club Road from Ridgefield to McConnell Road will be under extraordinary pressure for development once Crystal Lake annexes the Koehler-Gary Seigmeier Estate property next to it.


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