Is that train a comin'?

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October 28, 2007
— Rock County has affordable homes, but commuter traffic patterns show that job growth in Dane County and northern Illinois is putting more and more motorists on the road.

That’s what’s driving a committee to study commuter rail and other transportation issues in Rock County.

Extending Metra commuter service from Harvard, Ill., to Clinton has been kicked around for years. Now, a committee is taking a broader look at Rock County and its incoming and outgoing traffic patterns.

The committee recently narrowed a list of alternatives from 28 to a handful. They include:

-- Commuter rail service from Madison to Rockford, Ill., through either Evansville or Milton.

-- An exclusive bus lane from Madison to Rockford along Interstate 90/39, most likely in a third lane of traffic for high occupancy vehicles when I-90/39 is widened in eight to 10 years.

-- Express bus service from Madison to Rockford with limited stops along the Highway 14 and Highway 51 corridor.

-- Discounted fares for daily usage of bus service between Madison and Rockford.

-- A connection from the Janesville-Beloit area to the Metra station in Harvard, Ill. Most likely, this alternative would start with bus service with a possible rail connection later.

Bus service is a likely first step in any of the alternatives, said Brad Cantrell, Janesville’s planning director who also serves as the committee’s co-chair.

“The federal government won’t just build something based on what we say ridership levels will be,” he said. “They build things based on known ridership levels.”

Establishing or expanding bus service is a much less expensive option than rail lines when it comes to gauging readership, he said.

“A lot of this won’t happen in the next 10 or even 20 years,” Cantrell said. “We’re trying to look at things now in a little broader sense to see what we can start doing to lay the foundation.”

For example, he said, planning for bus service between Madison and Rockford now is prudent in advance of the I-90/39 widening project. Such a service would help alleviate congestion and help planners determine how many people would use an alternative to their car.

Along with a possible expansion of bus and rail service comes the need for park and ride lots, which communities can start identifying now, he said.

It’s also important to consider existing rail lines and what will happen to them in the not-too-distant future, Cantrell said.

“We need to protect those lines so they are available years down the road,” he said.

Due diligence now is the key to any future project, said Gary Foyle of Earth Tech, a consultant to the local steering committee.

“Before the feds agree to any project, they require an extensive alternative analysis that includes a variety of transportation alternatives,” he said. “A lot of time, a group will get so attached to one particular project that it doesn’t study all the options.

“This group is looking at all the options and laying the foundation for the future.”

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