Time for Amtrak and Metra to bury the hatchet (July 26, 2019)

Greg Hinz
July 26, 2019

On warm summer days like we've had lately, the biggest hassle on my morning commute is watching out for potholes big enough to eat my bike. (Memo to Mayor Lori Lightfoot: They're really bad this year. Get out the paving crews, would ya?)

Others have it rougher. Especially those who have to travel through Chicago Union Station, a stately but outworn edifice that's completely inadequate to handle the roughly 140,000 passengers who pass through it every workday. "It's the worst part of my day," says one colleague, "a noisy, crowded place you can't wait to get out of."

The sentiment is widely shared. Everyone in the local transportation business knows and has known for many years that a wholesale reconstruction and expansion is needed. Yet the people in the best position to achieve that—station owner Amtrak and the station's biggest tenant, Metra—keep getting in each other's way.

"We need these two to be together if we're going to get the big money we need," says U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago, who chairs a House subcommittee that supervises and partially funds the railroad industry. "This kind of stuff is not helpful."

"This kind of stuff" is a reference to the latest chapter in the running feudamong the rail boys, a fight over rent and capital expenditures in which Amtrak literally has sued Metra, asking the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, to step in and dictate terms of a new lease.

Both sides insist normal operations will continue while the lawyers argue it out. But it's never good news for little folks, in this case commuters, when the powers that be slug it out. If nothing else, it will make it even harder to get money out of Donald Trump's government to rebuild the station, which like almost all transportation in this country is dependent on government largesse.

On occasion, Amtrak and Metra have pulled it together. The two helped fund a long-term rehab plan and have an application now awaiting action in Washington to provide $24 million for work on the station's crowded concourse level. But far more, at least $1 billion, is needed to rebuild and expand the track area. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel a few years ago made a run at attracting that type of money, but sources close to him say he gave up after concluding that Metra and Amtrak just would not play nice together.

Each of the contenders has a case to make. Metra says it shouldn't have to pay for portions of the station it doesn't use, and allies of the commuter agency say Amtrak is shipping money it raises from station-related real estate developments here out east, to pay for service in the Boston-to-Washington corridor. Amtrak and allies, in turn, insist it's made reasonable offers to compromise but that Metra just is going to have to pony up, given that it provides 90 percent of the passengers and 77 percent of the trains that use the station.

On top of that is intrigue about what Amtrak's new CEO, former Delta Air Lines boss Richard Anderson is up to. He wants to chop the long-distance, money-losing trains that constitute much of Amtrak's Chicago-based service, adding another level of complexity to an already nasty fight.

I lack the details to referee this match; my suspicion is there's plenty of blame to go around. I do know this: After a long hibernation, Union Station is playing a growing role in Chicago's economy. Amtrak has money from its Union Station real estate deals, and Metra from the state's new capital bill.

So if the partisans can't work it out, someone needs to knock heads together, and hard. Maybe it's Lipinski, who's planning hearings soon. Or Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has been interested in the past. Or maybe Gov. J.B. Pritzker or Lightfoot. I don't care who gets the credit. It's time to end this silly feud once and for all.