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Metra admits it won’t meet mandate to install special safety mechanisms by 2015.

Updated: January 8, 2014 6:13AM

Metra officials Friday fessed up to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il.) that the suburban rail agency won’t be able to meet a $234.7 million mandate to install special safety mechanisms on all its trains by 2015.

However, the agency is joining other transportation groups in asking Congress to extend the deadline for implementing so-called “positive train control,” or PTC, until 2018 -- but with certain conditions, Metra Acting Chairman Jack Partelow wrote in a letter to Durbin.

Durbin on Thursday asked Metra to clarify its position on PTC, a technology designed to stop or slow a train so that certain accidents cannot occur. Congress mandated its implementation after a passenger train collided with a freight train in California in 2008, killing 25 and injuring more than 135.

Since the controversial resignation of Metra CEO Alex Clifford, Durbin wrote, Metra has made “public statements supporting a multiple year extension of the deadline without conditions.”

Positive train control could have prevented a recent fatal train crash in New York and two Metra derailments, in 2003 and 2005, that resulted in two fatalities, almost 200 injuries and “millions in legal costs to Metra,” Durbin contended.

“The [Metra] Board has taken the position that Metra will not be able to meet the 2015 deadline for PTC implementation,” Partelow conceded in a letter to Durbin Friday.

“However, we have not advocated that the deadline extension be ‘without conditions.’”

Partelow said Metra, the Association of American Railroads and the American Public Transportation Association are asking Congress to extend the deadline to 2018 for those railroads that make “a good faith effort” to implement PTC.

More than 40 percent of Metra trains, servicing more than half of Metra’s customers, should meet the 2015 deadline, Partelow added. Those trains run on lines owned by the Union Pacific and BNSF roads, he said.

But systemwide compliance would cost Metra $234.7 million and the agency has only set aside $43.5 million for it so far, Partelow said. Metra has other needs totalling $9.7 billion to maintain a “state of good repair” over the next decade, Partelow wrote.

“Metra is committed to implementing PTC, but we also are committed to maintaining our bridges, tracks and other infrastructure critical to the safe operation of our railroad,” Partelow said.

Partelow called PTC an “unfunded federal mandate,” although Durbin insisted he had “worked diligently to make sure federal grant and financing opportunities” could cover PTC needs.

Durbin’s spokeswoman, Christina Mulka, said late Friday that Durbin “thanks Metra for the quick response and looks forward to working with them going forward.”

Metra’s letter comes after RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. this week questioned why Metra alone among the region’s transit agencies was unwilling to float bonds to fund its capital needs.

Metra officials say they have been reluctant to issue bonds without a specific funding stream to cover the debt service. However, Gates asked them to get back to him with an analysis of whether the cost of debt service on bonds for new equipment would offset the cost of maintaining old equipment.


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