CRYSTAL LAKE – Monday morning, like nearly every workday for the past 20 years, Brendan Curran drove from his McHenry home to Crystal Lake to catch the train downtown to his job at the Chicago Board of Trade.
“It’s a lot easier than driving,” Curran, 40, said over the clanging of the approaching train.
“I tried driving for about six months, and traffic is crazy. By the time you get home ... It’s so much easier to just get on the train. It’s a no-brainer. You can sleep, eat, read, whatever you want to do.”
Nearly two-thirds of workers who live in McHenry County leave the county to go to work each day, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
Although most of them are solo drivers, economic and population forecasts indicate that demand for the Metra will rise more than 60 percent by 2030 as job centers near Palatine, Barrington, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights grow.
Like Curran, many commuters head to Chicago. Of the approximately 92,000 people to leave the county for work, more than 12,000 are headed to Chicago.
They’re also headed to Elgin, Carpentersville and Aurora in Kane County; Schaumburg, Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village in Cook County; and Wauconda, Lake Zurich and Vernon Hills in Lake County. About 1,300 workers also head to Rockford.
The number of people leaving the county for work doesn’t surprise Jeffrey Poynter, director of the McHenry County Workforce Network Board.
The county has 200 fewer businesses than it did before the recession hit, so people, especially in the financial and information technology fields, have to look outside the county for work, he said.
“As we attract businesses back to the county, we’ll see more residents stay to work in the county,” said Poynter, who commutes into McHenry County from Lake County.
Recessions also tend to hurt Metra ridership, and while the economy is improving, the total number of Metra trips dropped again in 2012, the third consecutive year.
The limiting of the free rides to only low-income seniors in late 2011, a rate increase, the completion of construction projects downtown and relatively stable gas prices all hurt the total ridership on the Union Pacific Northwest line, according to the Metra documents.
Total ridership on the Northwest line – the longest in the system – dropped 0.24 percent, about what the system as a whole saw. But while the system as a whole saw an increase in full- and reduced-price tickets of about 1.16 percent, the Northwest Line saw an increase of nearly 4 percent.
On average, more than 87 percent of Metra trips are for work, according to Metra’s 2012 ridership report.
The only time Curran has commuted by car was when he was forced to, he said. His hours had shifted earlier and there wasn’t an appropriate train.
Even now, he has to drive to Crystal Lake to catch the train because, on weekdays, only three trains take the 7-mile branch from McHenry before connecting to the main line at Crystal Lake, and only two take that route back out to McHenry in the afternoon.
If Curran could revamp the Metra line however he wanted, he’d have more rush-hour trains stop at the McHenry station, he said.
Also, on his wish list: more cars added to the rush hour trains, so people aren’t so packed in, and maybe even a commuter system all the way out to Rockford or Janesville, Wis.
“Otherwise, there’s not much I would change with it. I think it runs pretty efficiently,” Curran said. “They could clean up the bathrooms a bit, though.”
A proposed Johnsburg rail yard and station and a rail yard in Woodstock are in the environmental assessment phase, which should wrap up later this year, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.
Metra has been unable to enter the next phase – preliminary engineering – because of inadequate funding, he said.
These types of projects, ones designed to increase capacity and improve efficiency, need federal dollars to move forward, Gillis said.
Because Metra is angling for federal funds, that takes the proposal through the federal New Start process, which requires rigorous studies to prove that the proposal is the best way to meet the needs.
The last station added onto the Northwest line was at Pingree Road in Crystal Lake in 2005, according to the 2012 state-of-the-system report. An additional 338 parking spots were added to the nearly 400 existing spots in 2009, using stimulus dollars.
Projects at existing stations – such as the ongoing modernization of the station and expansion of the platforms in Fox River Grove – have their own section in the budget, but the Metra system has seen a decreasing portion of its budget going to capital improvements.
Capital spending is well below what it is necessary to keep the system in good repair, according to a December 2012 report by DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
About 55 percent of Metra’s funding comes from fares and another significant chunk comes from a regional transportation sales tax, which also helps fund the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace, according to the Metra website.
Metra’s capital maintenance needs are estimated to cost $7.37 billion over the next 10 years, but even with optimistic projections and assuming state and federal revenue stays level, it will be short over $5 billion, according to Metra documents.
Top 10 places that McHenry County residents commute to
1. Chicago (8.8 percent)
2. Crystal Lake (7.6 percent)
3. McHenry (6 percent)
4. Woodstock (5.2 percent)
5. Elgin (3.8 percent)
6. Schaumburg (3.2 percent)
7. Cary (2.3 percent)
8. Arlington Heights (2.3 percent)
9. Huntley (1.9 percent)
10. Hoffman Estates (1.8 percent)
Source: U.S. Census Bureau