JOLIET – Phil Andros is a walking example of the challenges in using public transit in Joliet, and often he is running.
“I literally have to run from the bus to catch the train,” the Joliet resident said.
The bus typically arrives downtown at 6:05 a.m. His train leaves for Chicago at 6:10 a.m. And even that five-minute opportunity to switch from bus to train has disappeared since the Jefferson Street bridge, which his bus typically uses to get downtown, was closed for a painting project in July.
“Now that the bridge is under construction, I have to take a cab to get to the train in time,” Andros said.
Informed that the state now may keep the bridge closed into November, Andros groaned.
“I budgeted for the bus to bridge to [cab] be done in mid-October,” he said.
He’s not the only one whose public transit budget has been upset by decisions in Springfield.
The Joliet Gateway Center, the project designed to build a new train and bus station and put assorted modes of public transit into one location, has come to a near standstill because of budget overruns and a state mandate that, Joliet officials say, prevents work from going forward.
The state refused to award bids to construct a new train station this summer when it was apparent that there was not enough money left in the budget to build the bus station, too.
Illinois Department Of Transportation Spokesman Guy Tridgell said the City of Joliet project is being built in part with a state grant awarded almost four years ago. The city has been in charge of managing construction and overseeing the bidding process, he said.
“The state grant of $30 million for the multimodal station does stipulate the construction of the Pace turnaround. While we are honoring our financial commitment to Joliet, we also are committed to upholding the one made to Pace as well,” Tridgell wrote in an email.
“We look forward to working with all of the stakeholders involved to arrive at a solution,” Tridgell added.
At a standstill
The project now is at $49.7 million, putting it about $7 million over budget. The state of Illinois, which has $30 million in the project, awards construction contracts.
Joliet officials want the state to allow the train station to be completed and build the bus station when more money is available. But the state’s position has been both or nothing, City Manager Jim Hock said.
“The money is there to do the train station and platform project,” Hock said. “But IDOT is saying, ‘We know the bus station is going to cost x number of dollars, and if we spend money on the train station, there won’t be enough for the bus station.’ ”
This makes some sense to Andros, who’s tired of running for the train and calling taxis. He wants a bus that gets to the train station in time.
“I agree with the all or nothing part because now it’s not matching up,” he said.
Not all commuters are of the same opinion.
Kathy Reiser of Joliet drives from home to get on the train. She does not see the point in holding up both projects.
“I think that’s crazy,” Reiser said. “I think they should just go ahead with the train station and get it done. I think the train is more of a necessity.”
The problem now is that Joliet’s commuter facility, previously a hodgepodge of parking lots built around the old Union Station, is a construction site. Union Station was shut down a year ago as commuter platforms were moved to the other side of the railroad tracks, where the new train station was to be constructed. Now, there is no train station, and it’s not clear when one will be built.
“I’m told by more and more residents and emailed by more and more residents that people are going to other communities to get public transportation,” Joliet City Councilman Jim McFarland said. “They are not using our transportation center because it’s a mess. And now it’s not moving forward.”
McFarland insists that the city come up with a Plan B to get the project done.
“Every train needs a train station,” said Joseph McCloud, while waiting last week in the new commuter platform shelter built for the Rock Island District line.
But the old Union Station now is on the other side of the railroad tracks from the commuter platforms for both the Rock Island District and Heritage Corridor lines. McCloud noted that not only don’t the buses come to the new boarding area, there aren’t many taxis there either.
Theresa Hartig has lived in Joliet for six weeks and did not know the city had plans to build new train and bus stations around the commuter platform. But she does know that finding parking can be confusing and time consuming.
“I find I have to leave the house around 15 minutes early to have even a chance of getting parking, and I’m on a 6:10 a.m. train,” Hartig said. “I’m still trying to get it in my head that they thought they only needed two rows of parking right by the train.”
On the plus side, the final product – if the Joliet Gateway Center gets done – could make Joliet an easier city for public transportation, which was the original goal.
“I think it’s going to be a great asset for Joliet,” Reiser said.
She said the transportation center’s location across the street from Silver Cross Field could help make the city a destination point.
“They had to do something,” said Bob Curren of Crest Hill, adding that he believed the city’s public transportation hub was due for an upgrade.
But as it is now, Curren said, “It doesn’t look great. It’s in the middle of construction. This town isn’t much to look at anyway. It would be nice if they finished it.”
The city has already down-scaled plans for the train and bus stations to accommodate the budget. Aesthetic features also were taken out of the plans to save money.
Now, Hock said, city officials will reach out to Metra, Amtrak and Pace officials to see if the public transit operators that will use the new hub are willing to put in some of the $5 million needed to finish it.
“The train station is for Metra, and it’s for Amtrak,” Hock said. “It’s for our residents. But it’s for commuters.”