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Illinois Policy Institute/ Vincent Caruso

Efforts to add an Amtrak train stop in Lake Forest have been plagued by a series of setbacks for a project now estimated to cost more than $13.4 million.

The city of Lake Forest’s journey to acquiring an Amtrak train stop and accompanying underpass has been impeded by an ongoing series of hazards and delays. And records show the estimated cost of the project has grown by more than 400 percent, to over $13 million.

Documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act by Citizens for ACTION, or Alliance to Control Train Impacts on Our Neighborhoods, a group opposed to the train stop, demonstrate the projected cost of Lake Forest officials’ desired Amtrak train stop have skyrocketed since the project’s conception.

The most recent assessment lifts the Amtrak project’s price tag to upwards of $13.4 million.

The assessment was submitted to the city in January 2016 by a third-party consulting firm. The numbers exhibited an uptick from a previous analysis produced by the city’s primary contractor, which eyed the project slightly above $12 million. But it represents an especially dramatic leap from what Lake Forest officials originally determined the project would cost. In 2012, construction costs were estimated to range between “a low of $1.8 million to a high of $2.5 million,” meaning the estimated cost of the Amtrak stop has risen by more than 400 percent since initial projections.

By the following year, the original cost estimates were already being reconsidered. After having completed a preliminary design phase in June 2013, the estimated cost of the project was revised to $5 million. By the time the price had climbed past $13 million in 2016, it had undergone a more than fivefold increase in less than four years.

Even so, the consulting firm’s estimate cautions, the current $13.4 million figure doesn’t include the cost of permits, electrical and mechanical installations, builder’s risk insurance liabilities and other expenditures.

The Amtrak project recently came under fire when an independent investigator reported local officials were in violation of three city codes after having doled out nearly $200,000 in taxpayer dollars to a lobbying firm. Enlisted in 2016 to lobby the state and federal government for capital funds for the train stop, Lake Forest officials failed to seek required approval from Lake Forest City Council when total payments to the firm exceeded $20,000 per month.

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But the squandered $200,000 in lobbying services will seem a modest fee to taxpayers if officials are prepared to commit to the costs of the actual project.

Unlike the controversial lobbying payments, which fell on the shoulders of Lake Forest taxpayers, the majority of funds allocated to the Amtrak train stop and pedestrian underpass have so far come from state and federal grants. But as cost estimates continue to grow, the greater the likelihood taxpayer dollars will be put on the line. While the estimated cost of the Amtrak project has ballooned by more than 400 percent since initial projections, the same cannot be said for the inflow of federal and state aid.

On the contrary, the city has instead managed to lose grant money. In addition to the gross miscalculation of costs, efforts to get Lake Forest’s Amtrak plans into motion have been beset by mismanagement of funds.

The 2010 memo approving the project’s initial federal and state grant appropriation stipulated that the failure to fully allocate the funds within three fiscal years would result in the revocation of the balance of funds. The city, however, had failed to utilize the grant in full before it lapsed. As a result, the federal government revoked more than $560,000 in idle grant funds from Lake Forest.

City leaders’ failure to apportion the federal grant before its stated expiration period, in conjunction with issuing unauthorized payments to lobbyists, reflects a discouraging pattern of mismanagement of both local and federal tax dollars.

Taxpayers in Lake County, where Lake Forest is located, are wracked by some of the highest property tax bills in the state – and the country. City officials should be exploring ways to reduce the tax burden on their residents rather than signing them up for costly and over-ambitious projects that lack clear public support.

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