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
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.[to top of second column]
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.
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
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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