McHENRY – About 15 cars usually fill the parking lot of Main Street Station each morning, hours before owner Trey Covalt arrives to open the restaurant he's operated in the old Metra train station for 25 years.
The cars aren't from customers lining up for fajitas, but rather the vehicles of Metra commuters who've left their vehicles in the lot to take an early train – the last of which leaves at 7:39 a.m. They won't return until the trains come back – the first of which gets in at 6:02 p.m. They take up a majority of the 25 or so spots in the lot just south of Covalt's restaurant and just east of the tracks.
"Even without the other cars," Covalt said. "There's not that much parking."
For Covalt, the issue poses a serious business problem, and one that continues to worsen at an economic time when the margin for error is thin as ever. There is more parking for commuters in a lot west of the tracks which could be used for restaurant patrons, but it poses a longer walk and Covalt doesn't think people are willing to make the trek.
"They aren't going to walk from down there to here," he said, standing in his restaurant and pointing out a window to the parking west of the tracks. "They're going to go somewhere else."
Covalt subleases the place from the city, which rents the building from Union Pacific Railroad. The city's lease with Union Pacific states that the city can't charge or limit parking in the lot, McHenry City Administrator Derik Morefield said.
"Which basically to me means that it can't be identified specifically for business use either," Morefield said.
When the parking issue started getting bad, in 2007, Covalt's wife sent a letter to Metra about the issue, saying that the business intended to start chaining the lot in the morning so that commuters couldn't get in as well as posting four hour parking signs.
In a response dated Dec. 21, 2007, Associate Contract Administrator Daniel Kneita of Metra said the restaurant didn't have the authority to do so.
"Through a separate agreement with the Union Pacific Railroad, Metra has rights for the use of the parking facility as the east lot as well as the west lot," Kneita wrote. "Metra does not wish to waive its rights for its commuters to utilize the east side parking facility."
Metra officials were contacted for this story, but were unable to answer specific questions about the situation before deadline.
Covalt said he has not tried to get back in touch with Metra since that exchange, but the issue has gotten worse since then.
"I've seen people try to pull up and park and they just pull out," he said.
In the early years of the restaurant, he'd only have a commuter here or there taking up a spot in his parking lot.
"Obviously McHenry is a bigger community than it was 25 years ago. The commuter usage has expanded," Morefield said. "There was a time when those spots probably weren't utilized as much.
"The commuter use has expanded and people want to park as close as they can to the commuter line to utilize that."