Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=92185
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 4:38:28 PM CST
If traffic on roadways in and around Chicago seems rough, consider the logjam train conductors have to cope with. Approximately 37,500 railcars crawl through the city’s 2,800 miles of track each day, usually no faster than 9 m.p.h. Some days, it can take a train as much as 36 hours to pass through Chicago, nearly as long as it takes to travel the 2000 miles by rail to Illinois from California.
The rails are getting busier, too. Twenty years from now, the average number of freight cars passing through Chicago each day is expected to nearly double to 67,000.
In 2003, lawmakers, along with the nation’s major railroad companies, unveiled the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency project in order to help ease rail congestion. After five years, however, the $1.5 billion CREATE plan is practically stalled at the station. Just a handful of the project’s 78 initiatives have been started, and obtaining the necessary public financing has been a struggle.
The situation is generating fresh concerns about Chicago’s future as the nation’s main rail hub. Not to mention the 38,000 rail-related jobs in the region, and the $22 billion that the rail industry helps generate each year for local businesses and manufacturers.
“We rely on these jobs, so it is important that we finish this project,” said Michael McLaughlin, director of regional policy and transportation at the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonpartisan development think tank.
For a glimpse of the project’s potential, McLaughlin points to recently completed signal upgrades at the Brighton Park crossing in southwest Chicago.
More than 70 trains, including 10 Amtrak and six Metra trains, pass through the crossing at Western and Archer avenues each day. Before the upgrades last July, it would often take switch operators as long as 15 minutes to shepherd trains through the crossing. With a remotely controlled signal system now in place, trains can breeze through the junction at up to 30 m.p.h.
Brighton Park was technically not a CREATE initiative. Still, “That was a great example of what can be done with this project,” according to McLaughlin.
CREATE supporters say the plan carries numerous regional benefits; it would reduce pollution, commute times and the need for highway construction, as well as improve highway and railroad safety. The plan would also lead to 2,700 new jobs, they say.
Such benefits extend to a national level. The freight corridors covered by CREATE, proponents note, move approximately $350 billion in goods each year, and affect close to 5 million jobs and $217 billion in wages nationwide. Indeed, in January a bipartisan federal commission on surface transportation policy concluded that current transportation spending is just 40 percent of what it should be.
Rail congestion here is no recent phenomenon. As early as 1909, Daniel Burnham, the legendary architect of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, proposed a plan to improve the region’s rail system. However, it took the blizzard of 1999, which backed up Chicago trains as much as 500 miles, for lawmakers and the rail industry to draft an initiative as ambitious as CREATE.
The project is a partnership of the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, Metra and six of North America’s seven major railroads, all of which converge in Chicago: BNSF Railway Co., Canadian National Railway Co., Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., CSX Corp., Inc., Norfolk Southern Corp. and Union Pacific Corp.
In addition to various signal, switch, track and viaduct upgrades, CREATE calls for the elimination of six rail-to-rail crossings and 25 road-to-rail crossings.
Thus far, however, the project has encountered a variety of obstacles.
“I think the main difficulty with the project has been lack of funding,” said Joseph DiJohn, a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Part of that problem,” he added, “is the lack of the federal government to acknowledge that CREATE is a project of nationwide significance. It’s not just Chicago.”
The bulk of CREATE money, $900 million or so, is expected to come from the federal government. To date, however, Congress has earmarked just $100 million.
Compounding matters is the fact that legislators in Springfield have yet to match the federal funds already allocated, as the plan prescribes.
According to DiJohn, financing has been hurt by the exit from the U.S. House of Representatives of two of CREATE’s biggest supporters -- suburban Republican Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House, who left in 2007, and Chicago Democrat William Lipinski, who retired in 2005.
“I think … we don’t have the clout that we had with Lipinski and Hastert,” DiJohn said.
Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, holds a seat on the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, but has not been as outspoken an advocate of CREATE as were Hastert and Lipinski.
The railroads have said they would invest $212 million in CREATE, but the slow flow of public dollars has stalled the delivery of those funds.
“I think obviously you’d prefer to have it going faster,” said Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. “But anytime you’re dealing with a public-private partnership,” he added, “you recognize that public participation in it is dictated by the amount of funding that is available.”
Partly due to the pace of the project, Canadian National Railway has opted to go it alone on a hotly contested $300 million plan to acquire a major portion of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway around Chicago, from Waukegan to Joliet to Gary. As the situation stands, CN officials consider the EJ&E plan as the company’s best option to most efficiently bypass the city.
The nebulous nature of CREATE has also hurt the project, according to Frank H. Beal, executive director of the civic organization Chicago Metropolis 2020.
“CREATE is very strange,” Beal said. “It’s not an organization, it’s not an institution. That’s one of the problems. No one’s in charge, and therefore everyone’s in charge. For something that uses $100 million in public money, it’s very odd,” he said.
To be sure, CREATE has made progress. In April, for example, CREATE partners broke ground on a $4.2 million project to improve signals along the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co.'s rail corridor from Bedford Park to Summit in the southwest suburbs. The project is expected to take five months to complete, and should allow trains to pass through the corridor at a speed of 40 m.p.h., up from 20 m.p.h.
A speed of 40 m.p.h. may not seem like much, but for railroad companies, which put an emphasis on how quickly they are able to transport goods, the increase is huge.
Delay times are “literally how we’re measured by Wall Street,” said Tom Livingston, resident vice president of CSX. “It hurts our stock and our ability to invest in capital,” he said.
When the Bedford Park project is finished, CREATE partners plan to start an $11.2 million project to improve rail connections on the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad in Hodgkins and McCook -- east of East Avenue between I-55 and 55th Street.
“From a realistic standpoint,” however, “the heavy lifting is still ahead,” Livingston said. Officials had been hoping 32 CREATE initiatives would be underway or completed by the end of next year, but according to Livingston, that number will most likely settle at 19 or 20.
“Currently at the rate they're going, it will be a 25- or 30- year project, which is stupid,” said Beal. “The whole thing needs to be rethought from top to bottom.”
Advocates of CREATE warn against the dangers of ignoring the region’s rail system.
“It would hamper future development and future economic growth. It would hold us back,” said Mike Claffey, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The big fear, according to experts, is that if rail congestion is not alleviated soon, then freight companies could begin avoiding Chicago altogether.