The state of Illinois is seeking about $550 million in federal passenger rail grants under the Recovery Act, with most of the money aimed at projects that tie into freight rail corridors as well.
George Weber, bureau chief for railroads at the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the grant request was part of the first-round applications by states that were due into federal authorities by midnight Aug. 24. Those will lead to initial awards this fall from an $8 billion funding pool targeted for high-speed rail projects.
The money can also be spent on freight rail projects that help clear the way for new passenger service, or to speed up existing passenger corridors using freight railroad rights of way.
Other states also submitted their own requests, which total much more than the total set aside in the stimulus measure, so they are in effect competing against each other for federal approvals. But Weber said that in many cases “we feel we’re kind of ahead of the pack,” in that Illinois has already been pushing through its own projects for years.
Those include the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE, a thickly layered playbook on how to untangle thick congestion in which freight and passenger rail lines and local roadways tangle each other up and slow down traffic on tracks and roads.
Under the Aug. 24 “shovel-ready” grant requests, for projects that could be started soon and completed within two years, Weber said Illinois is seeking $140 million for a “flyover” rail-bridge CREATE project that would lift the Chicago Metra commuter rail line over the main line tracks of Norfolk Southern Railway.
Much of the site work or engineering is already done there, Weber said, so while it would be a tight schedule he said Illinois planners think they could get the work done in the two-year time frame required by the Recovery Act.
He said the state also requested $97.5 million to upgrade sidings on Union Pacific Railroad tracks from Chicago to St. Louis, as part of a larger plan to get that corridor ready for 110 mph passenger trains.
The grant, he said, would pay for concrete crossties and heavier-gauge tracks so that freight trains could use the sidings as active bypass lanes and keep moving at 40 mph while passenger trains rush past on the single-track main line. Now, he explained, those sidings are just used to park freight trains, which must back out onto the main line once a higher-priority train moves past.
Illinois wants $88 million in federal grants to double-track nine miles of track south of Chicago, between the towns of Joliet and Dwight, and put in a new siding on the south end of that lane where single track picks up.
Another $52 million in the request would go to what Illinois calls its “Galesburg congestion relief project,” adding new tracks next to the BNSF Railway yard there and making other improvements.
The single largest request Illinois submitted, Weber said, was $150 million for Midwest regional passenger rail planning needs, a project that would look at overall high-speed and other passenger rail corridors that are proposed to converge on Chicago.
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