OAK BROOK, Ill. — A major initiative to reduce rail congestion in Chicago, the nation’s largest cargo hub, received funding last year for the majority of its new projects. But the public-private partnership still needs hundreds of millions of dollars to take on a project that is arguably the largest U.S. freight bottleneck.
The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program received about $376 million in state and federal funding, enabling supporters to take on the “lion’s share” of projects, said Jeff Sriver, CREATE program director at Chicago Department of Transportation. Of the 70 project that make up the initiative, 16 have been completed, 12 are under construction, seven are under environmental review and 14 projects still remain, he said on Wednesday.
Securing funding for a project that will have a benefit equal to all 16 already completed will likely be a challenge. The 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project will cost in the “high hundreds of millions” of dollars, said Herbert Smith, manager of community and legislative relations at Norfolk Southern Corp. The project will require building flyover bridges, adding grade separations and realigning track to help unravel the bottleneck created when four freight railroads have to share two tracks with Metra and Amtrak. The local roads that traverse the rail lines on Chicago’s South Side also exacerbate congestion.
“As we continue to seek funding, we need the help from the beneficiaries of these projects to share with elected officials and decision makers why this project is important,” Smith said at the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers conference in Oak Brook, Ill.
CREATE partners include the six Class I railroads in North America that converge in Chicago — BNSF Railway, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific — the City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and the state of Illinois. The network of Kansas City Southern, the seventh Class I railroad, stops short of Chicago, but the carrier has marketing rights in the region.
The decade-long CREATE project is expected to have a final price of tag of more than $3 billion when completed. The improvements are needed because it can take a day or longer to move rail freight through the Chicago metropolitan area. The hand-off of intermodal loads from eastern railroads to their western counterparts, and vice versa, is complicated by the railroads’ having yards scattered through the area.
Despite the complexity of freight tangles, which must be unwound with road traffic and passenger rail in mind, the project is already helping alleviate pressure on the rail network used by 1,200 freight and passenger trains daily. Because of CREATE improvements, freight delays have fallen 28 percent and passenger train delays have been reduced by 33 percent, Smith said. He said it used to take 48 hours for intermodal trains to pass through the NS terminal, but now routing takes closer to 32 hours. Similarly, unit trains can pass through the NS terminal in 15 hours, instead of the 20 hours it used to take.
If CREATE were suspended today, total freight train delays would triple in the next 20 years and passenger delays would quintuple in the same period, he said. But if the initiative is seen to fruition, Smith said delays of freight trains will be halved and passenger train delays will fall by two-thirds.
“We’re hoping that we can keep the pressure on (Washington) D.C. to put funding more in line with our needs,” said Sriver, who noted CREATE projects have been completed on time, on budget, and occasionally even under budget.