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Action plan to ease Chicago rail congestion released

After years spent assessing Chicago’s freight-rail congestion problems, railroad industry experts proposed an action plan that will prepare the region for growth and help solidify its place as the nation’s primary rail hub. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, U.S. Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Ill.) and U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), were on hand in June for the unveiling of the plan, dubbed the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) Project.

The $1.5-billion plan is the work of a public-private partnership of transportation and rail-industry officials. It establishes a priority list of rail infrastructure improvements and grade-crossing eliminations that will reduce rail-related congestion and speed freight, transit and car traffic throughout the region.

Business Leaders for Transportation led the way in addressing these congestion issues in 2002 with Critical Cargo: A Regional Freight Action Agenda. The report assessed gridlock points on Chicago’s rail network and formed the basis for many of the analyses that have been done since.

For example, it found that the 37,500 rail cars moving daily through the region move at average speeds under 12 miles per hour. Put another way, freight that arrives in two days from the West Coast often takes another two days to get through the Chicago region. This bottleneck has severe economic impacts that are felt not only locally but nationwide, as roughly one-third of all freight in the U.S. passes through the Chicago region.

Freight rail congestion also has negative effects on quality of life in communities. More than 1,900 at-grade crossings interfere with roadway traffic, tying up already-congested streets and harming the economic vitality of businesses and neighborhoods. Passenger trains are held up by freight moving along the rails, causing delays for commuters. The lack of rail-to-rail connections between yards means that more than one million trucks are sent out on the region’s roads every year to transport goods from one train yard to another. Finally, as freight traffic grows exponentially, failure to address inefficiencies in the rail network will mean that growth will increasingly be captured by trucks, which will increase road congestion, reduce highway safety and worsen air pollution.

The CREATE Project aims to alleviate many of these problems by improving operations, coordinating rail traffic among the area’s carriers, and eliminating the points of conflict that cause the delays. It focuses on improving operations in five specific corridors in Chicago and the inner suburbs (see project map ), and includes: 

The next challenge is to locate funds for these improvements. Business Leaders and other plan supporters are looking at a variety of sources. The freight railroads, who are strongly endorsing the plan, have initially offered to pay over $210 million, and could increase that contribution based on future analyses of the plan’s impacts. Metra is also expected to contribute. To make up most of the difference, the plan’s architects are hoping to secure public dollars, primarily at the federal level, where Rep. Lipinski has already begun pushing for the creation of a federal rail infrastructure program  that would operate much like the existing aviation program.

A group of transportation organizations nationwide have banded together under the name Rail Advocates for Infrastructure Legislation (RAIL) to support the national rail infrastructure fund concept, which would help pay for needed improvements nationwide. Recently, RAIL gave testimony  at a hearing on reauthorization of the six-year federal transportation funding legislation.

For more information on Business Leaders for Transportation or RAIL, or if you are interested in joining these groups, contact Karyn Romano at 312.863.6005.

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