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Shared Track

Laurence Pearlman

With ridership averaging 320,000 trips on weekdays, Metra is North America’s second-largest commuter railroad. Metra operates throughout the six-county region, providing rail transit service to more than 100 communities. Not only do nine of 11 Metra lines operate on tracks owned or controlled by seven of the nation’s eight Class I railroads, but four Amtrak lines with more than 15 daily trains also share these same tracks. With drastically diverse needs, limited space, and inadequate financial resources, bottlenecks are frequent and delays common. In fact, in 2008, trains on Amtrak routes east and south of Chicago contended with more than 3,400 hours of delay because of interference from freight, Metra, and other Amtrak trains.

As it stands, no federal transportation money is dedicated to help states or regions improve operations along freight corridors or at intermodal hubs. Over the last 30 years, U.S. freight railroads have invested more than $460 billion in the maintenance and improvement of freight rail infrastructure and equipment. However, all this investment was made without the benefit of guidance that a national freight policy would provide. Locally, the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE) is our region’s strategy for improving our freight infrastructure. However, our system crosses multiple state borders and jurisdictions and involves many external partners; clearly, a national strategy is needed to better coordinate goals and investments.

A bill introduced last month in the Senate, the Focusing Resources, Economic Investment and Guidance to Help Transportation Act of 2010 (FREIGHT),would create a National Freight Strategic Plan to serve as the roadmap for such investments. The Act would focus funds on freight to reduce delays and improve reliability, as well as to establish complementary environmental goals to encourage improvements in air quality impacts, emissions, and energy use. The FREIGHT Act also will promote public-private partnerships like CREATE that facilitate safe and efficient goods movement via rail.

Not only would the FREIGHT Act play a key role in transforming the nation’s transportation policy and strengthening freight, inter-city and commuter rail – it also would support economic prosperity in northeastern Illinois and other metropolitan regions by dramatically improving just-in-time connections between goods and consumers.

This article was featured in Talking Transit, MPC's bi-weekly e-newsletter. To sign up to receive Talking Transit, please visit http://www.metroplanning.org/signup.html.

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