By Chuck Sweeny
Since 2003, railroads, the U.S., the state of Illinois and local governments have been working on a rail congestion solution called CREATE. That should be the priority.
Posted May 9, 2016 at 6:30 PM
Updated at 2:46 PM
We live on the edge of Chicagoland, the nation's third-largest metropolitan area, with 284 communities and 9.5 million people. And it's coming this way.
Chicagoland is big and sprawling and historically prosperous for a reason: People and businesses settle in transportation hubs. And back in the 1850s, Chicago's conniving leaders set out to make their new city the nation's rail hub, luring the newfangled steam contraptions to the Windy City while St. Louis was busy tending to its riverboat trade.
The Chicagoans succeeded. But the rail infrastructure to move trains was designed in a different century — the 19th. In the age of one- and two-mile long freight trains, that doesn't work too well.
Every day 500 freight trains made up of more than 37,500 freight cars, as well as 700 Metra commuter trains and Amtrak long-distance passenger trains, have to snake through Chicagoland on the lines of six railroads. That wastes time and money.
And, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, rail freight volume in Chicagoland is expected to double by 2025.
Luckily, they're doing something about it. Since 2003 there has been a public-private partnership in place to streamline Chicagoland's rail system and speed trains in, out and around. It's called CREATE, or Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program.
CREATE features 70 projects, including 25 new roadway overpasses or underpasses to eliminate grade crossings, six new rail overpasses or underpasses to separate freight and passenger tracks, 36 freight rail improvement projects, viaduct improvements, grade crossing enhancements, and integration of information from rail dispatch systems so that railroads have the same information. It is paid for by railroads, the U.S., the state of Illinois and local governments.
As of February 2015, 22 CREATE projects had been completed, with $28.3 billion in positive economic impact from reduced travel times, fuel savings and safety improvements, CMAP estimated.
The total CREATE cost is $3.8 billion, but only about a quarter of that has been committed, CMAP said in 2015.
I'm telling you this to provide some context to the controversy over a plan by Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. to build a privately funded $8 billion, 278-mile railroad bypass from southern Wisconsin through Boone County and southeast into Indiana.
This, too, is designed to speed trains around Chicagoland, and if rail traffic increases as CMAP predicts, there could be the traffic to warrant it in the future. The Boone County Board will discuss the Great Lakes Basin proposal at 6 p.m. Thursday at a board retreat in the Boone County Courtroom, 1212 Logan Ave., Belvidere.
On Monday, I called railroads serving Chicagoland to get their opinions of the Great Lakes Basin bypass
Patrick Waldron of Canadian National declined to comment. However, the CN bought the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern belt railroad in 2009 to better move its trains around Chicagoland. CN touts this as its "Chicago Connection."
Andy Cummings of Canadian Pacific said CP hasn't commented on the Great Lakes Basin plan. He sent me a link to CP's white paper outlining the railroad's proposal to merge with Norfolk Southern, a transaction that, among other things, "would also alleviate congestion in the key rail hub of Chicago, where gridlock in the winter of 2013-14 hobbled the industry for months and threatened to hinder the U.S. economic recovery."
Union Pacific made its position clear: "After carefully reviewing the proposal, Union Pacific determined in July 2014 that it was not interested in moving forward with a discussion on the Great Lakes Basin bypass project, an exceedingly expensive idea with no publicly identified funding sources," said Calli B. Hite, a UP spokeswoman.
Hite said the Union Pacific "is focused on several major public-private partnerships, including CREATE, which will benefit the region and enhance efficiency for Chicago-area and regional railroad operations."
If the entrepreneurs who want to build the Great Lakes Basin rail bypass can do it, great, I'm all for free enterprise. There will inevitably be traffic for it in the future. In the meantime, rail freight is down nearly 12 percent from a year ago, according to a May 4 report by the Association of American Railroads. One big reason is the decline of the coal market resulting from cheap natural gas, which travels by pipeline.
The immediate priority in my book is to get CREATE's 70 projects completed as soon as possible. That will speed freight and passenger trains, greatly reduce road traffic backups and improve Chicagoland's economy. That helps us all.