June 7, 2004

CHICAGO (June 7)—Not a spadeful of earth has been turned so far, but Chicago’s $1.5-billion public-private partnership to reconfigure its antiquated railroad switching network is officially under way.

The project kicked off with an announcement by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) that it has selected six engineering contractors to carry out studies that will lead to actual construction of projects under the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Equity (CREATE) Program.

IDOT said it has already begun authorizing disbursement of $10 million in state funds to cover the costs of the CREATE project studies. Another $2.5 million is being disbursed by the six Class I railroads that connect at Chicago.

Ultimately, if CREATE receives federal funding to complement $212 million already pledged by the railroads and those dollars pledged by the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago, new flyovers, new main lines and new signaling will enable freight, passenger and commuter trains to flow through the Chicago gateway in a fraction of the time required on the existing obsolete network.

IDOT announced that HNTB, a Kansas City-based civil-engineering firm, has been commissioned to perform the base mapping studies for the projects.

Five other consultants, identified as Parsons Transportation Group, Edwards & Kelcey Design Services, TranSystems Corp., Hanson Professional Services and Alfred Benesch & Co., will perform preliminary studies for five separate projects congestion-relief projects that CREATE ultimately will build.

The first project, known as the Englewood Flyover, has been assigned to TranSystems, a Kansas City-based firm that designed the three-mile-long Sheffield Flyover which opened in Kansas City two years ago. That viaduct has drastically relieved rail congestion in the Kansas City gateway, which is second only to Chicago in cars handled and trains originated and terminated.

“Targeting Englewood for the first big project under the CREATE program was very wise,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “That location is extremely congested. When Metra’s Rock Island Line commuter trains have priority during the morning and evening rush hours it is impossible for Norfolk Southern to get its freight trains across the diamonds there.

“Westbound freights are held on the main line as far east as Gary, or sometimes even South Bend, and eastbound run-through trains off the Union Pacific have to be held on the West Side of Chicago or out in the suburbs. It is a situation that can clog up large parts of Chicago’s freight interchange infrastructure.”

When the Engelwood flyover is finished, Szabo said, Metra and Norfolk Southern no longer will come into conflict because the commuter trains will pass twenty feet above the Norfolk Southern tracks on a double-tracked viaduct.

“No longer will you see Amtrak trains stuck behind an NS freight train at Englewood. All three railroads, Metra, Amtrak and NS, will flow freely on faster, more reliable schedules that will attract more passengers and more freight and will open up more railroad jobs.”

The big question, Szabo said, is whether Congress will step forward with the bulk of the $1.5 billion needed to complete the other five flyovers, along with 47.2 miles of third mainline track, 344 new switches and 55 miles of new Centralized Traffic Control.

“We have federal programs to fund highway, airport, waterway and transit infrastructure, but we have no federal program to fund intercity railroad trackage,” Szabo said. “Congressman Bill Lipinski and House Speaker Dennis Hastert are working hand in hand to make sure funding for CREATE is written into the federal budget, but as of this moment we just can’t say how much will be there or when it will come.”

But the failure of Congress to step forward can’t be used an excuse to delay the coming of CREATE, said IDOT Sec. Tim Martin.

“Our grant of $10 million will provide seed money to begin engineering work on CREATE so we can jump-start construction when additional funding becomes available,” Martin said. “The railroads have shown their commitment to the CREATE program by adding to the funds available for the early work…we are urging Congress to include significant funding for the program in the transportation infrastructure bill.”

Szabo noted that a study performed by Reebie & Associates for the Chicago Department of Transportation showed that with the CREATE improvements in place, rail shippers would establish major production and distribution facilities in the Chicago area and that shippers nationwide would divert substantial amounts of freight from truck to rail intermodal.

“You can talk about CREATE as a transportation program,” Szabo said, “but if you look at its long-term effects it’s really an economic-development program and a jobs program, particularly for those of us in the railroad industry. We’re talking about potential major job growth – a renaissance for freight and passenger rail.”