December 11, 2001

To hear the Chicago media tell it, the only transportation problem facing the metropolitan area is airport capacity: Can O’Hare International Airport be expanded enough to handle expected growth in travel demand? Will a third Chicago-area airport have to be built at Peotone? Will Chicago’s Mayor Daley ever permit construction of a commercial airport outside his jurisdiction?

But airports and air space aren’t the only parts of Chicago’s transportation system plagued with congestion and political turf battles. The vast network of railroad main lines, yards and junctions sprawling across the six-county Northeastern Illinois area–plus Lake and Porter counties in Northwest Indiana–is just as badly plugged. Average freight-train speed across the system is 2.7 miles per hour. A typical freight car interchanged between a Western and an Eastern carrier takes 48 hours to make its way across the Chicago Switching District.

Poky freight trains aren’t just a “railroad problem. They’ve become a highway problem too. Intermodal shippers know the railroads are slow getting across Chicago, so they order trailers routed beyond Chicago to be “grounded” here and trucked across the city for reloading on an outbound train of the connecting railroad. It’s a cumbersome and expensive extra step that gluts the region’s expressways with 3,500 additional truck movements per day–but it’s the only way to cut 24 to 36 hours of delay out of the crosstown rail move. Only a tiny minority of intermodal trailers and containers cross the city each day on hotshot run-through trains that eliminate the notorious “rubber-tire interchange.” No wonder the National Industrial Transportation League last spring named Chicago as the most congested rail terminal in North America (Buffalo and Houston were next in line).

But some relief may be on the way. Last year a new group, Business Leaders for Transportation (BLT), was formed for the specific purpose of analyzing the problem and developing solutions. Under the joint leadership of three prestigious civic organizations–the Metropolitan Planning Council, Chicago Metropolis 2020 and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, BLT held a regional conference titled “Improving Metropolitan Chicago’s Freight Transportation Network” and formed a Freight Transportation Working Group. Since then it has met four times.

The importance of the Working Group is suggested by its composition, which mingles executives from the major road, rail, air and water carriers; government transportation officials; and experts from several academic and non-profit think tanks. Equally important are the contacts the Working Group has built with key elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), U.S. Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Chicago), Gov. George Ryan and Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Why are the political heavy hitters so important to Chicago’s freight bottlenecks? Because the Working Group is close to concluding that without government funding the railroads alone will not be able to achieve what looks like the best solution–a series of “flyover” viaducts allowing trains on intersecting main lines to pass over and under each other, as well as some Interstate-style “merge ramps” so that trains can switch routes without slowing down to a junction-blocking crawl.

“Anybody who has ever tried to navigate a heavy freight train through the Chicago Switching District knows that there are just too many trains trying to cross each other’s routes at grade,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, one of only two organized-labor representatives on the Executive Committee of Metropolis 2020 and the only labor rep on its Transportation and Development Subcommittee.

“Those junctions were built back in a time when nobody imagined the volume of freight-train movements we would see in today’s dynamic economy,” Szabo said. “ Interlockings designed to handle a dozen 40-car freight trains a day now are handling twice that number, and the trains are four times as long. A 110-car coal train starting up from a dead stop can take nearly 20 minutes to clear an interlocking. While that train is blocking the plant, two or three more long, heavy trains might have to come to a stop. It’s no wonder the intermodal shippers are rubber-tiring their loads across Chicago. You can drive a semi-trailer from Chicago to New York in less time than it takes to get a flatcar with a semi on it from West Chicago to Gary.”

While still in the early stages of its deliberations, BLT already has suggested three strategies as food for thought about easing freight congestion in, around and through Chicago:

1. Create a new steel-wheel express route to speed east-west traffic through the metro area and around the most congested junctions. The southern arc of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railroad could be adapted to this purpose.

2. Reconfigure or replace the major “problem” grade crossings where trains must slow or stop for extended periods of time because of conflicts with motor-vehicle traffic or other trains. Build street viaducts or railroad flyovers to eliminate the most severe conflicts.

3. Repair and improve the region’s 55 miles of federally designated intermodal connector roads–the ones most frequently used by trucks transferring cargo containers and trailers from one rail intermodal ramp to another.

The task is a big one, but it’s not insurmountable, as evidenced by two U.S. rail centers that already have made breakthroughs of their own.

Last year Kansas City, the nation’s third-busiest rail center and a longtime “black hole” of freight congestion, opened the Sheffield Flyover, a 3-mile-long, double-track elevation that has speeded up east-west freight-train traffic from 15 mph to 50 mph and cut up to 24 hours off the transit time for rail shipments through the Kansas City gateway. The elevation, which at some points is carried on a trestle 80 feet above the ground, permits through freight trains to “fly over” four congested ground-level interlockings. By elevating most east-west through trains to the new high line, the project has eased the strain on the older interlockings, allowing them to handle their remaining traffic more efficiently.

And in the Los Angeles Basin, 9,000 construction workers are laboring to complete the nation’s largest rail infrastructure project in decades in time for its planned opening next April. The $2.4-billion Alameda Corridor project will consolidate four different low-speed railroad feeder lines into a 20-mile double-track, grade-separated main line connecting the intermodal piers of the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach with UP and BNSF rail yards near downtown L.A. More than 200 street-level grade crossings will be eliminated by sinking the new main line into a 10-mile-long trench 33 feet deep. Trains which today creep from the docks to downtown at 15-20 mph will surge along at up to 50 mph–and the new physical plant will be able to handle up to 100 such trains each day.

How could Chicago raise the money to do what Kansas City and L.A. have done? In Kansas City, six railroads, led by the Kansas City Terminal Railway, joined with the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission to issue industrial revenue bonds that will be paid off by a special assessment on rail shipments using the new bridge over the next 20 years. In L.A., the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority was formed to sell $1.2 billion in revenue bonds, as well as to borrow $400 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation and administer some $700 million contributed by the two port authorities and a variety of state, local and country sources. The bonds and loan will be paid off by a charge levied on each container hauled by rail over the new infrastructure.

In May, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Chairman Robert Krebs suggested to an economic symposium held by Peoples Energy that Chicago should form a California-style “joint-powers authority,” much like the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority, to finance the region’s rail infrastructure improvements. A Chicago rail infrastructure advocate noted, however, that Illinois law does not provide for joint-powers authorities, which have their own taxing powers.

“However, we do have a special-services area act,” he says. “A special-services area can build infrastructure, but the taxing has to be done by an existing taxing authority, such as a city or a county. You could also form a six-county agency like the Regional Transportation Authority, but it would have jurisdiction only over building infrastructure, not operating trains like the RTA does.

“One thing that must be done,” the source cautioned, “is to get the railroads involved. You have to have adequate protection and representation for the railroads. If they don’t have a place at the table, they will resist.”