April 28, 2003

NORTHLAKE (April 28)–In a 16th-floor meeting room overlooking Union Pacific’s busy Proviso Yard, UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo today told 80 suburban-Chicago mayors and transportation officials that publicly funded improvements to privately owned railroad tracks are the key to unplugging Northeastern Illinois’ congested road system and getting the region’s economy growing again.

“Drivers in the Chicago area spend the equivalent of almost three extra days per year in rush-hour gridlock, and each idling vehicle puts an extra 131 pounds of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere,” said Szabo, who was the featured speaker at the Chicago Area Transportation Study’s (CATS) Council of Mayors biennial “Hail and Farewell” luncheon honoring incoming and outgoing members.

“But as important as clean air is to us, the real impact of all this congestion is on our region’s economic development, which already is beginning to show the strain cause by lack of mobility,” Szabo said.

“It’s hard to grow a business in an area where people and goods don’t move fast enough,” Szabo explained. “It’s hard to hold employees if the commute to work is too long or the employees arrive late. It’s hard to run a factory when you can’t get your inbound raw materials on time. You have to invest extra money in warehouse space so you can stockpile what you need in case a truck doesn’t arrive on schedule.”

Noting that a 2000 study by the Metropolitan Planning Commission showed commuting times in northeastern Illinois increased by more than 10 per cent in the last decade and could grow another 80 per cent by 2020, Szabo told the mayors:

“There is no way to head off that meltdown with highway improvements alone,” Szabo said. “No amount of concrete we can pour can add the transportation capacity and the mobility our region will require.

“But rail can do the job,” he said. “Rail is the only remaining transportation technology that has the potential to grow its efficiency without expanding its footprint.”

Szabo explained that much of the truck traffic that keeps regional streets and highways congested consists of shipments that should be carried by rail but are being forced off the rail system and onto the highways because obsolete railroad infrastructure has degraded railroad performance.

The answer, he said, is not to build additional expensive highway lanes that only fill up with more traffic.

A more effective and less expensive solution would be to build performance-enhancing rail infrastructure at key “pinch points” where freight trains get bogged down trying to negotiate their way across the 893 miles of track and 125 interlockings that make up Chicago’s 19th-century track network.

“It’s clearly not in need of a complete overhaul or some radical reconfiguration,” Szabo said of the Chicago rail map. “But it does need to have some strategic infrastructure upgrades surgically inserted at points where the most serious ‘pinching’ is holding up the movement of traffic. Key locations need some additional trackage, modern signals, and Interstate-style viaducts and flyovers to lift the trains of one line over the trains of another line so they don’t block each other.”

Szabo said these pinch points should not be dismissed as “just a railroad problem.”

“They’re really a highway problem,” he said, “because the frustration they cause for freight shippers is a major reason why so much freight is on the highways instead of rails. When shippers get frustrated with limited railroad performance, they switch their shipments to truck.”

The railroads cannot fund the needed improvements out of their own earnings, Szabo said, because a century of federal rate regulation and federal subsidies to competing highways, airways and waterways left the rail carriers financially weakened and the nation with what he called an “unbalanced” transportation system.

“Our transportation system is like a guy trying to swim with one hand tied to his body,” he said. “We’re kicking and paddling in circles and wasting precious effort because we’re not using our mobility resources in a balanced fashion. The fourth limb, rail, has to be untied and allowed to contribute its full potential to the common effort.”

Szabo called the federal emphasis on non-rail modes of transportation a “policy failure” that could be reversed with a modest federal investment in rail improvements.

“Norfolk Southern and CSX have estimated that between them they could take some 2 million trucks a year off the highways between the Northeast and Atlanta,” Szabo said. “But because of our failure to invest public funds in rail, our railroad do not have the resources to accommodate growth that’s coming.”

Szabo said rail is the only mode that can handle the nation’s growing freight traffic without condemning property and demolishing buildings to make room for new right of way.

“Rail is inherently efficient–not just in the way it uses fuel and manpower–but also in the way it uses space,” he said. “An intermodal train carrying 200 containers needs a right of way only about 16 feet wide to run on. The same containers moving by truck would need an Interstate highway 120 feet wide.” But even with all that space, Szabo said, a four-lane divided expressway still can handle only about one fifth the traffic per hour as a railroad.

“And most railroads own 100 feet of right of way, only about 30 feet of which has track on it,”he said. “The railroads already own the property they need to lay additional tracks, to build flyovers, and to install high-tech signaling for more productivity. Even though they are privately owned–and should remain so–they need to become a more integral part of the public planning process.”

Szabo was invited to address the luncheon not only in his capacity as UTU’s Illinois Legislative Director, but also because he served from 1997 to 2001 as the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Riverdale and represented the south suburbs on the CATS Mayors Committee, where he served as the body’s vice chairman.

“I don’t feel like I’m introducing Joe Szabo to you as a guest speaker,” said Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke, Chairman of the CATS Executive Committee, in his opening remarks. “I feel more like I’m welcoming him back home.”