Chicago rail program a success, but future funding in doubt
By Richard Wronski
Overpasses have been built in recent years at two of the Chicago area's most notoriously blocked rail/highway crossings, lifting delays for thousands of vehicles a day. And work is underway to untangle four other bottlenecks.
That's the good news. The bad news is that there are at least 19 other locations in desperate need of overpasses, but construction money is available for only one of them, experts say.
To finish those projects, along with dozens of others to improve railroad and vehicle traffic flow in Chicago, about $2 billion is needed, but the source of that money is undetermined, transportation officials said Monday.
Members of a congressional panel came to Chicago to see firsthand how a unique public-private partnership seeks to eliminate the choke points that have long halted rail and vehicle traffic in the Chicago area.
Representatives from the program's partners — including the major North American freight railroads, Metra, Amtrak, the state and city of Chicago — appeared before a House transportation subcommittee Monday. They touted the successes of the $3.2 billion endeavor, known as CREATE, which stands for Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency.
But officials are concerned that the rest the program on CREATE's wish list won't be completed without an assured source of funding. So far, there isn't one.
While about $1.2 billion has been either spent or committed to CREATE, much more work needs to be done, said U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill.
"But right now it's very hard to say exactly where the money is going to come from," Lipinski said.
Of the 25 grade separation projects in CREATE, only ones at Grand Avenue in Franklin Park and Belmont Road in Downers Grove have been completed.
CREATE isn't just about building overpasses at rail crossings on roadways, however. Of about 70 projects overall, most deal with infrastructure improvements to cut railroad congestion.
One is the so-called Englewood Flyover, a $141 million railroad bridge to carry the north-south Metra Rock Island trains over tracks used by Amtrak and freight trains at 63rd and State streets.
Completing the CREATE program will cut some delays caused by freight trains on several Metra lines, agency Chairman Brad O'Halloran said.
Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said funding for CREATE is vital for rail safety, the region's commerce and improved passenger service.
"Clearly, the federal government needs to step up," Whitley said.
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