More money needed to ease train congestion, officials say
By Meribah Knight
Crain's Chicago Business
At a roundtable discussion Monday, local representatives for transportation, labor and commerce urged members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials to pledge more funding to a plan aimed at overhauling the region's rail system, otherwise known as the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or Create.
The initiative is a public-private partnership between federal, state and local governments and Metra, Amtrak and the nation's freight railroads that seeks to improve the flow of rail transportation in and around Chicago. Ten years along, the mammoth project is barely one-third complete and vastly over budget. The plan's initial cost estimate was $1.5 billion; now it's closer to $3.2 billion, officials said. Of that, $1.2 billion already has been spent or committed, they said.
“Clearly the federal government needs to step up and give us more funding so we are not here 10 years from now . . . asking for more money,” said Douglas Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. This project should not take more than 20 years, he added. It was originally aimed to be completed in six years.
The plan's advocates said that if it is implemented fully within 20 years, freight delays will be reduced by 50 percent and passenger delays will be reduced by two-thirds.
Later in the discussion, Mr. Whitley said he had “real doubts” whether Create's 70 proposed projects can be completed unless a funding windfall is received. Since it began in 2003, Create has completed 17 projects and has another 12 underway. Many of the larger projects have yet to begin.
Freshman Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, pushed back slightly. “If we weren't concerned about the funding we wouldn't be here. However, there must be some other recommendations,” he said.
William C. Thompson, a project manager for Create at the Association of American Railroads, said better project oversight and management from an outside consulting firm might streamline certain processes.
The plan splits funding between private railroad companies and state, federal and local governments. According to Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago, thus far about $450 million has come from the federal government, $400 million from state government, $220 million from railroad companies and only $15 million from the city of Chicago and Cook County.
Mr. Whitley criticized the city and Cook County for being slow to award funds to the project and added that they need to do more — especially considering much of the infrastructure improvement is within the city limits. “We ought to be seeing $100 million for this next 10-year round.
They need to step up a little bit more,” he said.
Still, addressing the committee, Mr. Whitley pressed the point: “You're at a critical point as to what the federal share is going to be,” he said. The subcommittee included chairman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-California, as well as Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, Mr. Lipinski, Mr. Davis and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago.
Mr. Lipinski said the passage of a state capital bill to invest in infrastructure is critical to the project's success, as well as the federal government ratifying a long-term transportation bill.
Mr. Rush said he was most concerned with hiring minority workers and workers within the community for Create's projects. “They must be a part of that overall plan,” he said.
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