Re-elect Dan Lipinski Congressman

Chicago's rail hub is a train wreck. Here's the fix.


Chicago Tribune Editorial

Chicago, the City that Works ... and Conveys. Our metropolis has many distinctions, one of them its status as the country's pre-eminent rail hub. Every day, 1,300 freight and passenger trains move through Chicago. Coal from Wyoming, oil from North Dakota, families vacationing on Amtrak — Chicago is the national nexus.

Behind that fame, however, there's infamy. America's leading nerve center for rail movement is also its leading train traffic choke point. It takes a freight train as much time to get from New York to Chicago as it takes to get through Chicago. The ripple effects slow Amtrak and Metra service almost daily. And no point of congestion in Chicago — in the country, for that matter — is worse than the tangled knot of freight and passenger lines known as the 75th Street Corridor.

Every day, as many as 90 freight trains and 32 passenger trains converge into the 75th Street Corridor on the Southwest Side. At one junction, five rail lines merge into two. At another, north-south rail lines cross east-west lines, creating the equivalent of a street intersection — for trains instead of cars. It's not just cargo and commuters that back up. Motorists cope with long waits at rail crossings.

Transportation planners, city and state officials and railroad executives have rued the 75th Street problem for years. One fanciful plan calls for a rail beltline that would leapfrog Chicago's gridlock by circumventing the metropolitan area. Planners, however, dismiss the idea. The $2.8 billion price tag is daunting, and it appears the railroads aren't interested.

As far back as 2005, an initiative called CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency) began planning to relieve congestion around and in Chicago, including at the 75th Street Corridor. CREATE is a partnership of federal, state and city transportation officials, Amtrak, Metra and freight rail companies. Twelve years later, though, the 75th Street Corridor is as congested as ever. Why?

One word: money, as in not enough of it. Solutions will be expensive — two flyovers and a grade separation, along with a series of other improvements. Overall price tag: $1 billion. Right now, the goal is to finish design work and begin construction. That would cost $473 million, and CREATE's plan was to divvy up the bill: 41.7 percent paid by state and local governments, 34.8 percent by the feds and 22.5 percent by the freight railroads.

To get the federal share, the state, Chicago and Cook County last year teamed up to ask the Obama administration for a $160 million grant. But that request required a commitment from the railroads for their share. The railroads wouldn't budge, says U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago, a strong advocate for fixing the 75th Street bottleneck. "There had been discussions with the railroads, and they did not want to participate in any grant applications," Lipinski tells us.

Lipinski and state and local officials kept pressing the railroads to pay their share, and in the waning days of Obama's presidency, the railroads agreed. But with one foot out of the White House, Obama bequeathed the grant request to the Trump administration. It's still pending but, so far, President Donald Trump hasn't shown much enthusiasm for rail projects. His preliminary 2018 budget proposal calls for big spending cuts to mass transit — and projects to unclog freight rail traffic.

It's important that the railroads' appetite for funding CREATE projects doesn't wane. Many CREATE projects call for grade separation work that creates overpasses to eliminate intersections between rail and car traffic. Lipinski says the railroads balk at funding those projects because they don't perceive a direct benefit to their operations. One project already completed, CREATE's $142 million Englewood Flyover project, separated north-south Metra trains from an east-west rail line used by freight trains and Amtrak. The railroads put up $3 million — just 2 percent of the price tag — while federal and state taxpayers shouldered the rest.

CREATE, however, is supposed to be a public-private partnership, not solely a government endeavor. Lipinski says the railroads should shell out more money for CREATE projects. We agree.

Yes, it's natural for businesses to want to focus their money on infrastructure that mostly benefits them. Yet CREATE projects will benefit the rail companies as much as they benefit the region and the nation. Solving the 75th Street bottleneck will do more than help motorists and Metra commuters, it will shave shipping costs through faster travel times for rail cargo. Grade separations at crossings will allow freight rail to move faster through this metropolis.

Why the urgency? As bad as the bottlenecks are now, they're only going to get worse. Daily volumes of rail cars passing through Chicago are projected to more than double by 2045, the Illinois Department of Transportation says. The railroads can avoid tomorrow's worse gridlock by paying their fair share now.

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