Launched 17 years ago, the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program—aka "Create"– envisions more than $4 billion worth of upgrades to eliminate epic delays that made Chicago the worst chokepoint in the national freight railroad system. Trains often needed two days to inch across the region, while numerous grade-level track crossings across the region routinely held up auto and truck traffic.
Create hasn’t moved much faster, falling far short of expectations that all 70 individual projects on its punch list would be done in a decade. Some progress has been made, but much remains unfinished. As the recent Crain’s Forum on transportation reported Nov. 20, less than half the projects are complete, and less than half the money needed to finish the work has been raised. Create still needs $3 billion to complete the remaining 40 projects.
The largest share of Create funding comes from Washington, with Illinois, freight railroads and others providing the rest. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Rebuild Illinois capital program includes $492 million for Create. A big injection of federal dollars could trigger enough additional contributions to finish the program.
There’s an urgent need for money to complete a critical project at 75th Street and Western Avenue in Chicago, where four freight lines and two passenger lines converge. Trains slow to a crawl as they enter the thicket, creating a huge bottleneck with ripple effects across the region. About half the roughly $1 billion needed to build flyovers and lay additional tracks at the corridor has come through, but the rest is nowhere in sight.
As Create pokes along, the problem it’s meant to solve is getting worse. The U.S. Department of Transportation predicts freight rail trade in Chicago will double between 2012 and 2045. Freight trains are getting longer as railroads strive for efficiency and ecommerce drives up shipping volumes. Longer trains mean longer delays at rail crossings.
Unfinished Create projects continue to sap productivity throughout our area. Motorists stuck at rail crossings lose 7,500 hours per day, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Idling cars and trucks burn countless gallons of fuel unnecessarily, fouling the air and wasting money. Rail bottlenecks push more shipments onto trucks, increasing highway congestion and air pollution.
Slow progress on Create also imperils Chicago’s status at the nation’s freight rail hub. About 37,500 train cars, or one-quarter of all U.S. rail traffic, comes to or through Chicago every day. Those volumes put Chicago at the center of an industry that has created more than 50,000 Illinois jobs paying $1.7 billion in annual wages, Create says. But those jobs and wages are at risk if Chicago can’t keep pace with rising freight volumes.
Thanks to Create, many trains now get through Chicago in a day, a big improvement but still too slow for railroads and shippers rushing to meet ever-shrinking ecommerce delivery windows. Some railroads are scoping out alternate routes that bypass Chicago. A fully-realized Create program would enable Chicago to handle 50,000 more train cars, additional capacity we’ll need to keep trains rumbling through town.
President-elect Biden’s victory opens the door to an all-out push for Create funding. The program fits in with his plans to jump-start the economy with infrastructure investment. Create projects will put lots of people to work, modernize a key segment of the nation’s transportation system, and even produce some environmental benefits. Faster freight rail shipping will improve efficiency, putting a charge into economic growth. There’s also a social equity element; several unfinished Create projects–including the 75th Street improvements–would ease bottlenecks in minority communities hit hard by congestion, pollution and delays at rail crossings.
All these benefits will make strong selling points with a Biden administration looking to achieve multiple policy goals. Another advantage: Create has detailed plans, and estimates the $4.6 billion program will generate $31.5 billion in economic benefits over thirty years. Those factors would carry weight with White House officials who are likely to favor "shovel-ready" projects that produce a significant payoff. Now it’s time for Illinois’ D.C. team make the case for fast-tracking Create.
via Crain’s Chicago Business
December 1, 2020 at 08:59PM