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MIPRC supports effort to land federal FASTLANE grant and untangle Chicago's railroads

MIPRC supports effort to land federal FASTLANE grant and untangle Chicago's railroads

CREATE Program's 75th St. Corridor Project would speed up Amtrak, Metra, freight lines

One of the nation’s most frustrating rail bottlenecks lies on Chicago’s south side: the 75th Street Corridor, encompassing six of the nation’s seven Class I freight railroads, two of Chicago’s Metra commuter rail lines, and Amtrak’s intercity service.

Currently in the corridor: railroads cross each other at grade; at two separate locations, six- and five-track routes narrow to two tracks; viaducts are in poor condition, forcing slower train speeds and creating hazards for drivers and pedestrians; rail junctions are too closely spaced, forcing trains to stop outside the corridor because if a train stops for one junction it automatically blocks another; and freight and Metra trains often conflict with each other at junctions, resulting in frustrating delays for commuters. 

The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE) – a public/private partnership between the freight railroads, Metra, the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois, Amtrak and the U.S. DOT – was formed in 2003 to help solve this and several other problems in and around Chicago, some inherited from the manner in which the rail lines were laid out in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Last month, the Illinois Department of Transportation – along with the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways – applied on behalf of CREATE for a $160 million FASTLANE grant, a new discretionary grant program created in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015. MIPRC supports this grant application; our letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx can be seen here.

If awarded, the money will be the final piece of the funding puzzle for the 75th Street Corridor Project (private sector contributions are covering 22.5 percent of the project’s $487.8 million tab, state and local governments are covering a further 41.7 percent), allowing construction to begin unclogging the 75th St. corridor. Projects would include:

• Construction of a new double-track connection and crossovers between the Belt Railway of Chicago and the CSX/Indiana Harbor Belt in Summit, Illinois, and adding capacity to the Argo Yard.
• Final design and construction of a new flyover at Forest Hill Junction that will carry CSX tracks over the Belt Railway of Chicago and Metra’s Southwest Service line. 
• Final design and construction of a new road/rail grade separation at 71st Street.
• Final design of track realignments and relocations to eliminate a five-to-two track bottleneck at Belt Junction and rebuild the 80th Street Junction; relocating Union Pacific tracks to an unused portion of Norfolk Southern right-of-way, adding Positive Train Control; adding a new track for Metra service; and viaduct repairs.
• Final design of a new flyover to connect Metra’s Southwest Service to its Rock Island Service, enabling Southwest trains to relocate from Union Station to the LaSalle Street Terminal (which is currently used only by Rock Island trains).

The benefits of untangling this corridor include increased operating efficiency and speed; fewer freight/commuter train conflicts; and less need for trains to idle, thus reduced air and noise pollution. The grant application’s Section V.2 (Mobility Outcomes) notes that for intercity passenger rail:

"Amtrak conflicts with Metra and freight trains will be reduced, and overall Amtrak capacity increased, as a result of rail capacity improvements and route streamlining, including the relocation of Metra SWS from Union Station to LaSalle Street Station. The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI) high speed rail program will be supported as a result of rail capacity increases and enabling the relocation of some Metra services to LaSalle Street Station to create additional boarding capacity at Union Station."

As noted in MIPRC’s letter of support, the corridor project would also bring Amtrak closer to a significant improvement for Midwestern intercity passenger rail: acquiring the contractual rights to an easement that would generate the capacity of a double‐track passenger rail main along the very congested Norfolk Southern corridor from Chicago Union Station to the Indiana‐Illinois border. The rights to this easement agreement are only conveyed from NS to Amtrak once the 75th Street CIP and another interrelated project (P4 – Grand Crossing) are completed.

This additional capacity – over and above what the 75th St. Corridor Improvement Project generates – would improve freight movement in the Midwest, and is critical for enhanced passenger rail service to Indiana, Michigan and points east, all goals of the nine‐state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.

The Grand Crossing project is currently in the preliminary design phase and awaits further funding. Its completion would eliminate the need for Amtrak trains – including the state-supported Michigan Services, Illini and Saluki trains and the long distance Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited and City of New Orleans – to back up near 16th Street and Halsted to access Union Station, thus improving travel times by 10-15 minutes.
 

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