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MIPRC supports region's INFRA grant application to untangle Chicago's railroads
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MIPRC supports region's INFRA grant application to untangle Chicago's railroads

On Nov. 2, 2017, the Illinois Department of Transportation – along with the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways, and the region’s freight railroads – applied on behalf of CREATE for a $160 million Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) discretionary grant to help unplug one of the nation’s most frustrating rail bottlenecks: the 75th Street Corridor on Chicago’s south side.

The corridor encompasses six of the nation’s seven Class I freight railroads, two of Chicago’s Metra commuter rail lines, and Amtrak’s intercity service. Currently 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 ways in which the rail lines were laid out in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The application is essentially a resubmittal of IDOT’s December 2016 application for a $160 million FASTLANE grant, a new discretionary grant program created in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015. The Trump administration replaced FASTLANE with INFRA, and re-ordered the program’s criteria to emphasize projects that leverage non-federal funding, and/or use innovative approaches to project permitting and delivery. (The U.S. Department of Transportation’s criteria comparison can be seen here.)

As it did with the original, FASTLANE application, MIPRC supports this grant application; our letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is here.

If awarded, the money will be the final piece of the funding puzzle, allowing construction to begin unclogging the 75th St. corridor (private sector and other non-federal contributions are covering 65 percent of the project’s $473.7 million tab). 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. As the application notes, the projects “comprise a network of inter-related infrastructure improvements that will reduce travel time and expand railroad capacity through the Terminal, resulting in a doubling of corridor capacity and operational benefits that extend beyond the region to a national scale.”

According to the application, the project components’ composite benefit-cost ratio is 7:1 or better, with a Net Present Value (NPV) of $3.8 billion while the construction projects’ NPV will return the requested Federal investment by more than 20 to 1.

“The transformative aspects of the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project significantly meet the merits of Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) through leveraging private and public funding into an innovatively-scoped project that yields mobility benefits on multiple levels,” said MIPRC Chair Beth McCluskey, who is director of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Office of Intermodal Project Implementation, and Gov. Bruce Rauner's designee to MIPRC.

“The CREATE partners have collectively made their first priority this critical next step toward mitigating the rail congestion that effects goods movement throughout our nation,” she said.

As noted in Section V.5.1 of the application, mobility outcomes for rail and highway traffic would greatly improve: “Reliability and travel time will improve for over 200 freight trains representing seven railroads, over 30 Metra commuter trains, and over 10 Amtrak trains that traverse the Project area every day” while more than 10,000 hours of motorist delay each year will be eliminated at 71st Street.

MIPRC’s letter of support adds that the 75th Street Corridor improvements will also connect Metra’s SouthWest Service Line to the nearby Rock Island Line, allowing SouthWest Service trains to shift their downtown Chicago terminal from Union Station to LaSalle Street Station, thereby freeing capacity at Union Station to accommodate future growth in intercity and commuter rail service.

Unstated, but noted in MIPRC’s previous letter of support for the FASTLANE grant application, 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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