• JUser::_load: Unable to load user with id: 79
Monday, December 14, 2009

CREATE could boost high-speed rail projects

Written by 
High-speed rail is a glamorous idea -- it's fun to imagine a train streaking through the cornfields from Chicago to St. Louis in four hours. Less glamorous are some of the fixes that need to be made to Chicago's notoriously slow freight rail system. Talk about projects like "signalize interlocking" and "grade separation," and eyes glaze over, The Chicago Sun Times reports.

But the promise of faster passenger rail is inextricably linked to the down-and-dirty business of freight. To make passenger and commuter trains move faster, you have to get the boxcars out of the way. And to do that, there needs to be more work done on the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) Program to improve freight, passenger and automobile traffic, according to U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski.

"You cannot have efficient passenger train service without the freight rail out of the way," Lipinski said. "They're all using the same track."

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, agrees that finishing the CREATE projects is essential for higher-speed passenger rail and for the freight industry. Demand for freight rail service is expected to double in the next 20 years, and Chicago is still the country's freight hub.

"It's kind of invisible and hard to describe, but [CREATE] is really critical to the future of almost anything that moves by train in the country," Harnish said.

Lipinski's father and congressional predecessor, William Lipinski, was a champion of the CREATE program, which got started in 2003. Since the project is regarded as Bill Lipinski's child, Dan Lipinski jokingly calls CREATE "my brother."

The 71 CREATE projects are intended to make freight traffic more efficient, through track and signal upgrades, and to keep freight, passenger rail and road traffic out of each other's way. One project under construction in Blue Island, for example, involves building a third line from Broadway and 131st Street to 115th Street, to allow easier flow-through for freight, says Blue Island Mayor Don Peloquin.

The $2.5-billion CREATE program got off to a slow start -- its private and government partners had hoped Congress would appropriate about $900 million in the 2005 transportation funding bill, but the law gave less than $100 million. Freight railroads kicked in another $116 million, and the City of Chicago has committed $30 million. As of now, six projects have been completed, and five are under way.

The money picture has gotten brighter over the last year, said Lipinski. The State of Illinois included $300 million for CREATE in its capital bill, along with $150 million for Amtrak expansion and $400 million for high-speed rail. CREATE supporters hope for $300 million in federal stimulus money through a grant, as well as money from the next federal surface transportation bill.

The Obama administration has promised $8 billion for high-speed rail projects around the country. Illinois hopes to get a piece of that, and Lipinski says he thinks Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood understands Chicago's freight rail issues and the importance of high speed passenger rail in the Midwest. High-speed rail money can be used for CREATE.

Eight Midwest states have cooperated to promote a high-speed network, with Chicago as its hub, that would link 12 metropolitan areas within 400 miles.

Lipinski points to 10 specific CREATE projects that need to get done to make way for high-speed rail. They include the Englewood rail-over-rail flyover at 63rd Street, which would cut rail delays between Metra's Rock Island District, Amtrak and proposed new freight operations. This also would help high-speed rail corridors to the east.

Other key projects are grade separations of the BNSF freight line from Belmont Road in Downers Grove, Harlem Avenue in Berwyn and Maple Avenue in Brookfield.

"The future is very bright," Lipinski said, though he wants the Obama administration to move faster on the next transportation bill, which Lipinski says will create millions of jobs. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) has a six-year bill ready to go, but the Obama administration has said it wants to delay writing a new bill for 18 months.

Get the latest rail news

The inside scoop from RT&S, IRJ and Railway Age on and off the track. Join our email list.