CREATE program update: keeping Chicago fluid

Written by Mischa Wanek-Libman, editor
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CREATE project B2. Construction work by a regulator on Track 2 at Bellwood Station. Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Transportation.

The CREATE program continues to improve movement through the nation’s rail nucleus. The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) Program marked nine years of existence in June 2012.

In those nine years, CREATE has completed 14 projects, has 34 more projects in either environmental, design or construction phases and has plans for an additional 22 projects aimed at improving capacity, relieving congestion and improving safety through North America’s rail hub.

The ambitious program, a partnership between the United States Department of Transportation, the State of Illinois, City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and the nation’s freight railroads, will invest billions in infrastructure improvements and is crucial in keeping Chicago an important facet in the national rail network.

“Our early terminal model results indicated that if something was not done, the Chicago terminal would reach gridlock shortly after the year 2015. The recent economic downturn has bought the terminal some additional time to complete the program before we reach such a critical point,” said Bill Thompson, CREATE program manager at the Association of American Railroads. “Had CREATE not been advanced, the current rail infrastructure in Chicago could not have handled the volume increases that are expected to take place as we go forward. Chicago is the key to the rail network in this country. Six of the seven Class 1 railroads, Metra and Amtrak operate 1,300 trains daily. The national economy depends on a strong rail network and you can’t have a strong rail network if it doesn’t include a fluid Chicago terminal.”

East abutment backfilling on CREATE project GS15a. Photo Courtesy of Chicago Department of Transportation.

The projects

“Prior to the existence of the CREATE Program, the Chicago Transportation Coordination Office (CTCO) was established by the railroad industry to ‘fix Chicago.’ Their initial task was to improve the flow of rail traffic through Chicago by implementing management, communications and process improvements. Once these improvements were in place, the focus then moved onto infrastructure improvements. Now that we have CREATE projects under construction, the CTCO coordinates construction activity along with the normal railroad maintenance and renewal activities. CTCO has the responsibility to ‘keep Chicago fluid.’ CTCO reviews and approves the CREATE construction sequencing plans,” said Thompson.

In addition to CTCO’s coordination, funding is the other big element when it comes to pacing of a particular project.

“It boils down to funding and schedule,” said Thompson. “IDOT and the railroads provided much of the initial funding for the environmental and initial design work (phase 1). As a project’s final design work (phase 2) is completed, again with mixed funding, it is available for construction funding (phase 3). The time it takes to complete the phase 1 and phase 2 work and schedules varies tremendously depending on complexity of projects and impacts. Funding for construction to date has been from FHWA, FRA, IDOT, CDOT, ICC, the railroads and some local communities.”

According to Thompson, all the freight corridor projects are currently moving through the design and construction process and the program’s partners are working together to get more of the grade separations moving through the process.

CREATE has 22 projects currently in environmental (phase 1) or final design (phase 2) and this summer, the program has experienced a flurry of activity beginning in May with the completion of the B4/B5 projects on the city’s west side.

“The B4/B5 projects are a substantial upgrade of the IHB signal system between CP Hill in Melrose Park and LaGrange. The signal system on this portion of the IHB was completely replaced. The project was completed on schedule and budget,” said Thompson.

The program will also benefit from the fourth round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) funds that were announced in June. The $10.4 million TIGER grant received by the State of Illinois will advance the WA3-C and WA2-B projects, which include installing an upgraded signal system on the Western Avenue Corridor between Brighton Park and Ogden Avenue along with several new crossovers near 22nd Street.

In July, Metra’s Board of Directors approved a $93-million contract to construct one of CREATE’s higher-profile projects, P1, know as the Englewood Flyover. The P1 project will raise the existing two-track Metra Rock Island District Line approximately 29 feet to fly over the existing three-track Norfolk Southern alignment. The new structure will be designed to span six tracks, comprised of the three existing NS tracks and three future tracks, which include track for the planned expansion of high-speed rail through the corridor. P1 also replaces the Metra bridge over Interstate 90/94 near 63rd Street.

In addition to those projects listed above, the following nine CREATE projects are under construction or starting very soon:

B2 near Proviso yard builds three miles of new third mainline on UP.

B15 installs TCS on the main lines through IHB Blue Island yard.

GS7 puts Belmont Rd in Downers Grove under the BNSF mainline.

GS14 puts 71st Street in Bridgeview under the CSX four tracks at Toyota Park.

GS15 builds new NICTD and NS structures over 130th and Torrance in Chicago – this project will result in construction of one of the longest bridge spans in Chicago.

GS16 separates the CP mainline from York and Irving Park Roads in Bensenville.

GS25 constructs a new bridge to put Roosevelt Road in West Chicago over UP.

WA10 installs crossovers at Blue Island to connect CSX and CN mainlines.

COP or Common Operational Picture allows railroad dispatchers and managers to more effectively monitor trains on foreign carriers.

According to Thompson, CREATE’s largest project, the 75th Street Corridor Improvement, is going through a development of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is expected to be completed in 2013.

The future

With almost a decade under the program’s belt, the CREATE coordinators have learned a few lessons over the years but if offered a reset button, they wouldn’t need it.

“While property purchase can be a source of project delay, for the most part the projects thus far have been built on existing rights-of-way and experienced minimal delay. Utilities relocations are a source of delay on some projects. We are being more aggressive by providing some utilities with CREATE projects schedule so they can stay ahead of the construction,” said Thompson.

“The environmental reviews are taking longer than originally expected,” he continued. “I wouldn’t say we would do anything differently. We have a truly amazing public private partnership between the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, the federal government and the rail industry. One thing we did learn is that some things take longer to accomplish with so many partners involved. We also learned about the commitments including environmental and minority participation necessary to design and build projects with mixed funding. The CREATE partners goal is to be good stewards of the environment, good stewards of the available funding and get the projects built. This requires listening, understanding and persistence.”

Categories: Class 1, Commuter/Regional, Intercity, OFF Track Maintenance, ON Track Maintenance, Shortline/Regional