By Lillian Yan
The Chicago Region Environment and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program is one of the largest, most complex rail improvement programs in the country. With nearly half of its 70 interrelated projects complete since kickoff in 2003, a look at what’s driving the success of the program is useful to anyone involved with delivering a massive, capital-intensive rail infrastructure project.
CREATE is a first-of-its-kind partnership between the U.S. DOT, FHWA, state of Illinois, Cook County, city of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak, and the nation’s Class 1 freight railroads. It is investing billions in critically needed improvements to increase the efficiency of the region’s passenger and freight rail infrastructure and enhance the quality of life for Chicago-area residents.
It is an enormous, decades-long undertaking fraught with the risk that comes with changing politics, uncertain funding and competing interests. But its participants have valued partnership and engagement.
Collaboration is key in any project, but it is remarkable to see what happens when all parties see real, operational benefits in a successful outcome. Unclogging the nation’s largest rail chokepoint delivers mobility and community benefits. It means better bottom lines for freight railroads that can move goods faster and more efficiently. It means safe, more accessible communities that can attract jobs and economic development in impacted project areas. All partners are investing, solving problems and completing projects together, incentivized by making CREATE a success.
A great example of this collaboration is last year’s $132 million grant from U.S. DOT for the program’s 75th Street corridor improvement project. CREATE partners had committed significant funding for the project. When it still fell short of what was needed, all of the partners stepped up and bridged the gap.
Effective collaboration would not happen without transparent communication and coordination among CREATE partners and surrounding communities. Along with the CREATE Advocacy Committee, the HNTB team meets with all stakeholders on a regular basis.
The biggest challenge, of course, is funding. As CREATE program manager for Illinois DOT, HNTB works closely with the agency and potential funding sources to determine how to leverage available funds strategically and maximize every dollar. This work includes developing innovative funding strategies, conducting detailed design oversight to minimize construction issues, and performing detailed controls in tracking projects within budget and schedule. With successful implementation of funded CREATE projects, IDOT is able to plan ahead and demonstrate the CREATE partners’ commitment to propose more projects eligible for additional federal, state or
CREATE is delivering a much-needed catalyst to strengthen many Chicago communities adjacent to the city’s rail infrastructure. The elimination of roadway-rail crossings and viaduct improvements make it safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. Demand for contractors opens doors to growth and job creation for local disadvantaged business enterprises. Improved rail and road traffic decreases train and vehicle idling, reducing pollution and energy consumption and improving air quality in surrounding neighborhoods. New education initiatives funded by the CREATE partners are leveraging nearby jobsites to introduce local students to STEM and transportation career fields.
A lot of investment and hard work remains, but at its figurative halfway point, the teamwork that moves CREATE forward stands as a model for other complex, urban rail programs. The project is streamlining rail traffic through the nation’s busiest hub and improving quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods.
Yan is a senior project manager with HNTB Corporation and manages the CREATE program for the Illinois Department of Transportation.