Metra starts push for latest congestion relief megaproject

Metra and freight railroad officials were preaching to the choir Friday when they touted the benefits to come from a $1 billion project aimed to straighten out a train bottleneck on the South Side of Chicago.

The audience they hoped to reach beyond the Metra boardroom is in Springfield and Washington, D.C. Right now, there's a dearth of funding for the project.

"We need to make sure everyone hears about the 75th Street CIP (capital improvement corridor)," Metra Executive Director Don Orseno said. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

Metra trains and multiple freight trains, including Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads, converge at three separate crossings located in the area of 75th Street between the Dan Ryan Expressway and Kedzie Avenue.

"The ripple effects in the system are enormous," Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said.

The plan is to separate commuter and freight trains with two bridges plus realign and add track so the two systems can run simultaneously. The cost is $75 million for engineering and design plus $952 million for construction.

The project would ease delays on the Southwest Service to Manhattan, which runs through the chokepoint. Ultimately, it would allow Metra to move the Southwest Service from Union Station to the downtown LaSalle Street Station. That should free up train movements at Union Station for Amtrak and the BNSF Line to Aurora.

"If we lose 30 trains (at Union Station), we could put 30 additional trains there," Orseno said.

Amtrak executive Michael Franke said Chicago's railroad gridlock is a national embarrassment. "The last mile to Chicago is stop and go," he said. New slots at Union Station could allow for more service to Milwaukee and destinations in Michigan.

Metra has worked out an arrangement with the freight railroads that crisscross the region so that its trains take precedence during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

But that system isn't perfect and riders are all-too-familiar with frequent apologies that "due to freight train interference" their trains are delayed, officials said.

Lobbying efforts will be directed at Illinois' congressional delegation, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner and state lawmakers.

The 75th Street project is part of a greater $3.7 billion effort dubbed CREATE, a partnership with Metra and the freight railroads. In total, 70 CREATE improvements are involved; 22 are complete, 28 are in the works and 20 are left. Projects that are finished or in progress include grade separations in Downers Grove, West Chicago and the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago.

Until its completion this fall, the $142 million Englewood Flyover bridge was Metra's poster child for congestion relief.

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