Funding holding up further fix for train gridlock
A potential drop of more than 60 percent in Metra delays.
That number alone makes an ambitious $3.2 billion fix for rail congestion in the Chicago region attractive in the eyes of area commuters. And railroads, with the backing of the business community, also support the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE.
But where funding for the $2 billion worth of work remaining will come from is a question both U.S. congressmen and industry officials pondered at a Monday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.
The Chicago region hosts about 1,300 trains a day -- 800 Amtrak and Metra trains and 500 freights. But the outdated infrastructure and numerous street level crossings make it a major chokepoint for freight trains, not to mention the delays caused for drivers.
State dollars for the project run out this year and there's nothing forthcoming in the federal government's latest transportation plan.
Projects under CREATE include bridges separating freight and passenger trains among other upgrades on the Union Pacific West, BNSF, Southwest Service, Rock Island and Heritage Corridor Lines.
Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran testified that if CREATE is fully implemented it could reduce commuter delays by two-thirds. "Each of these lines would experience less delays and improve reliability," he said.
Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Doug Whitley called federal funding for CREATE "episodic at best. I'm not sure it's seen as a priority," he said.
Congressman Dan Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat, has hopes Congress can craft a substantive transportation bill next year that addresses the funding vacuum.
But he said the public should be aware that substantial progress has been made on the program with about $1.2 billion secured for work such as grade separations in Downers Grove and in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. "There's a misconception it's not moving forward," he noted.
O'Halloran also appealed to lawmakers to extend the deadline and help pay for positive train control, an automatic braking system that kicks in when collisions are imminent. The government has mandated the system must be in place by Dec. 31, 2015. It's going to cost Metra about $220 million, the agency estimates.