One-of-a-Kind P3 Continues to Build Chicago's $4.4B CREATE Rail Infrastructure Program
Every day as many as 800 passenger trains and 500 freight trains - or 25 percent of all U.S. freight rail traffic - move through the Chicago area. The Federal Highway Administration's Freight Analysis Framework forecasts freight rail trade with Chicago from 2011 to 2040 will triple by value and double by weight. Yet rail lines built a century ago weren't configured for the volumes and types of freight currently carried, let alone for future growth. That means significant daily delays for both rail and roadway traffic.
To increase the efficiency of the region's passenger and freight rail infrastructure and enhance the quality of life for Chicago-area residents, the City of Chicago, State of Illinois, U.S. Department of Transportation, Metra (Chicago's commuter rail system), Amtrak, and the nation's freight railroads came together in 2003 to form the $4.4 billion Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program. Six of the seven major railroads operating in North America pass through Chicago, and all six are partners in the CREATE program.
To date, 27 of the 70 projects included in the CREATE program have been completed and 24 are in progress.
Since the CREATE program started, "The amount of time it takes a freight train to move through Chicago has been cut by an average of about 11 hours," said Ed Greenberg, Spokesman for the Association of American Railroads (AAR). "Studies show that once completed, the CREATE program will generate $31.5 billion in economic benefits over a 30-year period. The analysis also found that increasing the capacity of the rail network in Chicago will accommodate commuter and passenger rail growth and reduce annual passenger train delays by over 1.3 million passenger hours by 2051."
How to Manage 70 Projects
With involvement from so many public and private entities (including rail competitors), "This is a first-of-a-kind collaboration," Greenberg said. "The focus comes down to addressing efficiency and critically needed improvements."
The first CREATE project was completed in 2005. "Once we had initial funding, what drove the projects that went to construction was really which ones finished environmental work first," said Bill Thompson, AAR's Chief Engineer for the CREATE program. "One project isn't necessarily more important than another, but it's easier to get funding for smaller projects and they went through the environmental process quicker. Some of the bigger ones, like the 75th Street Corridor, took 10 years to get through the environmental process; we weren't ready to do anything design-wise until recently."
Funding comes from a wide variety of private and public sources. So far the freight railroads have committed $365 million for CREATE projects. Because some portion of federal funding supports almost every project, the partners in the CREATE program agreed to comply with Buy America requirements, including the procurement of all steel structural components and steel rail.
"I can tell you with great confidence that no two projects are funded exactly the same," Thompson said. "Every one has a different mix. You can have money from the railroads, the state, city, and local entities. For example, on the 25th Avenue project, the Villages of Bellwood and Maywood (Illinois) funded Phase 1 (environmental review), then the state funded design work. On the 130th Street and Torrence Avenue project (see "Self-Propelled Modular Transporters" section), there's $1 million in Ford Motor Company money because of the benefits the project brings to their production plant."
Project oversight also varies. For the 25 roadway-rail grade separation projects, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) oversees most of the ones in the City of Chicago, while the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) manages the rest. The 35 freight railroad projects and seven passenger rail projects are the responsibility of the primary owner. "One railroad becomes a subcontractor to another if two or more railroads are involved," Thompson said. "There's constant cooperation and communication through all the projects."
Boosting Chicago's Safety Standard
As crews work around live railroads, another common factor is high safety standards. The push starts with the railroad companies, Thompson said. "The railroads require safety training first, then comes hard hats, safety glasses, reflective vests, safety boots - all the appropriate clothing - and hearing protection. There are job briefings at the start of the day, job briefings after lunch, and job briefings when the project changes. Plus there are constant audits of safety conditions and protecting the trains. Whenever a crane lifts anything near a railroad, they shut the railroad down or shut the crane down until the train passes."
The railroads actively enforce their safety standards. "If the railroads see a safety issue, even if it's not their employee, they stop the operation, hold an immediate safety briefing, and have a conversation with the project manager," Thompson said.
He compared the situation to a pyramid. "We worry about the bottom of the pyramid, those little activities. If people slip by without wearing safety glasses or aren't paying attention, it could cause a derailment, fatality, or serious injury. The railroads will not accept that."
That mindset will affect other Chicago-area projects, Thompson predicted. "Many contractors understand the importance of safety, but the push from the railroads has changed the thinking of those contractors in Chicago that weren't quite as aggressive from a safety standpoint. They know that if they're going to work on CREATE and railroad projects, they have an obligation to protect the safety of their employees, as well as the public and the railroad people that work around them. Metra moves over 300,000 passengers every work day and we all have an obligation to get them to and from work safely and on time."
What's Coming Next?
Nineteen CREATE projects have yet to receive funding to start environmental review. Others, such as the $1 billion 75th Street Corridor, the program's largest component, await funding to move to the next phase. With the environmental process completed for that project, program partners are seeking the money for design and construction that will eliminate the region's most-congested rail chokepoint, known as Forest Hill and Belt Junction, where 90 freight, 30 Metra, and two Amtrak trains cross each other's paths every day.
Completed projects already offer enhanced safety, as well as fewer train and auto delays, resulting in reduced fuel consumption and emissions. These and future CREATE projects will also affect economic growth throughout the Chicago area. "As Cook County pointed out in their 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, the region's role as a freight hub provides advantages to other industries that depend on a competitive freight industry to get their raw material and ship their finished products," said Thompson.