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CREATE, and How the Lack of a National Infrastructure Vision Hurts Us All

A CREATE grade separation project. Photo: Jessica Papanek

CREATE, or the “Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program,” has been an ongoing effort to modernize the tangled web of railroad tracks across the city. It has been just over 15 years since the program launched, so the Illinois Department of Transportation and partner agencies took the opportunity last week to show off a few completed components as well as some projects in the works. The tour started in Union Station with statements from several people involved with the initiative.

Joe Shacter, Amtrak's senior manager for state corridors, said CREATE is key for the railroad because it will free up more slots for their trains. For example, the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project
would move the downtown terminal for Metra Southwest Service trains from Union
Station to LaSalle Street, freeing up track space for additional Amtrak trains to Saint Louis, for example. IDOT is currently making infrastructure improvements that will allow trains to travel at higher speeds along that route.

Metra's chief engineering officer Bruce Marcheschi added that the 75th Street project could also allow for additional trains on the Southwest Service. He noted the importance of inter-agency partnerships for bringing projects such as the Englewood Flyover to fruition.

IDOT secretary Randy Blankenhorn discussed the financial challenges CREATE faces. While only 29 out of 70 planned projects have been completed, he noted that federal grants for rail transportation are becoming increasingly scarce. He went so far as to declare the days of large-scale federal funding effectively over, adding that this has forced the CREATE team to seek other cash sources. He also stressed that the project team was doing its best to balance the needs of the community as well as freight requirements. Sometimes these are very much intertwined, since the number of trucks on Chicago streets on Chicago streets has doubled in recent years due to freight congestion, which has made traffic jams worse.

Photo Jul 11, 9 07 48 AM
Officials discuss the CREATE program at Union Station. Photo: Jessica Papanek
Officials discuss the CREATE program at Union Station. Photo: Charles Papanek

Chicago Department of Transportation chief Rebekah Scheinfeld agreed that CREATE is crucial for reducing the negative impacts of truck traffic, pointing to the Columbus Ave. & Belt Railway Company Grade Separation, which she said will benefit the Ashburn community on the Southwest Side. Not only do long freight train crossings force trucks to take a circuitous detour, but the street is designated a “911 Critical Crossing,” meaning emergency services are frequently blocked by traffic and trains.

John Yonan, of Cook County Transportation and Highways said county president Toni Preckwinkle was an early supporter of CREATE. He also lauded the program as an example of of local governments, including other Chicagoland counties, working together for a common goal.

Bill Thompson, CREATE program manager for the American Association of Railroads, said freight rail industry professionals are pleased with the partnerships that have been formed over the years through the program. These relationships will become more critical in the future as shipping container growth increases dramatically due to Amazon creating a need for more “on-demand” goods. He also mentioned the so-called "Chicago protocol," the policy that passengers trains theoretically get priority over freightf rom 6-9 a.m. and 4-7 a.m., but not during other times, which helps explain why Metra's non-rush-hour train service is infrequent.

During the Q & A someone asked about the current timeline for the 75th Street project. Officials responded that the federal funding would hopefully be available by March 2019, pending the release of the funds by Congress and that the two-year construction project would start immediately after that.

Asked about the future of rail funding, officials responded that the the states will have to take the initiative to to find new revenue sources. This will require public outreach to raise support for solutions like raising the Illinois gas tax, which has been stuck at a flat 19 cents a gallon for 28 years. Only about half of the $4.4 billion needed to complete the roster of CREATE projects has been raised so far. The officials said that new technology like virtual reality could be potentially used in used in community outreach to better explain the benefits of rail congestion relief projects.

Someone brought up a 2017 Tribune editorial that voiced the concern that the railroads aren't chipping in enough of their own money for CREATE. The team acknowledged that railroads have their own agendas, and it can be difficult to bring them to the table when they want to put their money elsewhere.

Next the tour group departed to check out a the IHB Grade Crossing of 71st Street next to Toyota Park.

The second site was the infamous 75th - Forest Hill Junction, where the numerous conflicting operators result in an enormous number of delays. A video has been produced that goes over the steps needed to address the problem, as well as the potential benefits.

The third site and final site was the recently completed Englewood Flyover at 63rd and State, completed and opened in 2016. Here's a video outlining the project, which officials held up as an example of how private and public interests can come together to create much-needed improvements.

The Wikipedia entry for the CREATE project sums its challenges best: “While the need is fairly clear, finance for the project is stalled in the United States Congress.” This underscores the mismatch between infrastructure funding needs and the priorities of current federal officials. That's something to consider when you vote in the midterm elections this November. In the meantime, you can review the projects and leave feedback on the main CREATE website.

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