On Tuesday, June 5, 2018, a number of freight projects in northeastern Illinois were awarded significant federal and state funding. Congressional leaders announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation intends to award $132 million to the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) for the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project (CIP) -- the largest and most complex remaining project in the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program -- to be matched by local, state, and private investment. The 75th Street CIP was one of 26 freight and highway projects throughout the nation selected for $1.5 billion in competitive Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program funds, subject to a 60-day Congressional review period.
Separately on Tuesday, IDOT announced $241 million in awards through its Competitive Freight Program for 23 projects throughout Illinois, including eight in our region to reduce truck bottlenecks and improve intermodal accessibility.
In recognition that the region’s economy depends heavily on our freight system, both GO TO 2040 and the ON TO 2050 draft plan recommend completion of the CREATE program. ON TO 2050 will emphasize strategic investments such as the 75th Street CIP to maintain our status as North America’s freight hub. The recent CMAP Regional Strategic Freight Direction also emphasized the importance of completing CREATE and prioritizing the 75th Street CIP.
The 75th Street CIP has broad regional and national benefits for freight and passenger rail alike. Six major railroads -- two passenger and four freight -- pass through the 75th Street corridor on Chicago’s South Side, crossing each other and local roads while creating intense train and road traffic back-ups. More than two million railcars per year pass through the corridor, with volumes anticipated to increase. Reliability currently suffers both for local Metra commuter trains and interstate Amtrak trains, which conflict with freight trains in the corridor. The private and public and sectors will benefit from completion of the project, with public benefits accruing widely to the Chicago region, surrounding Midwestern states, and the nation’s economy.
The grant will fund improvements including a flyover at the Forest Hill junction and a grade separation at 71st Street and the Western Avenue rail corridor. Future improvements will further untangle railroad tracks in the nearby Belt Junction and create a flyover to reroute the Metra SouthWest Service from its current terminus at Union Station to the less congested LaSalle Street Station. This, combined with additional SouthWest Service track and less freight interference, will facilitate service improvements for the SouthWest Service. These enhancements were included in GO TO 2040 as a fiscally constrained major capital project and are recommended for inclusion as a fiscally constrained Regionally Significant Project in the draft ON TO 2050 plan as well. The project also will create a grade separation between freight rail tracks and 71st Street, reducing motorist delay. With the INFRA grant -- plus additional funding from private railroads, IDOT, the City of Chicago, Cook County, Metra, and Amtrak -- the project has more than $400 million for this phase -- nearly half of its total cost of approximately $1 billion. This video and the image below highlight these improvements.
The INFRA grant also provides construction funding for the Argo Connections project, improving connections at the Argo and Canal junction to address a chokepoint at 87th Street, and increasing capacity at the Argo rail yard. These improvements will allow faster and more efficient freight train movement, and reduce the potential for conflict with Amtrak and Metra trains.
IDOT’s competitive program awarded $50 million for CREATE project “GS-11,” a grade separation at Columbus Avenue and the Belt Railway Company of Chicago, which will significantly reduce motorist delay and eliminate the potential for collisions between vehicles and trains. Other IDOT freight awards include an interchange construction at I-80 and US 30 in Will County, reconstruction of Franklin Avenue in Franklin Park, and a re-route of IL Route 126 in Plainfield. The full list of projects -- which includes a statewide project to address truck parking availability, an important freight concern in the region -- is available here. The Columbus Avenue and Franklin Avenue projects will improve connectivity to rail-truck intermodal terminals.
Funding for both the INFRA program and IDOT’s Competitive Freight Program was authorized by the federal Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015. The INFRA program and the National Highway Freight Program -- which provides federal formula funds to Illinois that IDOT programmed via the competitive state program -- were the first new significant federal transportation programs in decades. The recent awards demonstrate the importance of federal funding for freight projects that result in broad regional and national benefits. CMAP will continue to prioritize completion of the 75th Street CIP and the broader CREATE program, as these projects reinvest in the existing transportation system, deliver broad benefits across modes, and help to maintain the region’s position as the nation’s freight hub. Not only will smoother movement through the Chicago terminal benefit the freight rail network and the economy, but motorists, Metra commuters, and Amtrak riders alike stand to gain.