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Rail Program Struggles to Stay on Track

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Chicago's highway congestion is notorious. There's much less awareness about one of its causes: the clogged condition of the area's rail lines. Transportation experts say reducing Chicago's rail congestion could cut commuting times, protect the environment and fuel the local economy. A public-private partnership called CREATE aims to relieve the congestion. After five years of work, though, the partnership has completed little. We report as part of our series, Chicago Matters: Growing Forward.

Related: View Maps of Areas Affected by Rail Congestion

Chicago is the only city where six of the continent's seven largest railroads converge. But rail improvements over the years haven't kept up with an increasing demand for freight transportation. That's helped make trucking more competitive and roads more congested.

Ambi: Trucks idling.

MITCHELL (ON THE SCENE): Heading into Chicago from the east, the last big truck stop is here in Gary, Indiana. About a hundred and fifty semis loaded with everything from steel coils to pet food have pulled in. Most say they won't go any further until traffic ahead loosens up. It's just 4 in the afternoon, so they're going to be here awhile.

Ambi: Truck-stop diner.

38-year-old Richard Felton of Olympia, Washington, has a seat in the truck-stop diner.

FELTON: I'm sitting idle, eating greasy food when I could just be going down the road, doing what I need to do.

Felton's Freightliner is pulling a 53-foot trailer full of furniture and lab equipment from Ohio and Michigan. He has another load to pick up in Naperville. But Felton says there's no use burning fuel and wearing out brakes in Chicago's stop-and-go traffic.

FELTON: Probably 6 o'clock in the morning until 8 o'clock at night, it's congested. It could take anywhere from two to four hours to get through.

Transportation experts say road congestion hurts productivity, hikes consumer prices and fills the air with greenhouse gases. But there is another way to move freight. A single train can carry more weight than 200 trucks can. Paul Nowicki is an assistant vice president of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

NOWICKI: We can get a ton of freight from Chicago to Minneapolis on a gallon of fuel.

The problem is getting the trains out of the city in the first place. Congestion on Chicago-area rail lines can hold up freight trains for as long as two days. In 2003, Nowicki's company and five other major railroads partnered with the city and state to eliminate some of the bottlenecks. They came up with a plan called CREATE, short for the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program

NOWICKI: Motorists will spend 3,000 hours per day less time waiting at grade crossings for trains to go by after CREATE is built, and Metra service will be improved as well.

The plan calls for 78 projects, including crossing signals, control towers and grade separations. Most of the separations would lift roads above rail lines when they cross. Six others, called flyovers, would separate crossing rail lines.

Ambi: Metra train.

MITCHELL (ON THE SCENE): One flyover would be here, near 63rd and State on Chicago's South Side. Some Norfolk Southern freight trains sit for hours waiting for Metra commuter trains like this one to cross. The plan is to lift the Metra line 23 feet so the tracks no longer touch.

Planners say CREATE will double the average speed of freight trains through the Chicago area. They say that could help generate thousands of local jobs.

But five years since CREATE's launch, just two of the 78 projects are complete and just four others are under construction.

LaBELLE: At this pace, unfortunately, the CREATE program is on a schedule to take 25 years, and these are improvements that are needed now.

Jim LaBelle is a deputy director of a business-backed group called Chicago Metropolis 2020. He says the most glaring problem is a lack of funding. As designed, CREATE was going to run $1.5 billion.

LaBELLE: They were looking at the federal government to pay the lion's share of it.

But the feds' first installment, approved by Congress in 2005, was just a hundred million dollars. The state of Illinois has come up with even less, just 10 million. Governor Rod Blagojevich's latest capital proposal would add a hundred million for CREATE. But an impasse between Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan is holding it up. The leading CREATE proponent in the House is Elaine Nekritz of northwest suburban Des Plaines. Nekritz says passing a capital bill depends on the governor.

NEKRITZ: We are going to need some assurances that the money will be spent in the manner in which we anticipate.

Congressman Dan Lipinski of Chicago says the stalemate could make it harder to get more federal support.

LIPINSKI: If the state of Illinois does not pass a capital bill this year, it's going to be much more difficult for me to make the argument to bring more funding back to the state of Illinois, including CREATE.

With CREATE's funding so shaky, at least one of the partners is getting cold feet. Montreal-based CN has announced plans to purchase a line that bypasses Chicago known as the EJ&E. Suburbs along that railway are upset about the prospect of more freight trains. But CN Vice-President Karen Borlaug Phillips says her company has to do something about its congestion.

BORLAUG PHILLIPS: While we're very supportive of CREATE and hope CREATE gets funded, we can't wait several years for that to happen.

Many CREATE supporters say the funding may never materialize unless politicians start hearing more about the program from constituents. But the public still doesn't know much about CREATE. Randy Blankenhorn of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning says that's partly because the partnership meets behind closed doors.

BLANKENHORN: These are public dollars so we have to be open about the way we spend those dollars.

The stakes are high. Over the next two decades, Blankenhorn points out, the federal government expects demand for freight transportation through the Chicago area to nearly double.

BLANKENHORN: And if we don't have a successful rail system, if it's not efficient, our two options are to lose that freight or to put it on the highways.

At the Indiana stop, 40-year-old trucker Gerald Smith of Clarksville, Tennessee, just endured a three-hour drive through suburban Chicago.

SMITH: I might have reached five miles an hour, if that. It was a nightmare.

Smith doesn't like the idea of putting more freight on railways. But he can't come up with a better alternative. He knows that adding highway lanes isn't the answer.

SMITH: Because you widen the roads, and you get more people, you get more cars, you widen the roads. It's going to be an ongoing thing for the rest of my life, that I know of. For now, Smith says, he's just trying to make it home to his kids. It's going to be a long night.

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