Industry leaders look for ways to stimulate investment

By Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOT

An important intermodal project- a ten-year effort to modernize Chicago’s freight railroad system- kicked off last month. With only one-fifth of its total funding in place, however, the project is challenged to achieve its desired results.

The project, known as CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Project) envisions easing rail congestion nationwide by opening the Chicago bottleneck. Of a total estimated cost of $1.5 billion, the US Congress delivered a $100 million down payment, a level matched by private industry and the State of Illinois. Those grants, together with a $30 million allocation from the City of Chicago, provide an initial $330 million for preliminary design and engineering work, as well as some start-up construction.

But CREATE can’t count on any further federal funding, at least for some time. Congress won’t be looking to invest any more taxpayer money in transportation projects for at least three years, when the next multiyear federal transportation-funding bill comes up for consideration.

‘Over 50% of all intermodal moves in the country are into, out of, or through Chicago,’ noted Phil Yeager, founder and chairman of the Hub Group, an intermodal marketing company. ‘Chicago is tremendously important for the railroads and the shipping public.’

‘This is a good example of where public-private sector partnerships can work to correct legacy problems of the transportation industry,’ added George Woodward, president of the board of directors of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver. ‘The infrastructure was built for the needs of the nineteenth century and needs to be reshaped for the twenty-first century. It’s going to involve a huge capital expenditure.’

CREATE’s present plans are much more modest. The project calls for the initial funding to go toward constructing grade separations at several intersections notorious for rail traffic tie-ups. The first junction to be tackled will be on the Southwest side of town at the Brighton Park Junction, a nineteenth century crossing where four major freight and passenger rail lines converge.

‘A tough situation’

Chicago’s intermodal problems are much more extensive than busy junctions, however. The real issue involves container and trailer interchanges: the fact that they must be transferred from one carrier’s yard to the other over the road by truck. It takes at least two days for an eastbound container originating at a West Coast port to resume its journey once it hits Chicago.

‘Splitting Conrail was not a good deal when it comes to service,’ commented Yeager. ‘Through trains were a Conrail specialty and they ran them like clockwork. That avoided drayage and was better than dropping them on the ground. This is a problem that can’t be solved until they improve the infrastructure for switching. It is a tough situation.’

‘Chicago is the main rail junction in North America but it’s also such a terrible choke point,’ added Gil Carmichael, a railroad administrator in the first Bush administration, and now a real estate developer in Meridian, Mississippi. ‘What they really need to do is to re-plan the whole rail infrastructure, and then do the highway system so that it fits in after that.’

One idea that is being floated to overhaul the intermodal infrastructure in Chicago comes from Jack Lanigan Sr., CEO of Mi-Jack Products Inc. in Hazel Crest, IL. His concept, known as Thruport, ‘will complement what they are doing with CREATE by allowing freight to flow through the Chicago region smoother and faster.’

‘It will be able to get rid of the intermodal interchange from one corridor to another,’ Lanigan claims. ‘The most important thing is expediting the interchange by taking minutes, instead of forty-eight hours, to unload containers from one train and