posted by Richard Gill
The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (aka South Shore Line) went into the bond market to acquire 14 new Highliner commuter coaches. They should begin running between South Bend and Chicago sometime this spring.
Illinois is to receive $230 million in earmarked funding under the recently approved federal appropriations act. Now, 230 million ain’t hay, but don’t look for the rail transportation portion to actually build much very soon. Much of the funding can be regarded as seed money for proposed projects, or just enough to keep them alive. It may not even pay for the engineering costs. In some cases, the money will simply back-pay for work already completed. Insofar as Hyde Park is concerned, one earmark will help pay for a disappearing act.
Here's a look at the portion of the money that is earmarked for transit and railroad works around Chicago.
CTA CIRCLE LINE: The bill designated about $8 million for a project estimated to run the $1 billion range. Combining both new and existing routes, this line, as presently conceived, would create a CTA rail loop about 15 miles long, running roughly along State Street on the east, Archer Avenue on the South, Ashland Avenue on the west, and North Avenue on the north. It would intersect almost all transit and commuter rail lines entering downtown Chicago, facilitating travel in an outer zone without requiring backtracking through the central business district. In concept, the Circle Line is not a bad idea, even if it was hatched during the tumultuous reign of former CTA president Frank Kruesi. A number of foreign cities -- London, Madrid and Seoul among them -- have similar lines. Olympics transit needs or not, good luck finding money to implement this controversial project amongst the pressing requirements just to maintain and repair the existing system.
CTA BROWN LINE: The funding provides $30 million for capacity enhancement on the Brown (Ravenswood) Line. This is not "found" money. It's money that was guaranteed years ago, when the project started. The full project cost is around $530 million. By extending station platforms, the project allows CTA to operate eight-car Brown Line trains instead of six cars. This expands capacity by a third, without the cost and congestion of additional trains. Completion is expected at the end of 2009.
CTA RED AND YELLOW LINES: A five-mile Red Line extension with four new stations ($285,000) and a two-mile Yellow Line extension with two new stations ($237,000). Place-holding dollars that won't even begin to cover the engineering.
FOUR METRA EXPANSION PROJECTS: A total of $24 million is allocated for four "New Start" projects. That amount of money will cover a small fraction of the cost of any one of them.
- The Suburban Transit Access Route (STAR line) would run along the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway (acquired by Canadian National Railway in January 2009) from either Chicago Heights or Joliet, in a broad arc to Hoffman Estates, and then down I-290 to (or at least toward) O'Hare. This (questionable, in my opinion) project resulted from Metra winning a funding tussle over CTA (No, they can't always just get along.) Ridership is iffy (self-propelled single diesel railcars would be used), and CN doesn't want it on their tracks.
- The Southeast Line would run between downtown Chicago and Crete, Illinois, primarily on Union Pacific rails. I won't bet on this one happening. It's on one of the busiest freight lines in the area and it is laced with at-grade crossings of other railroads. A dispatcher's worst nightmare, this will also be a really costly project. Maybe it was proposed as a political balm.
- Union Pacific Northwest Line: This is not a "new start", but the money comes from a federal New Starts account. It's a capacity enhancement of an existing line between Chicago and Harvard, Illinois -- signaling, crossovers, relocation of yards. Worthwhile, I believe.
- Union Pacific West Line: This is also a capacity enhancement. The existing line runs between Chicago and Elburn, Illinois. Included are signaling, crossovers, and construction of a third main track around a major freight yard to relieve train interference. An essential project, in my opinion; the line as presently configured is pretty much at capacity. Some of the money may be partial payment by the feds pursuant to a commitment to fund this project.
GRADE CROSSING SAFETY: The bill provides $475,000 to the Illinois Commerce Commission for public education on safety, and for enforcement initiatives. Probably money well spent since there is no way to eliminate or grade-separate all of the rail-highway crossings in this state.
NEW AMTRAK CONNECTION AT GRAND CROSSING: This is the disappearing act, for it would reroute Amtrak trains off the Canadian National lakefront line through Hyde Park and onto Norfolk Southern at about 75th Street (assuming Norfolk Southern is agreeable). But the $1,900,000 allocation won't do it. The bridge work alone will cost several million, and there are some operating issues that will have to be resolved with Norfolk Southern and Metra's Rock Island District. If this goes through and Canadian National ceases operation on its lakefront line, the CN tracks would probably be removed. (For more on the CN tracks in Hyde Park, click here).
Note that the Metra and Amtrak projects involve mostly freight railroads. Metra must negotiate both operating access and service agreements with the freight lines that own the track. On the other hand, Metra owns and operates the Electric Line that serves Hyde Park and environs, and the line is free of freight. For those who live and work in the neighborhood, this is fortunate indeed.