Sunday, March 29, 2009

Regional Rails: Pols Partially Pay for Planned Projects

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Admit it–-all your life, you've wanted to know what's inside the control cab of a commuter rail car. Here's the cab of a new South Shore Line Highliner.

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.


Elizabeth Fama said...

That photo does it, I wanna be a railway engineer.

chicago pop said...

Not quite sure I get the logic behind giving a little bit to everybody so that nothing really gets done anywhere, which seems to be the case with these rail projects and with the Point appropriation discussed by Elizabeth.

chicago pop said...

And here's a question for policy wonks out there: is this appropriations bill related to the stimulus package? Or is an entirely different animal?

Anonymous said...

Spreading too little money over too many projects represents a lack of big-picture planning and terrible management by the RTA (and other officials). Looking at how this is ending up makes me think all this money will just end up squandered and nothing will actually happen.

It's basically administrative fence-sitting and it's obnoxious. Everyone (citizens included) has their own project that they think should be numero uno. We supposedly have elected officials and administrative boards to make the hard decisions and build the project that will help the greatest number of people or that makes the most sense at the time. Instead they're throwing money at every special-interest group or "community activist" just to shut them up.

Richard Gill said...

With regard to spreading the money so thinly, I believe there are two reasons (and my explaining them does not constitute an endorsement):

First, advocates of various projects lobby for them, and politicians are only too happy to oblige by dividing up whatever money is available.

Second, it may keep the projects from dying entirely. The latter is good to the extent that the projects may be worthwhile, and bad to the extent that they may be nonsense.
"I wanna be a railway engineer."

The cabs even have small refrigerators. I understand the new cars will make their first in-service "revenue run" today (March 30), arriving at Millennium Station (Randolph Street) at 12:21 PM, departing at 2:35 PM.

Richard Gill said...

Since we're on the subject of rail transportation...I am appalled to learn that the Technology Committee of the Illinois Senate sent a bill to the full Senate that would compel Metra to accept credit cards.

It may be a good idea for Metra to accept credit cards as payment for tickets, but passing a law is legislative micromanaging and meddling, and it's a really bad precedent. Next, the legislators will try to dictate train schedules, by district.

Let Metra respond to its customers' demand, or lack thereof, for acceptance of credit cards. Our lawmakers have more important things to do than playing train.

mchinand said...

Is the Block 37 'superstation' completely dead? How much has already been spent on it?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Ah, Richard, a free-market thought. Haven't heard one of those in a loooong time.

chicago pop said...

Last I read, the mothballed block 37 "superstation" had run up a $213 million tab by late 2008 and was basically still just a hole in the ground, with $100 million more needed to complete it. Even then, it was not clear that it would be possible to run express trains on the existing tracks.

Richard Gill said...

Block 37 CTA station: Is it dead? Not dead, but certainly in stasis.

The shell of the station was completed last year, so there is physical provision for crossover tracks between the Red and Blue Lines, and for a station of some sort.

CTA pulled the plug in June 2008, after having spent over $200 million to get close to the "completed shell" point, far over budget and no end in sight. They then spent another $45 million to complete the shell. That got it to a condition that might, some day, be attractive to some deep-pocketed private party that would want to step in and complete it, and simultaneously get the franchise for the O'Hare express trains, for which the station was intended. Anyway, that was the idea last year. Of course, the express trains won't work without massive additional investment in the Blue Line, so the expresses can get around the regular trains.

Was the project folly? Most voices have said, yes, 'twas folly from the start. No, no, I say. If only used as a connection between the Red and Blue Lines, the crossover will be valuable in helping the CTA move equipment and offer more direct routing options for its passenger trains. Right now, the Blue Line, which serves O'Hare, is essentially isolated from the rest of the 'L' system. It connects to the system only at one place, and that place is pretty useless other than for moving cars to/from yards and shops. Y'know that long track incline in the Eisenhower median near Ashland? That's the connection.

If the crossover shell wasn't built when it was, it never would have been possible. It was done during the excavation for the Block 37 building. No way it could be done, now that the building is there. Even if the shell sits there for years, at some point the city will be glad it's there, and it will be used for trains. It's impossible to prove a negative, but if the thing had not been built, someone would later say, "Why didn't those dumbheads start the tunnel when they had the chance?"

LPB said...

Now that I work in the building on top of the hole in Block 37, I can fully appreciate the unused $245 million completed shell. It's sort of like sitting on buried treasure.

Seriously, I agree with Richard. If the CTA hadn't taken this opportunity to invest in a hole, it would have come back to bite them in the future.