Illinois Bids Again for Feds' Help in Easing a National Rail Headache

Crain's Chicago Business

Hoping that the third time is the charm, state and local officials have submitted a new plan to finally begin work on unsnarling the notorious 75th Street corridor on the South Side where six different sets of railroad tracks converge and traffic often snarls, with a big impact both on freight users nationally and Metra commuters here in town.

But whether something finally happens depends on President Donald Trump's administration—and on local officials and railroads hanging together.

Under an application filed by the Illinois Department of Transportation and others, the federal government would provide $160 million for new flyovers, underpasses and track. That amounts to roughly a third of the funds needed for the first phase of what is envisioned as a $1 billion project, one of the key elements in the Create anti-congestion plan to shore up Chicago's status as a prime intermodal center.

Another $106 million would come from the six Class I railroads. That's critical because one earlier application stalled in Washington after local officials and railroads were unable to agree on a funding deal. Then the outgoing Obama administration decided not to act on such grant applications at all, leaving the decision to incoming U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Other funds would come from the state ($101 million), Cook County ($75 million), Metra ($20 million) and the city and Amtrak ($6 million and $5 million, respectively) according to Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago , the point person on transportation issues in region's House delegation.

"You never know how the politics are going to be, but the project certainly fits the outlines of what the department put out," Lipinski told me. "I'm hopeful."

Blankenhorn, too, said the application has "a good shot," and has discussed the matter personally with Chao and White House staff.

"This isn't merely a Chicago project. This fixes a national problem," he said, pointing to letters of support from around the country. And with others besides the federal government putting up most of the cash, "This is what (the federal government) has been asking for."

Getting the railroads aboard took some persuasion, Blankenhorn said. But after Cook County stepped up—"that helped"—"we had a long conversation with the railroads and pointed out that if they were serious about Create, this is the project that has to be done."

Blankenhorn said this phase specifically will include grade separation at 71st Street, a flyover of CSX tracks over ones used by Beltline and Metra, and triple-tracking CP tracks around 87th Street.

The state hopes to hear by "late winter or spring" and is prepared to begin construction almost immediately, Blankenhorn said.