By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009; A04
CHICAGO -- This city was built on railroads that moved meat from its famous packing houses, steel from its mills, corn from surrounding fields. Today Chicago is still the nation's leading rail hub, with about 37,500 rail cars passing through daily.
But massive congestion on Chicago tracks costs millions of dollars in shipping delays, and it causes substantial noise and air pollution as trains idle for hours, waiting for track clearance. The problem threatens to get worse since freight traffic is expected to double in the next 20 years.
With a public-private partnership and stimulus money, Chicago civic leaders are hoping to unsnarl their rail traffic and maintain the city's self-proclaimed status as the "world's rail capital."
But Kansas City, Mo., the nation's second-largest rail hub, is nipping at Chicago's heels. It is expanding its intermodal capacity, and a rail line from Kansas City to a seaport in Michoacan, Mexico, offers a way to bypass U.S. ports.
"We ought to pay more attention to competitors who are taking advantage of our slow-moving solutions," said MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago nonprofit agency that advocates sustainable regional development.
Barrett said that about one-third of Chicago's freight is moving through to other destinations, a third is produced in Chicago and shipped out and a third is for local markets. "The only thing secure is the stuff that's got to come here because we're buying it; we're not going to lose that," she said. "The rest of it is potentially threatened if we don't continue to move forward on these solutions."
A decade ago, a raft of constituent complaints about idling trains led Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) to convene a task force to tackle rail congestion. The result is the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (Create), which brings together the U.S. Department of Transportation, state and city government agencies, Amtrak and six of the country's largest private railroad companies.
"The railroads got together, which is remarkable in and of itself, in a competitive industry that doesn't always have great communication," said Paul Nowicki, assistant vice president of government and public policy at BNSF Railway. He said the railroads, which share tracks, were able to reduce congestion initially through better communication and planning, but soon realized the need for major infrastructure overhauls.
Create calls for 71 projects with a price tag of $2.5 billion. About half a billion has been secured, including $90 million in earmarks from the 2005-2009 Federal Transportation Authorization Act. A major focus is eliminating at-grade crossings, where idling trains block street traffic or other trains.
The Illinois Department of Transportation has applied for $300 million in stimulus funding for high-speed passenger rail. Stimulus funds are not targeted for freight rail, but new tracks for passenger trains will clear up existing tracks for freight.
"Freight is kind of held hostage by commuter trains," Nowicki said. "As soon as commuter trains slow down, freight trains emerge from the yards and all night long they're crisscrossing Chicago."
Railroads east and west of the Mississippi River are separate systems, with tracks privately owned by different companies on each side. Cargo is typically unloaded and transferred to trucks or other trains in Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City or smaller hubs. Kansas City handles fewer rail cars but more tons of freight than Chicago, since it is a major destination for grain, coal and other heavy bulk commodities.
If Chicago does not clear up its rail congestion, it stands to miss the opportunity for 17,000 new jobs and $2 billion in annual economic production within two decades, according to Create. Association of American Railroads spokesperson Holly Arthur said the group deems every project identified by Create as "vital to improving the competitiveness and efficiency of business not just in Chicago, but also across the entire country."
Meanwhile in metropolitan areas including Chicago, rail companies are looking to far-flung suburbs for new intermodal distribution facilities. Union Pacific is constructing the country's largest intermodal facility adjacent to an existing BNSF facility about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. BNSF is also planning a major new intermodal location outside Kansas City, Kan. Corporate and civic planners have promised thousands of jobs and an influx of tax dollars. But in Kansas and Illinois, residents are concerned about air pollution, traffic and the nature of the jobs. In Kansas, the Gardner city council voted down the BNSF proposal amid residents' fears of the impact on nearby homes and schools. But an adjacent town is annexing the land so the proposal can go forward.
"They make it sound like well-paying blue-collar jobs, but in reality these are $8-an-hour, temporary jobs with no benefits," said Mark Meinster of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union, which is organizing Chicago area intermodal warehouse employees. "And these are small communities, where a facility like this creates quite a bit of disruption."
BNSF's planned Kansas facility is currently stalled for lack of financing, but the state has applied for $50 million in stimulus money that would jump-start the project.
Chris Gutierrez, president of the nonprofit development agency Kansas City SmartPort, sees increasing import-export activity from Kansas City Southern Railway's tracks directly to the Lazaro Cardenas port in Michoacan, Mexico, a route that avoids Long Beach, Calif., and other often-congested U.S. ports. The Mexican port recently expanded its capacity fourfold to handle 2 million containers a year, though that is still dwarfed by California ports.
"We are seeing a strong push of companies and railroads looking at Kansas City as a viable option due to congestion in the other markets like Chicago," Gutierrez said. "There's a joke that you can move freight from L.A. to Chicago faster than from one side of Chicago to another. Chicago will always be the dominant gateway of the U.S. But I hope they feel challenged."