Kirk Landers: Freight gridlock

| October 1, 2008

Freight gridlock

By Kirk Landers

In the circular world of America’s transportation debate, one incontrovertible truth seems to be that America needs to ship a lot more freight by train.

   There are mountains of data to support this contention — rail is cheaper, it’s far, far more fuel efficient, it’s cleaner, etc. etc.

   There’s even bi-partisan support for the notion that we should shift some of the freight load from the roads to the rails. Tree-huggers love the idea because it means cleaner air. Traffic managers like the idea because it means fewer vehicles on the roads. Pavement managers like the idea because it means a little less stress on the pavement. And U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters is for it because it reduces the burden on taxpayers to maintain roads and bridges.

   Like everything else, though, increasing rail traffic in America is going to take some investment of its own, and some aspects of it are going to be as controversial with the public as increasing the fuel tax is. The citizens of northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana are getting an object lesson in that reality even as we speak.

   At issue is the attempt of the Canadian National Railway Company to purchase the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, which owns 198 miles of tracks that bypass the city of Chicago.The $300 million purchase would allow CN to avoid the inner city’s rail gridlock, saving time and fuel and helping the company to expand its freight business.

   Why would anyone oppose that?

   As it turns out, the tracks in question pass through some 20 suburbs which would see their daily dose of freight trains escalate from about six per day to 28 per day. Local officials and federal regulators have identified 15 crossings in a dozen communities where large numbers of motorists would face long delays if the plan goes through. In addition, officials have identified 10 suburbs in which increased train traffic could hinder emergency responses by cutting off ambulances from hospitals or firefighters from burning buildings.

   Of course, other suburbs and Chicago neighborhoods that would get a dramatic reduction in freight traffic if the deal goes through are very enthusiastic about it. So are business interests in various parts of the area.

   In northwest Indiana, the problem is that a planned extension of a commuter rail line may be affected by the move because the commuter line uses some of the same track and also because it crosses the EJ&E tracks.

   To solve some of the problems, a regional planning body has recommended that Canadian National set aside $150 million for overpasses and other improvements–in addition to the $300 million they would pay for EJ&E. The Chicago Tribune reported that a single overpass can cost $60 million.

   For now, the only certainties are that lawyers will bill lots of hours and planning people will sleep poorly for weeks to come.

   While this is a local problem, it’s easy to see how often similar problems and conflicts will arise around the country as we try to expand freight rail activity nationally.

   The lesson for professionals in the road and bridge community is that there is no panacea for fixing America’s problems with crumbling infrastructure and commerce-choking congestion. What looks like an easy solution is just a solution we don’t know enough about yet.

            Whether it’s roads or rails, we don’t have enough assets in place because we haven’t had the will to make the necessary investments. It’s going to cost a lot of money to get those assets in place, and whether that money comes from private sources — who will inevitably get a return on their investment — or directly from tax payers, it’s going to hurt. BR

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