(CBS) -- Delays on Metra and Amtrak lines are growing, not to mention the freight hauled to and through the Chicago area by rail. A blue ribbon panel commissioned by Amtrak believes it has the answers -- but they won't come cheap.
The delays riders see and experience are just the tip of the iceberg, said former Macomb (Ill.) Mayor Tom Carper, a member of the Amtrak board and a member of the panel. He compared it to a $650-800 billion tax on Americans because of the delays encountered today -- costs which shippers and manufacturers are all too happy to pass along to consumers.
The president of Chicago's Environmental Law and Policy Center, Howard Learner, said the problems can best be described this way: If each airline at O'Hare had its own traffic controllers, the result would be chaos.
"Would anybody think that's a good idea?" he asked, answering, "I don't think so."
Learner said that effectively is what the nation's major railroads are doing, because the trains creating the delays are dispatched from railroad-owned control centers hundreds of miles away in places such as Omaha and Fort Worth. He said it makes no sense.
Asked how serious he believes the situation has become, he said, "Chicago is not much further than a bad snowstorm away from a meltdown of the system."
Panelists said that much of the delays can be traced to a corridor along 75th Street. They propose a new connection that would allow SouthWest Service trains to originate at LaSalle Street Station instead of Chicago Union Station, construction of two flyovers and elimination of a bottleneck junction that delays SouthWest Service, Amtrak and freight trains. All conceded the changes will be costly and require a mixture of federal, state and private financing, but the panelists said not fixing it will continue to cost even more in lost productivity and late arrivals.
The 75th Street corridor projects are all recommended as part of the multi-year Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program, known as CREATE. Amtrak President Joe Boardman said that Congress has funded about a third of the program's total cost, and that the 75th Street improvements remain in the unfunded two-thirds.
"You can talk until you're blue in the face, just like here in Chicago, about the necessity for an investment in the infrastructure. But when you affect people's lives, they can't get to work, their house value goes down, there's an inability for them to get home and take care of their kids, safety, reliability, people's lives, they then begin to understand something needs to be done," Boardman said.
He said only about 40 percent of Amtrak long-distance trains are running on schedule, a dramatic decrease, and said delays in freight shipments are being felt by businesses as far away as California, Texas and Ohio.
Carper said the panelists believe that if no changes are made, delays will triple to both freight and commuter service over the next 20 years.
Train dispatching was once done from Chicago by many railroads. Metra still dispatches locally on lines it owns, but Union Pacific-operated Metra lines are dispatched from Omaha and BNSF Ry. operations are dispatched from Fort Worth.
In addition to local coordination of dispatching of trains and adequate funding for improvements, the panel calls for investment in the Amtrak Chicago-Porter, Ind., corridor, greater use of the federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program for such projects and a consistent environmental review process among transportation modes.
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