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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
There are hundreds of rail projects that could stand to benefit from a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. The question is: Which projects will the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) deem worthy to receive them? The verdicts are due in January.
Last month, the USDOT received about 1,400 TIGER grant applications from all 50 states, territories and the District of Columbia, as well as many municipalities and local authorities, by the Sept. 15 deadline. Applicants are seeking a total of $57 billion in grants while the USDOT has $1.5 billion to dole out on a competitive basis to projects determined to have a significant impact on the nation, a region or metropolitan area, or create jobs or benefit economically distressed areas. Applications address such high-profile rail projects as Norfolk Southern Corp.'s Crescent Corridor and CSX Corp.'s National Gateway intermodal routes, the city of Atlanta's new streetcar system and the Miami Intermodal Center's Central Station.
Count the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program ranks among the high profilers. The nearly $3 billion program calls for building grade separations and upgrading track, switches, signal systems and grade crossings in and around the Windy City to reduce train delays, relieve rail and highway congestion, and improve public safety.
Last month, the public-private partners behind the program submitted an application for a $300 million TIGER grant to help fund 16 of CREATE's 78 proposed projects. The partners — which include Amtrak, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), BNSF Railway Co., Belt Railway Co. of Chicago, CN, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co., Metra, Norfolk Southern Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, the Illinois DOT (IDOT) and Chicago DOT — plan to provide an additional 39 percent, or $117.4 million, in matching funds.
TIGER grant proceeds would help fund projects on CREATE's Beltway and Western Avenue corridors, including 13 rail upgrades, two grade separations and one viaduct improvement projected to be completed by early 2012. The projects are the most "shovel ready" and "meet the USDOT's criteria as much as possible" that they be completed by February 2012, says Larry Wilson, CREATE program manager and section chief-rail program planning for IDOT, which submitted the grant application as the lead CREATE representative.
Although six CREATE projects had been completed, three still were under construction and nine had reached the final design phase as of mid-July, the program's progress has been dictated — and slowed — by the availability of federal and state funding. The state of Illinois committed $322 million to CREATE in August; the feds appropriated $100 million in SAFETEA-LU, which was matched with $100 million by the program's railroad partners. Other federal and state funds, predominantly highway dollars, have helped finance grade separation or viaduct projects.
The TIGER grant would be a shot in the arm to the program's federal funding needs. But the competition for the monies is stiff, says Wilson.
"You get the 'peanut butter effect' — it gets spread around pretty thin," he says.
If there's a "poster child" for the TIGER program, it's CREATE, says AAR President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Hamberger.
The program's estimated public and private benefits include 17,684 hours in annual freight-rail delay reductions; $265 million in annual logistics cost savings; 57,631 passenger hours in reduced delays; and $2.5 million in annual cost savings associated with emissions and fuel-usage reductions.
"Clearly, this is a project of national significance," says Hamberger. "Thirty percent of all rail cars flow through Chicago in any given year."
In addition, the program's public and private partners already have put a lot of work into CREATE, he says.
"How many of the projects cited in applications have been worked on for five years?" Hamberger asks.
Besides the TIGER grant, CREATE has the potential to obtain federal dollars from the high-speed rail stimulus funding program and the next surface transportation authorization bill, Hamberger believes. But if SAFETEA-LU is extended for 18 months as proposed, lobbying efforts might prove difficult.
"If it's pushed out to March 2011, that could be a weird time with a new Congress in place," says Hamberger. "Needless to say, we'll be giving it a lot of push."