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December 16, 2016 9:55 AM, EST

Illinois Department of Transportation Seeks $160 Million to 'Untangle' Freight Rail Congestion

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News

The Illinois Department of Transportation is applying for a $160 million federal grant to help pay for a project that aims to clear up rail congestion around 75th Street in Chicago, cutting delays for Metra, Amtrak and freight railroads.

The $476 million project has funding commitments from Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads, the city of Chicago, Cook County, Metra and IDOT. IDOT applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Dec. 14 for the $160 million funding through the Fastlane program. If granted, it would amount to a 34% federal match.

"Everyone felt that now was the time to make the application and try to leverage some federal dollars," said IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn. The deadline was Dec. 15.

The 75th Street improvement project, near the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, is intended to eliminate train backups at three rail junctions and one rail-roadway crossing.

It involves flyover structures, new track and new bridges. The project would eliminate the most congested rail chokepoint in the Chicago terminal district, at Belt Junction, near 75th Street and Racine Avenue, where more than 80 Metra and freight trains cross each other's paths daily.

One of the advantages of the project would be that it would connect Metra's SouthWest Service to the Rock Island Line around 74th Street and Normal Avenue, which would allow the service to terminate at the underused LaSalle Street station rather than at clogged Union Station — eliminating delays and freeing capacity for more intercity rail service, according to IDOT.

"The 75th Street improvement project is an important step in the right direction in untangling freight congestion in Chicago," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center who served on an Amtrak panel reviewing various rail projects. "This is an important project principally for freight but also for passenger rail and improving mobility in Chicago."

Blankenhorn said he thinks the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will be receptive to the proposal, because of its importance to both local and national rail traffic.

"We're the freight capital of North America — all freight moves through Chicago and Illinois," he said. He isn't sure how long it will take the new administration to review the request but is hoping to get an answer in late winter or early spring.

The project is a major component of the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program. The program is a public-private effort to increase the efficiency of the passenger and freight rail infrastructure in the nation's busiest railroad hub.