Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE)

The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE) is a collection of rail and roadway improvement projects designed to increase the efficiency of the region’s passenger and freight transportation system. Identified as a “Project of National and Regional Significance” in Public Law 109-59, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), this $3.8 billion public-private partnership consists of over 70 different projects (see Figure 43). Members of the partnership include the:

  • USDOT’s Federal Highway Administration and Federal Rail Administration;
  • Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT);
  • Six major freight rail carriers, including BNSF Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway, CN, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Corporation and Union Pacific Railroad; and
  • Two passenger train systems (Amtrak and Metra) (CREATE 2014).

Figure 43

Since 2003, these program partners have collaborated and programmed the following projects for funding and implementation:

  • 36 different rail infrastructure and technology upgrade projects that will increase speed capacity by eliminating shared rail conflicts;
  • 25 road/rail grade and 6 passenger/freight rail grade separations to improve safety and system speed;
  • Grade crossing safety improvements;
  • Common Operational Picture (COP) – integration from dispatch systems of all major railroads in the region into a single display;
  • 50 miles of new track to link yards and create a second east-west route across Chicago; and
  • Improvements to roadways, sidewalks and drainage of railroad viaducts.

As shown in Table 55, the CREATE program received funding from a mix of federal, state and private sources from 2005 to 2010. As of November 2013, 20 of 60 projects are complete; nine others are under construction (CREATE 2014) .

Table 55

After only 20 of the projects were completed, the CREATE program projects achieved a significant reduction in delays experienced by freight and passenger trains, as well as truck freight and passenger automobiles.   For example, before CREATE, it took approximately 48 hours for freight trains to pass through the Chicago intermodal rail terminal. Today, the same trip takes only 32 hours (CREATE 2014).

Highway congestion also improved as a result of new overpasses and underpasses at railroad crossings throughout the Chicago region, and avoidance of trucks traveling on the highways due to increased rail capacity. These projects have an estimated savings of 2,400 hours per day for motorists, and 1,400 hours per day for bus passengers (CREATE 2014). Without CREATE, a portion of future increases in freight traffic would be diverted to truck. The program projected an estimated 85 billion vehicle miles of truck traffic will be avoided when all CREATE projects are completed. This would avoid an estimated 100 fatalities and 16,800 injuries on the highways due to trucks over a 30-year period (CREATE 2014).

Project Policies, Programs and Motivations

Chicago is one of the most active rail hubs in the country, as well as the largest chokepoint for freight.  Approximately 500 freight and 760 passenger trains travel through the region on a daily basis. The region handles 37,500 railcars each day, almost one-fourth of the nation’s freight rail. Six of the seven rail companies in North America and two Canadian railroads access the region.

Built over a century ago, the designers of these rail lines did not envision current volumes of freight and passenger traffic. Average speed of freight trains is between 5 to 12 miles per hour. Trains that typically travel over 2,200 miles from Los Angeles to Chicago in 48 hours spend an average of 32 hours traveling within the Chicago region alone (CREATE 2014) .

The FHWA Freight Analysis Framework Freight forecasted rail trade with Chicago to triple by value and double by weight from 2011 to 2040 (CREATE 2014). Due to the increase in freight rail traffic, congestion has resulted in delays, highway congestion, air pollution, safety concerns and interference with intercity and commuter trains. Local highways and streets are faced with over 2,500 at-grade crossings, idling trains and outdated rail crossing safety equipment. In fact, many at-grade crossings are located less than a train length apart. Existing flyovers do not have sufficient clearances to support double-stack trains.  Passenger trains in the Chicago region often operate on the freight-owned or controlled tracks, which results in schedule conflicts and delays (CREATE 2014).

In 1999, the “New Year’s Blizzard” struck the Midwest with 22 inches of snow that crippled the region’s rail system. Freight trains were stalled or delayed 12 to 24 hours, causing East to West Coast shipment delays lasting between one and four days. As a result, several organizations, including the Association of American Railroads, Chicago Planning Group, and Chicago Transportation Coordination Office, undertook planning and coordination initiatives to identify operational inefficiencies that contribute to the region’s rail reliability issues. These initiatives would eventually form the basis for the CREATE program (DiJohn and Tenebrini 2010).

In 2001, Mayor Richard M. Daley called on the federal Surface Transportation Board to convene a task force to develop a solution to the growing problem. The resulting task force–made up of representatives from the U.S. Department of Transportation, railroad industry, State of Illinois and City of Chicago–issued a “Joint Statement of Understanding,” which led to the CREATE Program in June 2003 (CREATE 2014).

In 2005, CREATE received $100 million in funding from the SAFETEA-LU authorization. The CREATE program was eligible because it was nationally recognized as a single project that would produce great public benefit, and was declared a Program of National and Regional Significance (PNRS).  PNRS was developed to provide funding for high-cost surface transportation system improvements of national or regional importance.

Lessons Learned

The motivations for this project or policy encompass a variety of goals for which mode shift represents an overall proxy. These goals include reductions in fuel use and emissions, easing of congestion, improvements in safety, increases in carrier efficiencies and concurrent reductions in shipper costs, and positive contributions to economic development. Three distinct areas of lessons learned include:

  • How and why did mode shift occur?
  • How did public policy influence this outcome?
  • How can this policy or program be transferred or adapted to other situations or locations?

The ability of the CREATE program to cause mode shift is a direct function of improvements that increase rail speeds, reduce conflicts with vehicular traffic through grade separation, reduce truck movements through additions of rail track, and increase rail productivity through technology and operational improvements.  As stated above, The CREATE program will avoid an estimated 85 billion vehicle miles of truck traffic when all projects are completed (CREATE 2014).

The emergence of the CREATE program, and the influence of public policies represent the first time that federal, state, and local governments have partnered with the railroad industry to solve the problem of auto and rail congestion on a regional scale. It is also the first time multiple competing railroads companies have partnered and committed funds to increase the efficiency of an urban rail network. In fact, six of the seven major railroads operating in North America pass through Chicago (Federal Highway Administration 2014). Six of those railroads are partners in the CREATE Program, and have pledged to contribute $212 million to the $3 billion CREATE program. The establishment of partnership and recognition of the project by the Federal government and Illinois State Legislature authorization of SAFETEA-LU and State Capital Bill made the program projects possible.

The transferability of the CREATE program concept as a project is somewhat limited in that the problems faced in the Chicago area are unique both in terms of scale and number of railroad companies involved.  On the other hand, the model of collaboration and cooperation, coupled with the public and private partnership, may offer guidance and promise for smaller mode shift projects in other urban areas.

Epilogue – Recent Developments

The CREATE program has continued to move projects forward and to complete them. Costs of the program have also continued to rise. Table 56 provides the status of CREATE’s 70 projects. Currently, there are 29 completed projects while another five are under construction.

Table 56

In the last four years, CREATE has completed nine more projects. Figure 44 provides a summary of overall project status. The graphic portrays a pattern of steady completion of projects over the last eight years, however, the lack of new projects entering construction, final design, and Environmental/PE in the last three to four years, points to a slowing in project completion over the next few years.

The cost of the program has risen over the years. Cost estimates for the entire program were only $1 billion in 2003, but had risen to a projected $3 billion by 2010.[2] The estimate had risen to $3.8 billion in 2014, and now stands at $4.4 billion. More than $1.4 billion has been committed as of February 2018 from federal, state, local, and private railroad sources. Completion of the full program of projects requires an additional $3 billion.[3]  

Figure 44

In June 2018, it was announced that the Illinois Department of Transportation will receive $132 million in federal funding from US DOT for CREATE to fund the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project (CIP). The project will separate several passenger and freight rail lines in a number of neighborhoods known to have congestion, delays and train idling.[4] The Project will illuminate “the most congested rail chokepoints in the region” according to the Mayor’s Press Release.[5] The federal funding will leverage contributions by the other partners for a total investment of $473 million. This level of funding will complete the first half of the overall 75th Corridor improvement project. Chicago officials broke ground on October 1 for the nearly $500 million rail improvement project, and expect a 2025 date for construction completion.

Another project to upgrade signals and add several crossover tracks around Canadian Pacific’s Bensenville Yard began in 2017. It should reduce delays and congestion while improving safety for pedestrians and drivers at nearby grade crossings. Officials have scheduled a 2019 date for construction completion.

Epilogue: Lessons Learned

The CREATE program is an example of a successful public-private rail partnership that recognizes the challenges of accommodating both freight and passenger rail needs in a highly congested environment.[6] According to FHWA, CREATE represents the first time state and local governments have collaborated with the railroad industry to solve the problem of auto and rail congestion on such a large scale. CREATE also is the first time so many competing railroads have come together as partners to increase the efficiency of an urban rail network. Six of the seven major railroads operating in North America pass through Chicago. All six of those railroads are partners in the CREATE Program.[7]

Officials like Randall Blankenhorn, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), hope the CREATE project can serve as an example for how long-term projects can be funded in future years, as state budgets like that of Illinois dwindle and railroads continue to battle it out for federal funding. Blankenhorn said it is important that government and railroad officials work to find new ways to carry out partnerships. “I think this project is the way that’s going to happen in the future,” Blankenhorn said. “We all have things that we want to get done and on this project in particular, we all came together with a common goal to figure out how to solve one of the nation’s largest freight bottlenecks.”[8]

While partnerships can provide benefits to multiple parties, it is also important that the parties pay a share of the costs that approximate their benefits. These programs should not over-subsidize private parties. One observer noted, “The biggest beneficiaries of this project are the freight railroads, yet they are going to pay a measly 25% (approx.) of the project.”[9] According to the Chicago Tribune “CREATE, however, is supposed to be a public-private partnership, not solely a government endeavor. Lipinski says the railroads should shell out more money for CREATE projects. We agree. Yes, it’s natural for businesses to want to focus their money on infrastructure that mostly benefits them. Yet CREATE projects will benefit the rail companies as much as they benefit the region and the nation. Solving the 75th Street bottleneck will do more than help motorists and Metra commuters, it will shave shipping costs through faster transit times for rail cargo. Grade separations at crossings will allow freight rail to move faster through this metropolis. As bad as the bottlenecks are now, they’re only going to get worse. Daily volumes of rail cars passing through Chicago are projected to more than double by 2045, the Illinois Department of Transportation says. The railroads can avoid tomorrow’s worse gridlock by paying their fair share now.”[10]


[1] Create Program: Status Update – February 2018.

[2] “More projects, more funding still on CREATE’s slate, UP’s Payette says,” Progressive Railroading,  11/8/2010, accessed at: https://www.progressiverailroading.com/news/article.aspx?id=25000

[3] CREATE Program: Status Update. February 2018

[4] INFRA Grant Announced for the CREATE Program! Illinois Department of Transportation, CREATE 75th Corridor Improvement Project, June 2018.

[5] Mayor Emanuel and CREATE partners announce $132 million grant to improve rail congestion across the region. Office of the Mayor, City of Chicago. Press Release. June 5, 2018.

[6] Andrew R. Goetz, Keith Ratner, Julie Cidell, Michael Minn, Sylvia Brady, Passenger Rail and Freight Rail Partnerships: Case Studies in Boston, Chicago, and Denver, National Center for Intermodal Transportation for Economic Competitiveness, Project No. 2013-35, August 2016.

[7] https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ipd/project_profiles/il_create.aspx

[8] Progressive Railroading, “After 13 years of collaboration and determination, CREATE partners continue to take on Chicago’s tangled rail network,” July 2016. Accessed at: https://www.progressiverailroading.com/mow/article/After-13-years-of-collaboration-and-determination-CREATE-partners-continue-to-take-on-Chicagos-tangled-rail-network–48837

[9] Richard Wronski, “Railroads commit to fund latest CREATE project in Chicago for more than $400 million,” July 12, 2018. Accessed at: http://trn.trains.com/news/news-wire/2018/07/12-railroads-commit-to-fund-latest-create-project-in-chicago-for-more-than-$400-million

[10] “Chicago’s rail hub is a train wreck. Here’s the fix,” Editorial, Chicago Tribune, May 6, 2017. Accessed at:  http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-rail-freight-chicago-trump-edit-jm-20170516-story.html

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