Passage of a landmark US federal transportation bill last week clears the way for work to start on a $1.5bn project to ease rail bottlenecks around Chicago, the largest US transportation hub, officials said at the weekend.
The scheme, the first large-scale US public-private initiative to tackle infrastructure bottlenecks, was announced last year to improve Chicago's congested transport networks.
One third of all US rail freight passes through Chicago, the only US city where the six biggest US and Canadian privately run railways meet to interchange freight.
However, much of the rail infrastructure dates from the 1880s and is struggling to cope with rising traffic as the US economy improves and trade to Asia booms.
It can take rail freight as long to pass through Chicago’s clogged rail yards as it takes for it to travel to Chicago from the ports of the Pacific north-west.
The Create project’s backers, including railroad executives and public officials, warned last year that a projected near doubling of rail and road freight moving through the Chicago region in the next 25 years would lead to “meltdown into gridlock” unless urgent measures were taken to improve infrastructure.
James LaBelle, deputy director of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a civic group made up of regional businesses, said of last week’s Senate vote: “This is the first time that the federal government has specifically authorised capital investments in a nationally significant freight project. It’s a major step.”
The project already has commitments from railroad companies - such as Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Sante Fe - of $212m, but the money had been conditional on about $900m of pledges from federal and state sources.
Mr LaBelle said that while the $100m agreed under the new legislation fell short of that, legislators “did what they could to get the ball rolling”.
“It will help Create proceed. The project wasn’t going to be completed in the four year time period that this [federal] bill covers anyway,” he said.
The six-year Create scheme involves 70 projects that include replacing 1930s-era switching systems and the building of six “rail-to-rail flyovers” - overpasses and underpasses that will to separate passenger trains from freight trains.