Important as many high-tech items on urbanist wish-lists may be these days, a lot of American infrastructure still hurts for simple fixes. Regional and federal leaders gathered in Chicago on October 23 to celebrate the opening of a railroad bridge in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood: A prosaic piece of steel with an outsized impact on freight traffic from coast to coast, as well as the area’s own economic future.
The Englewood Flyover, as it’s called, is a $142 million elevated rail crossing that replaces a ground-level intersection between the north-south Metra Rock Island tracks and a set of east-west Norfolk Southern tracks at 63rd and State streets. By rerouting traffic during schedule conflicts, it remedies a congestion point often blamed for snarling the progress of both commuter rail lines and freight movers who must pass through the area on their way across the continent.
As AN’s Alan G. Brake noted in 2012, it can take as long for trains to travel from the West Coast to Chicago as it can to cross the city itself, due to uncoordinated and outmoded systems and infrastructure. The flyover is a major element of the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE), a suite of rail improvements and switching upgrades that federal transportation officials say will help the Chicago area, which sees as much as one quarter of the entire nation’s freight traffic, get up to speed.
It took years for a simple fix such as the Flyover to become reality, but it’s worth acknowledging that it was built at all—many similar projects await the approval of a Congress loath to allocate money for infrastructure improvements. The need to do so grows every year. In a recent report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that national freight rail and truck traffic had approached levels of 2007 prior to the economic recession. They cited a Miami-area study that found rail crossings there have caused delays of roughly 235,000 person-hours per year at a cost of $2.4 million.
Last year AN called on planners, developers, and urban designers to look for solutions that would tie the revival of Chicago’s shipping industry to enhanced quality of life and sustainability. Against the backdrop of the Flyover’s opening, that imperative is even more clear. As the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the opening makes clear, such projects are about more than just freight.
“We’re sick and tired of the dust and the dirt and the delays and not getting the dough,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush at the opening ceremony, referring to scandals that marred the negotiations leading up to the Flyover’s completion. Rush and Metra were involved in a bitter spat over hiring minority bidders, in which Metra’s then-CEO Alex Clifford alleged improprieties from Rush on behalf of a local organization, and Rush alleged racial bias and criticized the lack of local employment opportunities.
Emissions and noise from idling trains have long been a problem for the Englewood neighborhood, an African-American neighborhood reeling from disinvestment and entrenched poverty. The Flyover should reduce that, but future CREATE projects need to engage with local organizations to ensure economic development for the nation’s freight carriers does not come at the expense of local opportunities. In the meantime, the Flyover’s opening underscores the importance of infrastructure improvements in the Chicago region and across the country.