ELPC in the News

Chicago Tribune: Pollution could increase as Rauner EPA moves to rescue coal plants

By Michael Hawthorne

September 27, 2017

In a move that could lead to dirtier air in Chicago and other downwind communities as far away as New York, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is pushing to overhaul stringent limits on lung-damaging pollution from some of the last coal-fired power plants in Illinois.

Proposed amendments to state rules would scrap limits on the rate of pollution from a fleet of eight coal plants in central and southern Illinois owned by Dynegy Inc. Instead, the state would impose annual caps on tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emitted by the fleet — a subtle but significant change that could stall or reverse efforts to reduce Dynegy’s contributions to smog, soot and acid rain.

Drafted with extensive input from the company’s Chicago-based attorneys, the proposed pollution caps are significantly higher than what Dynegy’s fleet emitted during each of the past two years, according to a Tribune analysis of federal pollution data.

Alec Messina, director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said the goal is to keep the financially struggling coal plants open by giving Houston-based Dynegy more flexibility to operate individual generating units, several of which are not equipped with modern pollution controls. Before joining the Rauner administration, Messina worked as a lobbyist for a trade group that represents the company’s interests in Illinois.

State standards would still be tougher than federal requirements, Messina said, and company spokeswoman Meredith Moore noted emissions could still increase if the state’s rate-based limits were kept in place.

But if a state rule-making panel approves the proposed changes, expected to be formally introduced this month, the new limit on sulfur dioxide would be nearly double what Dynegy’s existing fleet emitted last year and higher than every year since 2012, according to the Tribune’s analysis. The cap on nitrogen oxide emissions would be 79 percent higher than what came out of the smokestacks in 2016.

In an Aug. 25 letter to the state EPA, Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office questioned why the new regulations are necessary unless Dynegy plans to operate its dirtier coal plants more frequently and its cleaner plants less often.

The proposed pollution caps are set so high that the state would end up encouraging Dynegy to pollute more, Madigan’s office said.

“We want to make sure the public is getting the full benefit of the pollution standards the company agreed to meet,” James Gignac, Madigan’s environmental counsel, said in an interview. Changing the standard now could roll back years of progress, he said.

Dynegy also secured a provision that would keep the pollution caps fixed at the same amounts — 55,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 25,000 tons of nitrogen oxide annually — even if it decided to shut down individual generating units or scuttle entire plants.

An EPA draft would have automatically tightened limits on Dynegy’s fleet to reflect plant closures, according to emails obtained by the nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center and shared with the Tribune. Chicago attorney Renee Cipriano, a former Illinois EPA director who represents Dynegy and other companies she once regulated, lined out or replaced language in the state’s draft, the emails show.

“We are making those types of tweaks to the rule language, so hopefully they address your issues,” Dana Vetterhoffer, an EPA attorney, responded in a May 31 email to Cipriano. “OK great,” Cipriano wrote back four minutes later.

Howard Learner, the environmental group’s president, said the changes would allow Dynegy to avoid installing pollution controls at its dirtiest plants and turn off the equipment at others.

“The company’s strategy is to run these plants on the cheap for as long as possible, like an old Chevy beater,” Learner said. “If the Rauner administration goes ahead with this, they’re effectively passing on the health costs of Dynegy’s pollution to the rest of Illinois and beyond.”

Moore, the Dynegy spokeswoman, said in an email to the Tribune that swapping the state’s current system for caps on the fleet’s emissions “would mean real environmental benefits.”

The EPA director echoed the company’s comments. “For the first time there is a cap on this fleet. That’s a big deal,” said Messina, who took over the state agency last year after serving as a top aide in Rauner’s office. He previously was a lobbyist for the Illinois Environmental Regulatory Group, an association that represents industries subject to state pollution regulations.

READ MORE

 

Indianapolis Star: ELPC Pushing Indiana Agency to Allocate Portion of $41M VW Settlement Funds to Electric School Buses

IDEM’s unusual comment process for spending $41 million Volkswagen settlement
September 25, 2017
By Emily Hopkins

Indiana is poised to receive $41 million, its share of a $2.7 billion settlement federal regulators reached with Volkswagen after it was learned the German automaker cheated emissions tests for over half a decade.

But just how the state plans to spend that money is a mystery thanks to what some contend is a process that thus far has been neither transparent nor open to public input.

In at least 38 states, residents can find information about the settlement on their government’s website. In some cases, they may even be able to submit their own suggestions into whether the funds should be used for electric transit, hybrid vehicles, or any of the 10 ways the Environmental Protection Agency has identified to fight pollution.

But Hoosiers who want a say in how Indiana spends its share of the pot might want to try to snag a meeting with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s Commissioner Bruno Pigott.

“While other states have chosen to accept public comment in a web-based manner, Indiana has chosen to reach out to stakeholders in a more personal way with one-on-one meetings with interested parties and presenting on meeting agendas of interested parties,” IDEM’s Deputy Director of Communications Tara Wolf told IndyStar via email. “[Pigott] has been meeting one-on-one with many interested stakeholders since he came into office in January.”

If that seems like Hoosier Hospitality to some, others see it as a series of closed-door talks outside of the public’s view.

To be clear, there is no requirement for states to solicit public comment before the legal process to get the funds has begun. And Wolf assured that the time will come when Hoosiers can comment on a draft plan.

Still, some are concerned that Indiana is behind several states who have chosen to be proactive. Some states solicited public feedback as early as last fall, and a handful of states have already published drafts of their proposals online. Minnesota, for example, has received hundreds of comments and responses to an online survey and held more than a half dozen public meetings to discuss how the funds should be spent.
“We just thought it was the right thing to do,” said Rocky Sisk, State Program Administrator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He said that many people have different perspectives on the issue, but that the meetings have been instrumental in shaping their plans.

“Those are the things we feel very confident about doing now that we’ve had public input,” Sisk said.

Before states submit their plans, they’ll have to take part in a legally technical process determined by the settlement. First, states will have to announce which agencies will manage the funds in their respective states. Many states have already done this, often choosing one of their environmental departments.

Indiana has not formally announced which agencies will handle the funds. According to those familiar with the issue, it could be a group of three to five agencies, and the general assumption is that IDEM will take the lead. IDEM’s Wolf said that the Indiana agency handling the funds will be announced once the “trust effective date” is finalized, which will set deadlines for states to have their plans drafted. It’s at that point that the state will ramp up its public outreach.

“A draft Beneficiary Mitigation Plan for public comment will be posted on our website and the public will have ample time to submit comments,” Wolf said. IDEM would not disclose which groups or individuals the agency had met with, but Wolf said that it “has spoken to any group or individual who has requested information.”

The money being paid to states by Volkswagen is one of a series of criminal and civil penalties levied against the automaker. The company was found to be in violation of the Clean Air Act when it came to light that Volkswagen had cheated on emissions testing of some of its diesel vehicles. About half a million cars in the U.S. were allowed to emit pollutants “at levels up to 40 times the standard” set by the EPA. Nitrogen oxides, or NOx gases, are a byproduct of burning diesel fuel and have the potential to cause asthma and other respiratory health issues. The mitigation trust fund is meant to address those NOx emissions.

At least one organization is not waiting on IDEM to start promoting its plan. This summer, the Environmental Law and Policy Center conducted an electric bus tour across four states where they hope settlement money could be used to replace diesel school buses with electric ones.

“Children are especially vulnerable [to diesel fumes] because their lungs are not yet developed, and the particles make their way through the nose, into the blood stream and cause all sorts of problem,” said Susan Mudd, Senior Policy Advocate at ELPC, noting that more than half of public school children in Indiana are transported by bus.

Mudd has been impressed with efforts by other states in the region. She remarked on the several public meetings held in Minnesota, and the “priority county” map produced by Ohio’s EPA.

“Indiana has not stepped forward yet,” Mudd said, “but we’re hopeful.”

Kellie Walsh, executive director of the Greater Indiana Clean Cities Coalition, said that when the mitigation trust fund was announced, her phone was ringing off the hook.

“Folks were like, ‘When is money going to be on the street?'” said Walsh. “Sorry guys, that’s not how this works.”

 

To read the full article, please click here

IREC: ELPC Helping Jumpstart Community Solar in Cook Co.

Case Study: Cook County Jumpstarts Community Shared Solar
September 18, 2017
By IREC Editors

The national community solar market was beginning to experience a notable growth spurt in 2014, as more states, utilities and communities were turning to the model as a way to enable multiple customers to access and share the benefits of a single solar project, ultimately expanding access to solar for more consumers. The state of Illinois, however, remained “off the map” and lacked both a statewide community solar policy and voluntary utility programs.

Recognizing the opportunity and potential, especially in the county’s densely-populated, urban environment, Illinois’ Cook County Department of Environmental Control jumpstarted community shared solar in the state and across the Midwest with a Department of Energy SunShot Initiative Solar Market Pathways award, Cook County partnered with the City of Chicago, Elevate Energy, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), the local investor-owned utility ComEd, and technical consultant West Monroe Partners to overcome the education, information and market barriers to community solar and demonstrate replicable community solar models through pilot projects within the county.

Stakeholder engagement was key to the success of the project, resulting in buy-in from diverse stakeholders early in the process, and sustained interest in the project throughout.

IREC has supported the Solar Market Pathways project since 2015, serving as member of the Technical Assistance team in partnership with the national coordinator, the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC).

To read the full case study, click here

WVIK (NPR) INDIANA: ELPC’s Janet McCabe Part of Indiana Climate Leadership Summit

WVIK 90.3 FM  Indiana (NPR)

Public Officials, Environmental Advocates Talk Climate Change

By Nick Janzen

Mayors and public officials from 18 Indiana communities, as well as environmental advocates, business leaders, and young people met in Indianapolis Wednesday to talk about ways Indiana can adapt to impacts from climate change at the second annual Climate Leadership Summit.

Jim Poyser, the executive director of Earth Charter Indiana and the event’s organizer, says he sees bipartisan support on the local level for action on climate change.

“Now, that makes me happy, because I’m tired of thinking about party. I’m tired of wondering what somebody’s ideology is,” says Poyser.

Poyser says since the first Climate Leadership Summit last year, three Indiana towns have passed youth-led climate resolutions: Carmel and Lawrence, which have Republican mayors, and Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett says how well cities prepare for climate change will determine their future success.

“We are not exempt from the impacts our changing climate bring,” Hogsett says. “No one is.”

Scientists from Purdue and Indiana Universities said during presentations that those impacts include the number of days Indiana experiences above 90 degrees jumping from 20 to 74 by 2050; and that the Indiana climate could look more similar to that of east Texas by 2070.

Sixteen-year-old Cora Gordon helped pass the Indianapolis climate resolution, which calls for carbon neutrality in the city by 2050. She says the climate resolutions adopted around the state are a message directly from Hoosiers.

“Once we go up higher, once we talk to state people and show them that all these cities have passed climate resolutions, what the people of the state want, it’s what the people of the country want, and so I think that’s definitely something that politicians should keep in mind,” Gordon says.

Logansport Mayor Dave Kitchell says unlike Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, many small communities in Indiana don’t have the resources to invest in big, climate-friendly projects.

“We’re the crossroads of America,” Kitchell says. “But until we’re going to be the crossroads of fiscal sustainability and climate sustainability, we’re not going to convince the majority of the people in this state that this is what we have to do.”

Janet McCabe, a senior law fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center and a former Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator under President Barack Obama, says clean energy and energy efficiency are two areas where municipalities can get the most bang for their buck on climate investments.

“It makes your houses more comfortable, it increases their value, it creates local job opportunities that can’t be imported,” she says.

READ MORE

PV Magazine: ELPC Working to Bring Community Solar to Illinois

Community solar, PACE policies moving forward in Illinois
By Mark Burger

August 28, 2017

Community solar in Illinois has made another step forward in the long slog to implementation with the filing by ComEd of a tariff with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) on August 15 requesting that the requisite riders for community solar be added to existing net metering and related riders.

The rider in the tariff, POGCS, will include provisions for both the provider, or developer, of community solar projects and the beneficiaries, or subscribers, without which projects cannot go forward until both conditions are satisfied. This is the latest action in a process that began with enactment of the Future Energy Jobs Act on December 7, 2016, which took effect on June 1, 2017.

ComEd has requested approval from the ICC by September 29, and for the tariff to take effect on October 9th.  Several intervenors have filed in this tariff so far including the Illinois Power Agency, Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Illinois Competitive Energy Association.

READ MORE

Daily Southtown: ELPC Explains Why Will Co. Farmers See Sun as New Cash Crop

Solar farms are cropping up in Will County
By Susan DeMar Lafferty

September 5, 2017

As harvest season approaches, some Will County farmers may already be considering alternatives to the future of their corn and soybean fields. They are learning that the sun they now rely on to produce vegetables, could be harnessed into a new cash crop.

Empowered by Illinois’ new Future Energy Jobs Act, solar companies have approached area farmers in recent weeks about converting a portion of their property into solar farms.

Cypress Creek Renewables, which currently operates solar farms in eight states, has an agreement with a landowner in Crete Township to convert 45 acres on Goodenow Road into a five MegaWatt solar farm, enough to power 800 homes, said Scott Novack, Cypress’ senior developer. They are looking for more sites.

Frankfort officials have just begun to discuss a concept for a 32-acre community solar farm that could generate enough energy to power 1,200 homes, according to developer Josh Barrett, of Solarshift LLC, Homer Glen.

“This is totally new to us,” said Mark Schneidewind, manager of the Will County Farm Bureau. About 100 farmers recently received letters from a few different companies and about a dozen have retained a lawyer to negotiate the finer details, he said.

With offers of $800 per acre, compared to $160 to $180 for a really good crop yield, some older farmers are considering this as a steady cash flow as they head into retirement, Schneidewind said.

Others are concerned about leasing their farms for 20 to 30 years, and want to know if it would restrict their ability to use their land, or interfere with drain tiles, he said.

He said he does not see this as the future of farming, because the ground in Will County is “prime farmland,” but he acknowledged that this gives people an alternative.

Novack said Cypress needs at least 20 acres in close proximity to power lines or substations, and are “actively working on” five to 10 projects in Will County. Realistically, he said he expects they will move forward with one or two.

It will be at least 2019 before a facility is operating. According to CCR’s website, the entire process, from signing the lease to completing construction, takes 18 to 24 months.

Cypress invited area landowners to a recent community meeting, but drew only one, along with two county board members — Judy Ogalla and Laurie Summers, he said.

The farm bureau has held two seminars, in each of the last two Aprils, attracting about 100 people each, to provide information and answer questions.

Schneidewind also has been at the table with Will County’s Land Use Department to discuss how best to regulate this burgeoning business.

The county currently is “not very restrictive,” but does require a special use permit for solar projects — which adds an extra layer of scrutiny, said Samantha Bluemer, of the Land Use Department. As officials update the zoning codes, they want to ensure these are “safe developments” and protect the landowner, she said.

Will County recently won an award for being “solar smart” for simplifying its zoning ordinances and making “alternative energy” an option on its building permit application. It also has enhanced training for permitting and inspection staff and increased public resources regarding solar energy systems and consumer protections, in order to promote positive, sustainable growth.

As they review zoning codes, they are looking at decommissioning the land, mitigating the agricultural land, requiring bonds, letters of credit, and fire training, Bluemer said.

While officials in Frankfort are “excited” about having a solar energy field and contributing to renewable energy, development director Jeff Cook said they want to make sure the site will be properly maintained over the years. A special use permit will be required.

“Renewable energy is a hot topic, a timely subject, but we don’t know all the ins and outs,” Cook said, adding that they are looking at Barrett’s proposal from a land use perspective, and while the location “makes sense,” the plan needs “more details.”

Barrett has proposed a community solar farm on 32 acres on the southwest corner of Pfeiffer Road and Sauk Trail, where it could easily connect to a nearby ComEd substation.

Unlike the larger scale utility farms, Barrett said he would sell solar panels to residents, who would then receive credit on their electric bill for producing their own power.

Given that the majority of rooftops on homes are not conducive to solar panels, community solar farms allow residents to buy into renewable energy at half the cost, with optimal production, he said.

He is now working out zoning issues with the village, which currently requires a special use permit, he said. He hopes to conduct pre-sales at the beginning of 2018, open to Frankfort residents first, then others. If there is not enough interest, the project would not go forward, Barrett said.

Knowing that Frankfort is concerned about aesthetics, he plans not only landscaped berms to seclude the site, but will incorporate native plants and pollinators to promote water filtration and create wildlife habitats.

The panels are designed to last 25 years, and if approved, this site would be developed in three phases, each to produce two megawatts (MW) of power — enough to power 1,200 homes, Barrett said.

“It doesn’t produce any negative effects, just clean energy,” he said.

Brad Klein, senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, agreed.

The state law sets benchmarks for creating 4,300 megawatts of new solar and wind power —enough electricity to power millions of homes — to be built in Illinois by 2030.

That goal, along with incentives and tax credits, has led to a lot of interest statewide, Klein said.

The Illinois Power Agency is now working to implement that law, and drafting regulations, but development is happening before the details have been finalized, he said.

Still, Klein said he sees only benefits, and the ELPC has been a key proponent of renewable energy.

“We are really interested in finding the best ways to make sure solar processes are integrated well into the landscape,” he said.

Among the “best ways” are creating pollinator habitats under the panels, which may make the land more productive, and making sure the land is restored to its original condition if no longer used for solar farming, he said.

These farms also are expected to generate more revenue for local schools and communities since solar companies would pay property taxes on land they lease — likely at a higher rate than agricultural land, Klein said.

READ MORE

 

The Columbus Dispatch: AEP Ohio Incentive Plan Could Help Double Ohio’s Vehicle Charging Stations


Incentive Plan Could Help Double Ohio’s Vehicle Charging Stations
by Dan Gearino

August 30, 2017

The number of electric-vehicle charging stations in Ohio would be poised to double under a rebate proposal from American Electric Power and environmental groups.

If approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the $10 million plan would give incentives to apartment owners, businesses and others to build up to 375 charging stations in AEP territory in Ohio.

Ohio has 346 stations listed by the federal government’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. That number, which includes public and private locations, ranks Ohio 20th in the country, behind Midwestern neighbors such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“It’s a great step,” said Sam Spofforth, executive director of Clean Fuels Ohio, which advocates for reducing pollution from vehicle fuels. “All electricity customers will benefit from this.”

He expects broad benefits because of a decrease in air pollution and because the use of electricity as an automotive fuel will help to broaden the base for paying to maintain the electricity system.

The charging stations are a small part of an agreement that AEP and more than a dozen other parties are asking the PUCO to approve. AEP would receive several items it wants in exchange for making concessions to other groups that signed on to the deal.

AEP’s 1.3 million Ohio customers would pay for the charging-station rebates through a so-far unspecified charge in utility bills. And that is a concern for the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, which opposes many parts of the rate plan.

“State regulators shouldn’t be asked to make a million consumers — most of whom don’t drive electric vehicles — pay to subsidize electric-vehicle charging through their AEP electric bills,” said Dan Doron, the office’s spokesman, in an e-mail.

Doron said an increase in charging stations should come instead from private investment in response to market demand.

Here’s how the rebate program would work:

‒ AEP would provide money to help pay for up to 300 “Level 2” charging stations, which is a step up from a basic charger. Three in 10 of the stations of this type would need to be in places that the public can access. The rest would be at workplaces, apartments and condominium complexes that might not be open to the public.

‒ The company also would offer rebates for up to 75 “DC Fast” charging stations, which work much faster than a Level 2 charger. All of these stations would be open to the public.

‒ The rebates would range from 50 percent to 100 percent of the costs involved in installing the stations; the highest rebates would be reserved for locations available to the public at government-owned properties.

AEP would not own the stations but would be able to collect a 5 percent fee for administering the rebates, and the AEP name would appear at the stations.

The station owner would be required to share charging data with AEP, including the prices charged for electricity. This data, aggregated to obscure personal information of consumers, would be available to researchers who want to study usage patterns.

READ MORE

 

ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner Named to Crain’s “Who’s Who in Chicago Business”

Among the trailblazers profiled in Crain’s Chicago Business’ annual “Who’s Who in Chicago Business” is ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner.

“Who’s Who” comprises a comprehensive directory of 600+ Chicago leaders, offering information about each person’s business and professional endeavors as well as civic engagements. The list is divided by sector, and Learner appears alongside 33 non-profit standouts.

Learner’s profile includes his work with numerous environmental and legal organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Law Institute, as well as his service to organizations like Citizens Action of Illinois and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce. Below is the profile that appears in the September 4th issue of Crain’s Chicago Business.

Howard_250x330dHoward A. Learner

President, Executive Director

Environmental Law & Policy Center, Chicago

Age: 62

Business: Environmental progress, economic development advocacy organization

Professional: Economic Club; Chicago Bar Association; Chicago Council of Lawyers; Environmental Law Institute

Civic: Leadership Fellows Association; Forest Preserves Foundation; Citizens Action of Illinois; Friends of Israel’s Environment; Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers & Commerce

Undergraduate: University of Michigan

Graduate: Harvard University

NW Indiana Times: Feds Agree with ELPC & Reject Great Lakes Basin Rail Application

By Andrew Steele

The federal Surface Transportation Board has rejected Great Lakes Basin Transportation’s application to build and operate a 261-mile freight railroad from LaPorte County to southeast Wisconsin.

“GLBT has failed to provide the board with accurate financial information upon which the board can rely to make a determination on the transportation merits of the project,” the STB stated in its decision, dated Wednesday.

Financial statements that GLBT provided in June show the company had $802,000 in accounts payable as of Dec. 31, and investors owned $473,573 in common stock.

But, the STB observed, “The balance sheet … contains an unexplained line item for ‘net income’ (amounting to negative $1,203,545) that appears to account for a substantial difference between its assets and its liabilities and stockholders’ equity.”

Further, “GLBT’s current assets of $151 are so clearly deficient for purposes of constructing a 261-mile rail line that the board will not proceed with this application given the impacts on stakeholders and the demands upon board resources,” the STB ruled.

Company attorney Michael Blaszak said Thursday that GLBT “is assessing its options with respect to the board’s decision today and will have no further comment on the decision.”

Railroad officials have said in the past they can’t secure funding commitments from investors without STB approval of the project, hence the limited amount of current resources.

Plans for the Great Lakes Basin Railroad call for 244 miles of mainline track and 17 miles of branch lines, including one connecting with the Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad at Kingsbury. The railroad would have 26 connections to other railroads, including two in Lake County and six in Porter and LaPorte counties.

The railroad would be able to handle as many as 110 trains per day for various-length trips along its three-state path, according to the GLBT application.
The construction cost was estimated at $2.8 billion.

The line would allow trains passing through Chicago to avoid congestion there, an opportunity GLBT officials said ensured its viability.

“A freight train can take 30 hours — more during periods of severe weather — to pass through the Chicago area, resulting in added inventory cost for shippers, suboptimal equipment utilization, air pollution, delayed passenger trains and billions of dollars in wasted productivity,” GLBT stated in its application.

Frank Patton founded Great Lakes Basin Transportation in 2011. An environmental review process, overseen by the STB, began last year, but was suspended in December at the request of GLBT so it could concentrate on completing the application. The STB decision officially discontinues the environmental review.

Opponents of the freight rail project expressed their satisfaction in the hours after the the decision was published.

Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said cooperation among elected officials and organized citizens was key.

“(U.S. Rep. Pete) Visclosky ensured all residents had scoping meetings in their counties, our state legislators updated our antiquated eminent domain laws creating a level playing field, various local governments including the Porter County Commissioners passed resolutions stating concerns, and our citizens banded together to create a strong grassroots effort and the best decision for the most people was made,” she said via email.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said “the board made a very sensible, very clear decision.”

READ MORE

Crain’s Chicago Business: ELPC’s Learner Says Freight Companies Should Pay Their Share to Fix Chicago Rail Bottleneck

As the Nation’s Rail Hub, Chicago is an Expensive and Dangerous Bottleneck
By Judith Crown

One of the daily nuisances caused by the tangle of the Chicago area’s nearly 4,000 miles of rail track can be seen at the 71st Street grade crossing just east of Western Avenue. Motorists are routinely stuck for 15 to 20 minutes behind a gate, which is down an average of two hours a day.

“It gets pretty crowded,” said Vernon Wiltz, an aide to Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th). “We get complaints about traffic, and the train horns are horrendous at 3 or 4 in the morning.”

But however bad it is for motorists, think of it from the freight train’s point of view. Thomas the Tank Engine and his cousins must crawl for hours at a time navigating an eight mile stretch of South Side track where four freight and two passenger lines converge to create one of the worst rail choke points in the nation.

The so-called 75th Street corridor, which despite its name actually meanders from Evergreen Park to the Dan Ryan Expressway, is a prime reason why experts say a coast-to-coast freight train can spend one-third of its trip simply trying to pass through Chicago area bottlenecks. They pose deadly safety hazards and add immense expense to the cost of shipping goods by rail.

As President Trump beats the drum for a $1 trillion national public works program reminiscent of the New Deal, the Chicago area offers a long list of critical infrastructure suffering from deferred maintenance and in dire need of an upgrade. Rail, central to Chicago’s growth from prairie backwater to metropolitan crossroads, tops the list.

The economic peril of inaction is palpable. A 2015 Amtrak study concluded that $935 billion in goods transit through the Chicago on rail per year, and executives of major carriers frustrated by delays are becoming more vocal about the possibility of shifting traffic—and by extensions spending and investment–away from the area.

Indeed, Keith Creel, the CEO of Canadian Pacific told investors in May that his line was in talks with Jacksonville Fla.-based CSX to form a joint marketing and operating agreement to avoid Chicago switching yards and bypass chokepoints.

The partnership could find other ways to avoid Chicago. CP, for example, could bring intermodal traffic into Vancouver and hand it off to CSX on the east side of the Great Lakes, said Keith Schoonmaker, director for industrials equity research at Morningstar, Inc. “You’re a fool to drive into a traffic jam,” Schoonmaker said.

Another alternative: Shippers could circumvent the city by using the widened Panama Canal—East Coast cities are dredging their ports to accommodate larger container ships that can pass through the widened waterway, said Joseph C. Szabo, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who headed the Federal Railroad Administration under former President Barack Obama.

Four Atlantic ports already can accommodate larger containerships: New York/New Jersey, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, Va., and Port Everglades, Fla., according to Shyam Raman, program manager at consultancy Frost & Sullivan, which analyzed the Chicago rail congestion problem for Amtrak.

These threats are real, Szabo said. “We put at risk losing our dominance if we don’t take decisive action.” Freight volumes are growing, he added, due to growth in population, consumption and the explosion of e-commerce, so it’s possible the region could tread water but still lose market share.

About 25 percent of all U.S. freight trains, and half of all intermodal trains that ferry shipping containers and trailer trucks, pass through the Chicago area, according to CMAP. Each day, tracks in the region bristle with 1,300 trains carrying freight and passengers.

But tracks, bridges, switches and signals largely laid out more than a century ago have resulted in a jumble that grinds away at efficiency. It often takes 26 to 30 hours for a freight train to pass through the area, a considerable time suck out of the typical three to five days it takes to move freight from West Coast ports to the Eastern seaboard.

READ MORE

ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 20 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now