A recent New York Times Magazine article described the difficulty of piecing together the ballot-initiated California High Speed Rail, which will connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes (with eventual spurs to Sacramento, north, and San Diego, south) at top speeds of 220 miles per hour. Quite an improvement over the bumbling trip, along a similar path, on Amtrak that now takes over 12 hours and costs you $55. The main stumbling block appears to be acquiring right-of-way to allow for straight stretches of tracks (obviously the straighter the track the faster the train can coast).
This got me thinking that Chicago doesn’t at all have a right-of-way problem.
Freight train right-of-ways crisscross the metropolitan area, which are currently owned by Canadian National, CSX, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, Canadian Pacific, and Union Pacific. If you are a map geek, like me, use this fun app, courtesy of CN, to see the rail arteries of the country. Kind of reminds me of my favorite childhood game. We could simply claim some of these rail lines to for High Speed Rail. However, this approach does have its own set of problems. Along with converting the rail lines to accommodate the new trains, all grade crossings would have to be eliminated for safety purposes. Furthermore, a rather paradoxical question emerges. If we are to ever transition from rubber-wheeled freight transport to rail, what will we use if all the rail lines are dedicated to high speed, viaducts are bicycle paths, and the shoreline docks are tourist traps?
Due to the nature of development in Chicago over the past 150 years, freight lines tend to slice through well-populated neighborhoods—behind residential yards and next to arterial streets—further complicating an easy transition to high speed rail. Earlier this year the residents of the Village of Barrington, Illinois put up quite a stink when Canadian National acquired Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co. (EJ&E) right-of-way to expand their operations. Barrington was not comforted by the thought of freight trains whistling or engine idling in their town on once vacant tracks. What Barringtoners might not realize is Canadian National is probably transporting the stuff they are buying at the local big-box on Sutton Road.
The NY Times article goes on to mention a quote from new Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood which intrigued me, “[that] forthcoming federal investments in rail projects like California’s were akin to Dwight Eisenhower’s decision 53 years ago to build a national network of Interstate highways.” Eisenhower’s decision partially spawned the glut of bedroom suburbs and office parks, but that may be because it was a myopic creation with a single purposed goal; fast transit of goods (in those days tanks, but now trucks). If a redesigned interstate system, what I call Eisenhower 2.0, would connect people through means other than just transportation, we could have a useful, functional, prolific Network across this country. A Network connection that flourishes well beyond cars, streets, and driveways, and one that will provide for our well-being. Our new arteries will serve as public open space, food production, power generation, water filtration, and, of course, transport.
This could start with the expressway systems namesake freeway, the I-290 Eisenhower Expressway. The ‘Ike’, as they call it on the traffic reports, evolves from Congress Parkway and beings in the center city buried under the old Chicago Post Office. It then heads due west towards Elhurst, takes a northerly bend near O’Hare Airport, and ends in Schaumburg at the I-90 tollway after merging with the I-355 tollway. This proposal would borrow the I-290 right of way for the first 14 miles of track from downtown Chicago to Elmhurst. From there the high speed line would take I-88 right-of-way for a near straight shot towards Iowa or St. Louis. The beauty of the proposal is the adaptive reuse of the Chicago Post Office (up for auction on August 29, 2009 with a starting bid of $300,000) as a new high speed rail hub that can easily link with Metra’s regional rail network through Union and LaSalle Street Stations. The use of I-290 right of way will also solve the problem of reconstructing all grade crossings, an inherent roadblock to any scheme to use freight train right-of-way. Here is the proposed route.
In the future, the new Eisenhower high speed line will be capped with a park (the current freeway is mostly below grade) that will provide an iconic, and natural, green link to the Des Plaines River Park system and complete Daniel Burnham’s vision of an “emerald necklace” around Chicago. Incorporated into the park will be a line of wind turbines for power generation and native perennial plant species for a local food supply. The additional green space will also provide an eco-system diminishes stormwater runoff and recharging groundwater.
High speed rail on existing freeway right-of-way is the lowest cost route and takes full advantage of existing infrastructure. A functional alternative to rubber wheel travel is the only viable way to reduce the use of automobiles and, subsequently, petroleum, making a transition to high speed rail necessary and more likely, imminent. While the rest of country struggles with land acquisition battles this proposal will reunite neighborhoods that were divided of the very interstate that once divided them. Now it will herald the dawn of a neo-urban renewal that will link denizens through care for common resources. Chicago is perfectly situated and endowed to be the hub of the country again, but more locally, this once shunned eyesore can be the hub of a neighborhood and its people.