Jim Oberstar's run ended 18 months ago. After 36 years of representing the Land of 10,000 Lakes on Capitol Hill, the Minnesota Democrat went down to defeat by Republican Chip Cravaack, a political novice, in the November 2010 mid-term elections.
His departure was lamented by colleagues on both side of the political aisle and by those with an interest in transportation policy. Widely recognized as one of the most transportation-savvy people to ever hold a seat in Congress, Oberstar served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for his entire tenure, including a stint as committee chairman from 2007 to 2011.
Earlier this month, Oberstar returned to Washington as a private citizen to address the Legislative Policy Forum hosted by the National Industrial Transportation League. During his 40-plus minute, largely off-the-cuff keynote address, the former congressman demonstrated an extraordinary grasp of the nation's transportation needs and challenges as well as their implications for America's economic future.
As an example of the problems we face, he pointed to the notorious rail bottleneck in Chicago. "Something is wrong," Oberstar said, "when it takes 36 hours and costs $300 to move a container from the West Coast to the west side of Chicago, another $300 and another 30 hours to move it to the east side of Chicago, and then $200 and 24 hours to move it from Chicago to the East Coast."
Something is indeed wrong, and it is not a metropolitan, or even a regional, problem. It is a national problem. A recent study estimated that as much as 25 percent of all rail freight in the United States moves through Chicago, and six of the country's seven largest railroads run through the city. The delays not only cause headaches, but also hinder the rail industry's ability to provide the kind of service its customers need to compete in a global economy.
As for why the Windy City has turned into the Chokepoint City, there are many reasons. Part of it's politics. Part of it's money—or as The New York Times recently put it, "a nation's general disinclination to improve its roads, bridges, and rails." And part of it is simply the result of a track system that's grown up since the 19th century with little coordination among the railroads and the city.
Will the situation ever change? Well, there is hope. In 2003, a consortium of private companies and local, state, and federal agencies launched a $3 billion partnership known as the CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency) Program. Its aim is to bring order to the chaos that is Chicago's rail system.
A daunting task, no doubt, but not impossible. Just weeks before Oberstar's address in Washington, folks in Southern California celebrated the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Alameda Freight Corridor, a mega-public works project of the 1990s that did for the Los Angeles area what Chicago so badly needs.
The Alameda Corridor consists of a series of bridges, underpasses, and overpasses designed to separate freight trains from street traffic and passenger trains. The project's centerpiece is the Mid-Corridor Trench, a below-ground rail line for freight trains that runs for 10 miles between Route 91 in Carson and 25th Street in Los Angeles.
Prior to the project's completion, trains on the four low-speed branch lines that were eventually consolidated onto the corridor had to cross more than 200 at-grade crossings and traveled at an average speed of 10 to 15 mph. It was common for motorists to wait 20 to 30 minutes for a 6,000-foot-long train to pass. The Alameda Corridor eliminated conflicts at those 200 crossings. Trains now zip through the corridor at an average speed of 40 mph.
Here's hoping that Chicago can replicate Southern California's success—and put its days as the Chokepoint City firmly behind it.