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Chicago’s 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project Introduces New Generation to Transportation Careers While Untangling Congested Railroad Tracks and Roads

by: Julie Devine
In order to enhance safety, accessibility, and mobility on the south side of Chicago, the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project will untangle railroad tracks from local and state roads while removing and replacing many viaducts in the congested area.
In order to enhance safety, accessibility, and mobility on the south side of Chicago, the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project will untangle railroad tracks from local and state roads while removing and replacing many viaducts in the congested area.
Construction of one of the most complex projects to improve railroad infrastructure in the Chicago region is about to ramp up. But for the past several years, partners in the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program have already been working to impact communities in the corridor.

CREATE is a public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), the State of Illinois, Cook County, the City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak, and the nation’s freight railroads.

During public input and development for the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project (75th St. CIP), “CREATE partners made a commitment to the community that we’ll stay engaged,” said Omer Osman, Illinois Secretary of Transportation. “We’re not going to come in, do our work, and then we’re out and never seen again.”

Beginning in 2019 during design for the 75th St. CIP, CREATE partners developed a series of programs for children in the project’s footprint on the south side of Chicago. Designed to strengthen science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education programs and provide real pathways to professional careers in transportation, engineering, and technical fields, the efforts include grants, classroom visits, field trips, and internship opportunities.

In addition to augmenting students’ education, “This is a good way to help us as an industry in developing our future workforce,” Osman said. “This project is not just to improve the way trains, cars, and pedestrians operate, but it’s an opportunity for the next generation of transportation professionals to get engaged and move us into the future.”

Four as One
The 75th St. CIP includes four projects advanced as a singular project due to their logistical and environmental similarities. The four parts are the Forest Hill Flyover (P3), 71st Street Grade Separation (GS19), Rock Island Connection (P2), and Belt Junction and 80th Street Junction Replacements (EW2). (See “Project Status” section for details.)
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In order to enhance safety, accessibility, and mobility, the 75th St. CIP will untangle railroad tracks from local and state roads while removing and replacing many viaducts in the congested area. The corridor lies along two passenger and four freight rail lines that daily affect 90 freight trains, 30 Metra trains, and two Amtrak trains.

In 2021, CREATE estimated the total cost for the 75th St. CIP at about $1.5 billion. So far, the project secured $474 million. In 2018, the U.S. DOT awarded $132 million through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program. Combining that with contributions from CREATE partners funded final design of the entire project and construction of P3 and GS19.

Temporary construction started in 2020 and work on the first permanent structure for P3 will begin this year. CREATE partners are still working to secure funding for P2 and EW2 construction.

“Overall, the project purpose is to improve the reliability of passenger rail,” Osman said. “It also improves the reliability, speed, and capacity of freight trains and eliminates congestion with the rail and road grade separation.”

That will result in significantly fewer idling trains and motorists.

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“Eliminating all that congestion automatically leads to improvement in the air quality and reduction of the carbon footprint,” Osman said. “That brings some environmental justice to an area that has historically been plagued by economic downturn.”

Focus on Diversity
To further benefit the community, “We’re committed to the diversity of the workforce on the job,” Osman said. “On top of Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) engineering firms and contractors, we’re looking at it from the perspective of operators, laborers, carpenters, cement masons, and all the trades. We want people working on these jobs who reflect the community they’re working in.”

Trinal, Inc., of Chicago – a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consulting firm and subcontractor to P3 and GS19 Designer Parsons and Construction Manager TranSystems – is working to increase participation from minorities and women in the workforce. As part of those efforts, in 2021 Trinal developed and launched the CSX Railway Career Pathways Program to assist students at Dawson Technical Institute of Kennedy King College, which lies within the project footprint.

“We didn’t wait for construction to start; we worked on what we could do while Parsons was designing the specifications,” said Alicia Garcia-Abner, Trinal’s President and CEO. “Working with CSX’s human resources division, we looked for avenues where there might be some direct hires with CSX and assisted in the development of a series of virtual workshops for those interested in careers in the railroad industry. It proved successful as a number of Dawson graduates were hired by CSX.”

Now also working as DEI subcontractor to Alfred Benesch & Company, Lead Engineer for part of EW2, Trinal continues to develop and facilitate workforce development programs, as well as business-to-business networking events and other outreach to DBE and Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) firms.

Future Workforce
To bolster STEM education in the 75th St. CIP footprint, CREATE partners awarded grants each year since 2020 to Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Leo High School, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), and the Chicago Public Library (CPL) through the Library Foundation. For the 2022-2023 school year, the grants totaled $200,000, repeating the financial commitment from 2021-2022 grants.

In the coming year, grants will help selected CPS elementary and high schools continue STEM programming, create STEM clubs and learning partnerships, and develop or enhance school makerspaces. (For details on grant-funded efforts at CPL, MSI, and Leo High School, see "Programs CREATE Grant Money Sponsors" section.)

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Personnel from CREATE partners also volunteer their time and expertise to help local students. COVID forced the team to halt in-person activities in spring 2020, but many virtual events continued. In spring 2022, in-person activities resumed.

In March, engineers from the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways used example projects to share their experience and insight with students at two CPS high schools. CREATE partners have also visited elementary schools to lead activities focused on engineering, government operations, urban planning, surveying, bridge building, and railroad safety with the goal of inspiring students to explore transportation careers.

In August 2021, Trinal facilitated two virtual Union Construction Career Pathways Workshops, which were recorded and posted on the CREATE website.

“We had representatives from various unions who talked about their apprenticeship programs, their expectations, and how to get sponsored into a union,” Garcia-Abner said. “Given that this project will be going on for a few years, we have the opportunity to educate young people currently in high school who could be sponsored into the union when they graduate.”

The grants and other educational support will continue as the 75th St. CIP progresses in the coming years.

Project Status
In the CREATE project naming system, P refers to passenger corridor, GS indicates grade separations, and EW applies to the east-west corridor. The 75th St. CIP includes:
  • P3 – adding a new CSX north-south rail flyover structure to eliminate conflicts between north-south and east-west train movements at Forest Hill Junction.
  • GS19 – constructing a road-rail grade separation of 71st Street and the railroad tracks near Bell Avenue.
  • EW2 – reconfiguring the east-west tracks at Forest Hill Junction, adding tracks to remove the bottleneck at Belt Junction, realigning track and signal systems between Belt Junction and the Dan Ryan (Interstate 94) Expressway, reconstructing the 80th Street Junction, relocating Union Pacific tracks to a currently unused Norfolk Southern alignment, and adding positive train control. The work also includes a new Metra mainline track and improvements to existing viaducts over city streets.
  • P2 – building a double-track, flyover structure to connect the Metra SouthWest Service (SWS) mainline tracks to the Rock Island Line. The improvements will relocate all SWS trains to the LaSalle Street Station, increasing passenger rail capacity at Union Station.
Timeline
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Temporary construction related to P3 began in 2020 and will continue until the end of 2022. In early summer 2022, CSX began reviewing bids for the next stage of P3, including bridge construction, which is projected to last until late 2025.

Construction of viaduct and community mobility improvements linked with P3 and GS19 began in 2021. Still in final design, GS19 road work is anticipated to start in 2024. The schedule for P2 and EW2 construction will be determined once funding is secured.

Key Personnel
Railroad employees and private contractors will perform the work throughout the 75th St. CIP. The team for P3 and GS19, both led by CSX, includes Mathewson Right of Way Company, Parsons (Designer), TranSystems (Construction Manager), and Dyer Construction Company, Inc. (Contractor for temporary construction).

Part of EW2 is led by Norfolk Southern, with help from Alfred Benesch & Company as Lead Engineer. The other part of EW2 is led by Metra, with Ardmore Roderick as Designer. P2, led by Metra, includes Jacobs as Designer.

Programs CREATE Grant Money Sponsors
Chicago Public Library
At CPL branches in the corridor, grant money from CREATE partners has supported STEM programs such as ScienceConnections, which offers hands-on discovery activities for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. With 2022-2023 grant money, CPL will continue to support free STEM and maker programming for youth at the library.

Brenda Langstraat, President and CEO of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, shared the comments of one parent: “It’s amazing to see first-hand how children and students learn 21st-century skills through library programming – communicating, experimenting, and solving problems together.”

According to Langstraat, “That encapsulates what we talk about in impact. Yes, youth in the branches are having fun, but they’re also learning skills that are going to be essential as they move through their academic careers and their professional careers. We really see this kind of programming as workforce development, in addition to educational enhancement.”

Museum of Science and Industry
At MSI, “We’ve been using funds from the CREATE 75th St. CIP to support the museum’s efforts to bring young people hands-on, minds-on activities during the summer,” said Rex Babiera, ITW Director of Professional Learning.
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In 2020 when the pandemic shut down in-person programming, MSI assembled take-home activity kits aimed at children ages 8 through 13 that were distributed free through community-based organizations. They produced a couple thousand kits in 2020. In 2021, with more time to plan, they distributed 3,400 kits through their partners around the city. This summer the total climbed to 5,000 kits.

Originally called Summer Brain Games, the program recently transformed into MSI Science Curiosity Kits because organizations requested them year-round. This summer’s theme focuses on what scientists do – observe the world around them, gather data, and collect evidence. MSI plans additional releases in the fall and spring, each with a different theme.

In addition to working with community-based organizations, this year MSI placed kits in laundromats, rehabilitation hospitals for young people, and the juvenile justice center.

“Grants from the CREATE partners and other organizations have helped us expand,” Babiera said.

Leo High School
Grant money from CREATE partners helped Leo Catholic High School expand technology in classrooms and launch a robotics program.

“Our goal for the coming year is to continue building our robotics program,” said Shaka Rawls, Principal. “Now that our students learned introductory skills, we want to have them join competitive robotics leagues and compete statewide.”

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The high school also uses grant money to support community outreach programs. Two Saturdays each month during the school year and a couple times during the summer, the school invites any student in the 60620 zip code to STEM-focused programs.

“The idea is to cultivate young minds and get them ready to think about fields that are normally outside their purview,” Rawls said. “We’re opening up a whole world of potential jobs to students who don’t normally have access.”

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