Environmental Impact Assessment of Rail Infrastructure in Illinois

Principal Investigator:

Dr. Ning Ai




USDOT-National University Rail (NURail) Center Consortium


Dr. Ning Ai, Marcella Bondie, Anthony Grande, Sol (Shuo) Ma, Shi Yin


Completed in December of 2014



Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), proposed rail projects are subject to a lengthy and expensive environmental evaluation process. Sponsored by the USDOT-National University Rail (NURail) Center Consortium, this study aims to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of environmental impact assessment of rail infrastructure by providing a system view of sustainability and a one-stop rail planning database.


Specifically, this study has developed an integrated tool that incorporates key metrics to assess the environmental, ecological, economic and social impacts of rail transportation in a Geographic Information System (GIS) framework.



Compared to existing studies and databases with similar objectives, this study is particularly informative and timely for two principal reasons.
First, it has incorporated state-of-the-art academic research findings as well as legislation and government guidelines in a comprehensive “Sustainable Rail Metrics.” Separate metrics have been developed for transit rail, commuter passenger rail, and freight rail. They are designed to be used in a tiered approach that specifies minimum regulatory requirements or a "best practice” sustainable alternative. The sustainability metrics were developed to align with U.S. regulations, the NEPA process, and IDOT’s I-LAST tool, which is a sustainability rating system for roadways. Such metrics could also  assist in the US DOT Inspector General’s recommended update of NEPA procedures at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) (December 5, 2013).

Second, this study has developed a web tool that visualizes and summarizes environmental impacts of proposed rail infrastructure at a refined geographical scale (e.g., the vicinity of grade crossings). Users may customize the map by selecting both the data layers and location of interest. Connecting environmental impacts with neighborhood background information, such as land uses, demographic characteristics, and environmental quality, this study helps identify high priority and sensitive areas for sustainable rail planning and management in the Chicago metropolitan region.


Expected Results and Products:

This project provides a web GIS tool that integrates sustainability metrics and facilitates a rapid assessment before a formal NEPA process is implemented for a rail project. The web tool enables users to specify a geographic area in Illinois and obtain a summary of environmental, demographic, and rail infrastructure data of interest. Transportation professionals and environmental planners can use this application to consider a wide range of impacts early in the decision-making process, before significant funds and time have been devoted to project design. This will alert transportation and environmental professionals of the need to perform a targeted assessment, and/or to coordinate among multiple departments in both rail system planning and operation processes. This tool is also anticipated to promote community awareness and involvement; public citizens can easily obtain information about the potential impacts of proposed or ongoing projects for advocacy in environmental justice in their community.


Contact Information:
Dr. Ning Ai
Urban Transportation Center
Telephone: 312-413-7568
Email: ain@uic.edu
Urban Transportation Center
University of Illinois at Chicago
412 South Peoria St,
Chicago IL 60607
Telephone: 312 996 4820
Fax: 312 413 0006


Website: http://www.utc.uic.edu/