By Susan DeMar Lafferty, Chicago Tribune
Even though a proposed new rail line would not run through Will County, it is close enough that some county officials are keeping an eye on developments related to it.
The privately funded Great Lakes Basin Transportation, Inc., (GLBT) plans to provide an $8 billion, 278-mile rail line to circumvent Chicago’s hub from Janesville, Wisconsin, south to Rockford, into Grundy County, Kankakee County, and into Lake, Porter and LaPorte Counties in Indiana.
In recent weeks, the federal Surface Transportation Board has conducted public meetings throughout the region, seeking input and drawing lots of opposition from area farmers. Next, the STB is expected to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a two- to three-year process, and then decide if it will approve or deny the project, or change the route.
The route is currently just south of the Will-Kankakee County Line Road, so the slightest shift to the north, would place it within Will County.
Originally, the rail line was proposed to follow the same right of way as the Illiana toll road through southern Will County, but that project has been shelved. The proposed route is designed to bypass populated areas, allow for future growth, support agricultural and industry around the route, avoid attracting more residences or businesses that would limit expansion or be exposed in case of an incident, keep traffic moving through overpasses/underpasses, and to build the railroad as a quiet zone, according to the Great Lakes Basin website. A map is available at www.greatlakesbasin.net.
“The unknown is a concern. This is all subject to change (pending the EIS). It will be interesting to see where it goes. This might not be the final route,” said Bruce Gould, director of Will County’s Division of Transportation.
He is especially concerned about a proposed rail yard which could extend eight miles east and west along the two-lane rural County Line Road, abutting Will County.
“Depending on what happens there, it could have a major impact,” said Gould, who attended one of the first public meetings in Manteno recently and plans to stay on top of the project.
If it becomes a freight yard terminal, he said he would be “considerably concerned” about what would be going in and out of the terminal.
Gould also questioned the need for this new route, noting that when the Canadian National Railroad took over the old EJ&E tracks, it was intended to be an alternate, faster route, circumventing Chicago. The CN lines have added freight trains through Joliet, New Lenox, Mokena, Frankfort, Matteson, Richton Park, Park Forest and Chicago Heights, and has been fined numerous times for blocking crossings.
Will County Board member Judy Ogalla, R-Monee, also attended the Manteno meeting because, she said, “People were asking me about it and I didn’t know anything,” she said.
Some voiced concerns that the current route skirts Kankakee State Park, and if there is a legitimate impact to the park, it could be re-routed into Will County, she said.
The Manteno meeting, like many others held along the corridor, was packed with farmers opposed to the project. Opposition groups have been created, including Block GLB Railroad, and Residents Against the Invasion of Land by Eminent Domain – RAILED.
Ogalla said she has heard the same arguments and concerns from Will County farmers when they felt threatened by the South Suburban Airport in Peotone and the Illiana toll road across southern Will County, two major infrastructure projects which are at a standstill due to a lack of state funding.
Financial feasibility is an issue, said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
Great Lakes founder Frank Patton of Crete is “putting the cart before the horse,” by going to the STB before getting railroad companies on board, Learner said.
“This is just like the Peotone airport. You can’t build an airport without airlines, and you can’t build a railroad without interest from rail companies,” he said, adding that several rail companies have already said they were not interested.
“It is not yet clear if there is really money behind this. That’s to be determined,” he said. “We have seen this again and again. Whether it was Peotone airport or the Illiana, they say it is only private dollars but they keep trying to get taxpayer support.”
There are other projects of much higher importance that need to be done first, Learner said.
Will County officials cannot let this project distract them from taking care of roads today, said county board member Bob Howard, D-Beecher, who called the Great Lakes Basin Railroad a “red herring.”
“This is just a group of investors taking the temperature of what is marketable,” he said.
“We have a lot of traffic issues that have to be addressed now. This is what we have to work on now. We have to get back to the basics,” Howard said. “If they apply for federal funds, they will be taking money away from us, and competing with us for federal dollars to improve our roads.”