Questions and answers about proposed railroad line in eastern Rock County
MILTON—For residents of the towns of Clinton, Bradford, Harmony and Johnston, emotions are running high and rumors are rife about a high-speed rail line proposed for the area.
In March, Great Lakes Basin Transportation announced that it was interested in building a rail line from east of Milton to La Porte, Indiana.
On Monday, the Surface Transportation Board will be in Janesville for a “scoping hearing" to take comments about the environmental impact of the project.
In advance of that meeting, The Gazette reached out to Great Lakes founder Frank Patton, company President Jim Wilson, and the Surface Transportation Board for answers to some of the questions people have raised about the proposal.
Q: How fast will the trains go?
A: It depends on what the trains are hauling. The tracks will be built to handle trains going 70 mph, Wilson said, but a train's speed is determined by what it is carrying.
Most trains traveling on the proposed line would be going between 40 mph and 60 mph, Wilson said.
Q: What will be in the easement?
A: At this time, one rail line is proposed in Rock County, with between three and four sidings between the Rockford, Illinois, area and Milton, Wilson said.
A siding is an area where trains are pulled off to allow another train to pass. Wilson said the sidings would be within the easement.
About 50 feet will be a utility easement.
Q: What will be in the utility easement?
A: Natural gas lines, fiber optic lines and electrical lines, Patton said.
Q: Who will use those utilities?
A: All of the customers on the line, Patton said.
Q: Why is the easement so wide?
A: “In 100 years there might be six lines there,” Patton said. “Or there might be four lines there, or there might be two.”
Patton compared it to building an Interstate highway. You don't build for the next couple of years, you build for the future, he said.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: Between $6 billion and $8 billion.
Q: Who will pay for it?
A: Private investors, Patton said.
Q: What about the future of bridges and other infrastructure? The town of Bradford and other rural towns have struggled to get railroad companies to pay for repairs or replacements to railroad bridges, with the companies insisting they weren't responsible.
A: Patton said his company was committed to future repairs.
“These are Great Lakes' bridges. We will be responsible for them,” Patton said. “No ifs, ands or buts.”
Q: What will the landowners get?
A: Patton said his company is willing to pay $20,000 an acre, significantly more than the usual asking price for farmland.
People and businesses along the rail line would be given access to the railroad for free but would be required to build their own spurs and switches.
Finally, people along the line would get free electricity as a result of the utility easement that is part of the project.
Q: What roads will it cross?
A: The route being considered crosses Highway 59, Lima Johnston Townline Road, Six Corner Road, County M, County A, County MM, Highway 11/14, Maple Lane, Creek Road, Turtle Creek, Milner Road, Dunn Road, Beloit-Clinton Townline Road, Highway 43, Carvers Rock Road, County X, Shore Road, County J, County P, Northrup Road, Little Turtle Creek/Tighe Road, Summerville Road and Highway 67.
Q: Could the location change?
“We're basically early in the process,” Wilson said. “The route could be changed by input from citizens, and we've only done very basic environmental studies.”
Q: How will the railroad cross each road?
A: For the major roads, the railroad wants to build “fly overs,” bridges or underpasses that avoid traffic.
Wilson said the company would work with individual counties to determine what kinds of crossings they would need. The company also would include emergency management agencies such as police or fire departments in the discussion.
Q: If the feds approve it, could land be taken by eminent domain?
Andrew Weininger, attorney with Eminent Domain Services in Madison, said he didn't specialize in railroad issues but added, “It's my understanding, once they become a railroad, and then they would have the power of eminent domain.”
Wisconsin statute 32.02 outlines who can use the power of eminent domain. The section includes “railroad corporations.” It also lists “any Wisconsin telegraph or telecommunications corporation for the construction and location of its lines” and any rural electric cooperative association that plans to “generate, distribute or furnish at cost electric energy at retail.”
Q: What's the purpose of the line?
A: It can take up to 30 hours for a train to get through the freight yards of Chicago. The Great Lakes Basin line would bypass Chicago, Patton said.
Patton said it's about economic development. Imagine a situation, he said, where a company wanted to use Janesville's General Motors plant.
“This guy comes to Janesville and says he's going to make this huge investment here,” Patton said. “He doesn't just want to sell his products around here or in the United States. He wants to sell them to the world. So the question he's going to ask is, 'How much is it going to cost me to send this from Janesville to the world?'”
With the current rail situation, it could take about a week to get to the port of New Orleans.
With the rail line, that time could be reduced to 40 hours.
All that time sitting in rail yards costs money—it's like having a taxi with no riders, Patton said.
Q: What would the railroad haul?
A: “Anything that a railroad hauls, we would haul,” Patton said. “A railroad can not say to the federal government, 'We're not going to handle that.'”
Q: What is the Rock River Rail Transit Commission's role?
A: The Wisconsin Department of Transportation owns certain railroad property, and eight rail commissions own the tracks. The commissions hire operators for the rail lines in their areas.
The Rock River Rail group is made up of nine counties, and the operator they work with is Wisconsin & Southern Railroad.
The transit commission has not taken a position on the proposed line, said Rock County Supervisor and commission Chairman Al Sweeney.
“We're still looking at the details of the project,” Sweeney said.
If Great Lakes Basin wants to connect to the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad line near Milton, the company would have negotiate with the railroad for permission, and the River Rail Transit Commission would have to approve the decision, as well.
However, if Great Lakes makes a “reasonable offer,” the commission is not allowed to turn it down, Sweeney said.
Q: Who is opposed to the project?
A: Several towns in Wisconsin and Illinois have come out in opposition to the project. Farm bureaus in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin have expressed their opposition, as well.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, has said she does not support the project.
Q: What's the process for consideration of approval?
A: The Surface Transportation Board will collect comments to determine the “direct, indirect and cumulative impacts” of the proposed rail line. Areas the board will consider include transportation issues, safety, land use, water resources, air quality, noise, cultural and historic resources and aesthetics, according to the board.
After that, the board will do a “transportation merit” study, which will consider if the line is needed.
Q: Can comments still be filed on the environmental scoping process?
A: Yes. Be sure to refer to “Docket No. FD 35952” when writing to the Surface Transportation Board.
Scoping comments may submitted by:
-- Email by visiting board's website, stb.dot.gov, clicking on the “e-fiiling” link and then selecting “Environmental Comments.” Comments can typed into a text box or you can attached a file.
-- Mail: Send comments to Dave Navecky, Surface Transportation Board, 395 E Street SW, Washington, DC 20423-0001.
The deadline for public comment is June 12.
Q: Who and what is the Surface Transportation Board?
A: The three-member board is appointed by the U.S. president and approved by the U.S. Senate. The board is in charge of deciding the merits of such plans.
Current members include:
-- Deb Miller, appointed by Obama, listed as a Democrat from Kansas, term expires December 2017.
-- Daniel R. Elliott III, appointed by President Barack Obama, term expires December 2018. His political affiliation is not mentioned.
-- Ann D. Begeman, appointed by Obama in 2010. Her term expires in Dec. 2015, but the board's rules permit a member to serve up to one year after the original term's expiration. Begeman previously served as acting chief of staff for Senator John Mc Cain, R-Arizona.
Q: Who will appoint future members of the Surface Transportation Board?
A: The next president.
Q: Where can I get more information?
Rock Against the Rail, the local group opposed to the proposed railroad, has a Facebook page at facebook.com/rockagainsttherail.
The Great Lake Basin Transportation's website is greatlakesbasin.net.
The Surface Transportation Board's website, stb.dot.gov/stb/index.html.
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