- Our View: Great Lakes Basin rail bypass can benefit Boone County
By The Editorial Board
Rockford Register Star
Posted May. 14, 2016 at 9:00 AM
Would the plan by Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. to build an $8 billion, 278-mile railroad bypass around Chicagoland benefit the economy of Boone County?
It certainly could, if local leaders take advantage of it.
Would it contribute to the destruction of too much vital farmland, as opponents contend? No. The people so concerned about protecting farmland should look around Boone and Winnebago counties. Plenty of farmers have sold their land to real estate developers. That didn't seem to raise a ruckus.
The railway, which would bisect Boone County, is a private enterprise, to be built without government funding. The entrepreneurs who plan to construct it calculate that they can make money by contracting with freight railroads to run trains around the nation’s third-largest metropolitan area. Chicagoland is beset by rail gridlock resulting from 500 freight trains a day hauling 37,500 freight cars and 700 passenger trains a day. The infrastructure to handle all that traffic is 100 years out of date. So, a freight train can travel from the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach to Chicago in 48 hours, then spend 30 hours stuck in Chicago before moving on to its final destination.
That delay costs American businesses and consumers time and money. And rail traffic in Chicagoland is predicted to double by 2025, says the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
The congestion in Chicagoland can be traced to America’s lack of a comprehensive national infrastructure program, and the money to pay for it. Other countries have passed us by. Panama, for instance, has just completed a multibillion-dollar widening and deepening of the Panama Canal, which starting in June will accept the largest container ships in the world, making the canal price competitive with shipping through the U.S. by rail.
That’s money for Panama that the U.S. is now getting.
Of all forms of land transportation, the most efficient is steel wheels on steel rail. Railroads are the most eco-friendly form of transportation, too. And compared with superhighways, whose rights of way are 300 feet wide, a railroad takes up a fraction of that.
Unlike, say, Interstate 90, even a busy railroad doesn’t feature constant traffic with whining truck tires day and night.
Nevertheless, anti-railroad groups have organized along the route of the rail bypass, and the arguments they are making seem as hollow as they are familiar.
Yes, a railroad would cut through some farms, but it wouldn’t destroy them the way a superhighway or a subdivision would. Provision would have to be made for farm vehicles to cross the tracks safely, perhaps with overpasses.
If this railroad is built it could benefit Boone County’s economy and other nearby counties, too, especially if an extension is built into Winnebago County.
For an example of how a small community can take advantage of a main rail line, one only has to look to Rochelle, population 9,500. For more than a century, two transcontinental railroad main lines have gone through the city, but until about 30 years ago, Rochelle didn’t take much advantage of the possibilities they offered for economic development.Then, two far-sighted economic development directors, Ken Wise followed by Jason Anderson, turned that situation around. The city constructed a municipally owned switching railroad to provide shippers access to both the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads. They worked next to bring logistics companies to sites along the line. Rochelle also convinced UP to build a huge intermodal rail-to-truck hub west of the city. The municipal switching railroad, operated by a private contractor, makes upwards of $1 million a year for the city.And, although 80 to 100 trains go through Rochelle every day, no one is complaining about it because of the thousands of jobs made possible by companies that use rail transport.Instead of seeing the Great Lakes Basin railroad as an intrusion, Boone County residents and leaders would do well to look it as a potential opportunity for economic growth, which generates prosperity and valuable tax revenue to support local government services.Just as Rochelle has taken full advantage of its railroads to create jobs, so, too, could Boone County. Opportunities like this don’t come along every day.