Rail company must submit alternative routes by Sept. 20
Monday, September 12, 2016
review process will consider alternatives for proposed railroad through Rock County Friday, July 22, 2016
The proposed Great Lakes Basin rail project will enter another phase next week as the company submits a list of alternative routes to a federal review agency.
As requested by the Surface Transportation Board in a July 5 letter, Great Lakes Basin must devise a list of alternative routes for its project and explain why some of those alternatives were ultimately rejected. The company has until Sept. 20 to submit the information after receiving an extension on its original deadline.
Officials from Great Lakes Basin said they were unable to comment until after the alternative proposals were submitted next week. Representatives for the Surface Transportation Board were unavailable for comment Monday.
Great Lakes Basin wants to construct a new rail line that starts in Milton, runs south around Chicago and ends in northern Indiana. In an earlier interview with The Gazette, Michael Blaszak, outside legal counsel for the rail company, said the project's purpose is to alleviate congestion around Chicago and provide additional capacity for future demand.
One of the questions outlined in the July 5 letter asks whether Great Lakes Basin could use existing rail corridors such as the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad line instead of building entirely new routes. But most people with knowledge of the project agree this is not a feasible alternative.
Great Lakes Basin wants to operate as a Class V rail, which would allow trains to travel at 70 mph. The current line is Class II, which means cars mostly travel at 25 mph. It would need massive upgrades to fit the company's needs, said Alan Sweeney, chairman of the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission.
The rail commission co-owns the existing Class II lines with the state's Department of Transportation. Great Lakes Basin has contacted the DOT but not the commission, Sweeney said.
Wisconsin and Southern Railroad uses those Class II lines, and the company's Director of Government Relations Ken Lucht said Great Lakes Basin has not approached him about sharing their route, aside from a small stretch between Milton and Waukesha. The company remains neutral toward Great Lakes Basin's proposal until more information is available, Lucht said.
Local opposition group Rock Against the Rail has disputed the need for the Great Lakes Basin project and does not believe it serves the public interest. But the group's co-founder, Mirjam Melin, said using existing lines does not make sense, either.
“It would be like hooking up an Interstate to a gravel road,” Melin said of the rail class differences. “It would (need a major) update and cost an enormous amount of money.”
Using existing lines is an unlikely outcome for the project, but it was not clear who would pay for the extensive upgrades if that option were used. Melin said taxpayers would be responsible because the DOT and rail commission own the lines. Lucht said private money would be used. Sweeney was uncertain.
The Surface Transportation Board will now consider this and other possibilities, and reaching this phase of development allows the agency to begin drafting an environmental impact statement. That document will provide an in-depth review of the proposal, but it could take several years to finalize, Melin said.
Last updated: 7:44 pm Monday, September 12, 2016