Thursday, October 20, 2016

Chuck Sweeny: Great Lakes Basin railroad is good for region



Chuck Sweeny: Great Lakes Basin railroad is good for region


Chuck Sweeny is senior editor for the Rockford Register Star and RRSTAR.COM FILE PHOTO

Posted Oct 19, 2016 at 5:18 PM Updated Oct 20, 2016 at 12:36 AM

Although opponents are lining up by the hundreds to object the railroad plan, our local civic, economic development and government leaders must speak up - in favor - of the endeavor because their silence, so far, is deafening.

By Chuck Sweeny
Staff writer

“This isn’t a railroad. It’s a tollway that (Great Lakes) wants to rent to train operators."

That's what an opponent of the Great Lakes Basin railroad said at a forum Tuesday at Winnebago High School, where hundreds of residents came to register their opposition to the proposed 261-mile rail bypass rail bypass around Chicagoland.

Yes, the protester I quoted is correct. Investors think they can make money by building a railroad from southern Wisconsin to northeast Indiana so that trains don't have to navigate through the congested Chicago region, where 1,200 freight, Metra and Amtrak trains travel each day on routes planned in the 19th century.

Freights sometimes take more than a day to get through the city. That time delay is crippling Illinois' ability to compete with other freight routes, including the newly expanded Panama Canal, which can handle the largest container ships afloat, reducing shipping rates.

Great Lakes, helmed by businessman Frank Patton, is betting it can make money by charging a fee to transcontinental railroads to reroute some of their trains on this bypass. In land transportation, time is money.

In the USA., we call what Great Lakes is doing "entrepreneurial capitalism." That is what built this country. The purpose of the railroad, the company says, "is to expedite freight movements across the U.S. and to provide additional capacity for growing railroad traffic throughout the entire Midwest." It's an $8 billion private project that uses no taxpayer dollars.

The protester I quoted is Dustin Kaap, who also said that people should write letters to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board pointing out the railroad's threat to farms, school bus routes and the environment.

I don't agree. Railroads are the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation, and take up far less space than an interstate highway, which features a right-of-way that is more than 100 yards wide.

There's nothing more efficient than steel wheels on steel rails. And I'll put up railroads' safety record against trucks any day of the week. However, people's impressions today are based on what they've seen on the news. So if they've heard about three train wrecks in the past year from coast to coast, they think trains are unsafe.

Let me break it to you: If it's on the news — it isn't normal. There are no breathless TV reporters rushing to break a story saying all 100 trains that came through Rochelle today did not crash into anything.

Nobody who lives along the railroad routes in Rochelle is panicking. Instead, they've taken advantage of their two, transcontinental rail lines by building a city-owned railroad to connect to them. You might call it "a tollway they want to rent to train operators."

Rochelle has convinced Fortune 500 companies that use rail to locate along the city-owned, privately operated railroad that connects two major transcontinental railroads. By charging a fee for switching freight cars between the BNSF and Union Pacific lines, the city earns $1 million a year from the line, while its new industries provide thousands of jobs to people in a six-county area. The city just got a federal grant to lengthen its railroad to expand capacity for more industrial expansion.

The Rockford area could take advantage of that kind of rail access, too, if the Great Lakes plan is approved by the Surface Transportation Board, which has the final say. One of the proposed routes would take the line around the south side of Chicago Rockford International Airport, which opens further prospects for industrial development.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is people who move to the country and expect to control property use for miles around. However, no one seems to protest developers who buy out willing farmers to turn the land into subdivisions and strip malls. To see a prime example of that, just look at the sprawl that has eaten thousands of farm acres that used to separate Roscoe, Rockton and South Beloit.

Yes, I'm for this project. This area needs economic development opportunities if we are to be able to support ourselves in the future. But if economic development groups, local government leaders and business leaders continue to remain silent, the noisy voices of the Citizens Against Virtually Everything will go unchallenged. Folks, your silence speaks volumes about your timidity.

Chuck Sweeny: 815-987-1366;; @chucksweeny

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