Sunday, May 22, 2016

Janesville area planning organization weighs in on rail plan



Catherine W. Idzerda

Friday, May 20, 2016

A number of counties along the proposed Great Lakes Basin rail route have sent letters or resolutions to the federal Transportation Board in opposition to its current location.


JANESVILLE—For the first time, a government agency has acknowledged that a proposed rail line through eastern Rock County might benefit the community.

The Janesville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization approved a letter Thursday concerning the Great Lakes Basin Transportation company's plans.

The proposed line would start east of Milton and run south around Chicago to La Porte, Indiana. Supporters say the new rail line would avoid the congestion in the Chicago rail yards, which can bog down trains for up to 30 hours.

The letter will be sent to the federal Surface Transportation Board, which is conducting an environmental review of the project.

So far, the towns of Milton, Johnston, Bradford, Clinton, Linn and Harmony have expressed opposition to the rail plan, citing the loss to farm land, the impact on local emergency services and quality of life issues.

Last week, the Rock County Board unanimously approved a resolution outlining its objection to the route proposed for the rail line.

Duane Cherek, who is metropolitan planning agency director and Janesville Planning Services director,  signed the letter on behalf of the planning agency.

The letter was written by the planning department with input from members of the metropolitan planning organization. The organization is made up of city of Janesville staff and elected officials, town and county board representatives and city of Milton staff and elected officials.

“These comments are not to be construed as either supporting or opposing the Great Lakes Basin proposed project,” the opening paragraph of the letter reads.

The letter acknowledges the potential increase in rail traffic to increase throughout Janesville and Milton area, which “may have both negative and positive impacts.”

Issued raised in the letter include:

-- The closure of General Motors plant “and the loss of other rail-related manufacturing” has led to decreased traffic on Janesville-area lines.

“Downgrading and/or abandonment of existing rail line due to loss of rail customers and freight tonnage would be a serious economic blow to the region,” the letter reads. “Of particular concern is the existing privately owned Union Pacific line between Evansville and Harvard, and the Iowa, Chicago & Eastern line between Janesville and South Beloit.”

In addition, Union Pacific has a large terminal and freight yard in Janesville which is underused because of the loss of General Motors traffic.

Existing railroads could benefit from increased traffic and revenue related to the Great Lakes Basin," the letter reads.

-- “Capacity constraints” at Wisconsin & Southern's rail yard near Five Points cause the backup of trains across streets and force the company to conduct switching operations across side streets, the report said.

Increased rail traffic would make the situation worse.

The metropolitan planning organization's long-range transit plan, which also was approved Thursday, calls for “evaluating opportunities to assist in capacity expansion at the rail yard.”

In an interview before the meeting, Ken Lucht, Wisconsin & Southern director of government relations, acknowledged the challenges at the Janesville yards.

The situation causes “unsafe” conditions at Pearl and Arch streets, he said.

“The community is seeing increased rail traffic, and that is causing capacity strain,” Lucht said. “We are looking long-term at how we can increase capacity in Rock County and make it safer and more efficient.”

-- At-grade crossings are major safety hazards, especially when trains block street crossings, increasing the response times for emergency vehicles, according to the letter. The Great Lakes Basin proposal is expected to bring more train traffic to the area, increasing such safety hazards.

In Janesville, such at-grade crossings are on major arteries including Court Street, Delavan Drive, South Jackson Street and Highway 14.

In Milton, the Wisconsin & Southern line cuts the city in two and crosses major arteries including Janesville Street, formerly Highway 26, and John Paul Road.

-- The letter requests the surface transportation board “consider routes that minimize the negative impact to agricultural lands.”

“A stated goal in the long-term transit plan is to preserve agricultural lands while maintaining an adequate transportation network to move product to market.”

The Gazette asked officials at railroads with lines in the area what they think about the Great Lakes Basin plan.

In an interview before the Thursday meeting, Lucht of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad described the proposed rail line as “its own proposal by a private investment group. We're not taking a stance on it.”

At the meeting, Lucht said, “The whole premise (of the proposed line) is to move crude oil and hazardous materials around Chicago,” thus keeping them out of such a large metropolitan area.

Canadian Pacific Railroad owns the Iowa, Chicago & Eastern line that runs between Janesville and South Beloit, Illinois.

“We continue to operate this route, and it is not currently under an abandonment or discontinuance proceeding,” Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings wrote in an email.

As for the Great Lakes proposal, Cummings said, “We do not wish to conjecture on what impact a hypothetical rail line built by a third party might have on this or any other CP route. Again, we are not affiliated with the Great Lakes Basin proposal.”

Union Pacific spokeswoman Calli Hite wrote in an email:

“After carefully reviewing the proposal, Union Pacific determined in July 2014 that it was not interested in moving forward with a discussion on the Great Lakes Basin Railroad's bypass project--an exceedingly expensive idea with no publicly identified funding sources.

"We have repeatedly communicated this position to Great Lakes Basin's leadership team and associated organizations. Union Pacific is focused on several major public-private partnerships, including CREATE, which will benefit the region and enhance efficiency for Chicago-area and regional railroad operations," Hite wrote.

CREATE is an organization that has tried reduce congestion in the Chicago rail yards.

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