Three states. Eleven counties. Two-hundred-seventy-eight miles.
Those are the oft-repeated numbers in Great Lakes Basin Transportation's proposal for a freight train line from Milton, Wis., to LaPorte County, a project GLBT founder and managing partner Frank Patton has said would be the largest rail project in this country in 125 years.
But the numbers don't tell the story of the response to the proposal.
In letters and comments to the federal Surface Transportation Board, people from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana express their concerns, their fears, and what the project would mean for their lives.
There's the board of Emerald Grove Cemetery in Rock County, Wis., who note the freight line will go through the cemetery. Officials from the Shults-Lewis Home in Porter County, which serves troubled youth, fear the at-risk children will see a rail line one-tenth of a mile from their facility as an escape route for running away and risk being injured or killed. The Ogle County, Ill., Farm Bureau decries the loss of valuable farmland, and the rail line would run perilously close to historic Buckley Homestead and the Calumet Astronomy Center in Lake County.
Patton, however, is not swayed by his opponents' concerns which, beyond eminent domain, include loss of productive farmland, drainage issues, disruption at local schools, and traffic and safety worries.
"They simplify the arguments to such a degree that it's deceptive. They say no freight rail. We say no freight rail, more trucks. It's that simple," he said.
The stated purpose of the proposed freight line, an $8 billion project Patton has said will be privately funded, is to alleviate congestion at the freight yard in Chicago and speed transport times by providing a bypass. Patton also has said the rail line will take trucks off highways.
Yet, John Yonan, superintendent of the Cook County, Ill., Department of Transportation and Highways, objected to the project, too, in an April 14 letter to the STB, which included concerns about using the rail line as a potential bypass for hazardous material, whether first responders in rural areas could adequately respond to a hazardous spill, and the impact a spill could have on Chicago and his county.
He notes the momentum and resources built in the last 15 years by the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE, to support the freight industry in Cook County and Chicago "could be jeopardized by the construction of the GLBT, which will induce the construction of new freight facilities at the edge of the Chicago metropolitan area and beyond."
Opposition groups have sprouted up along the counties along the route, turning to social media to share updates, stories from area newspapers, contact information for the federal Surface Transportation Board, which held environmental impact hearings on the proposal in April and will determine whether it will proceed, and let people know about fundraisers and where to pick up yard signs.
"It's very telling when you have all three states and 11 counties working against this," said Susan Sack, who handles education and outreach for Block GLB Railroad, an opposition group based in LaSalle County, Ill., adding she has more than 1,000 people in her database for email updates, and many more receive those messages when they're forwarded.
Block GLB Railroad serves as a clearing house for opposition groups involved, and Sack has shown up at other group's opposition meetings, including one held in early May in Hebron by Residents Against Invasion of Land by Eminent Domain, or RAILED.
For her and many of those opposed to the proposal, "it comes down to eminent domain for private gain," she said, adding no one has determined a need for the rail line, which, if approved, would use eminent domain to acquire land for the project.
"There's no one in a checks and balances system protecting the landowners," she said, adding residents don't seem to have a way to stop the proposal. "Uniting is a way to say we have a voice."
The STB is accepting comments on the proposal through June 15 and then will begin preparing an environmental impact statement, which agency officials have said could take two to three years.
An STB official has called response to the proposal unprecedented, generating 30 comments a day.
Patton said he's hearing the same arguments against the rail line from the same group of people, noting that when he spoke at a public meeting in Morris, Ill., there was a traveling group of protesters who also were spotted at a meeting in Seneca, Ill.
Calling them "the traveling minstrels," he claimed they are not local and are being brought in to different meetings.
"The arguments are identical. 'You're raping my ground. You're taking my farmland.' Some of them I understand, some of them I can dismiss," he said. "What I don't hear in these arguments is a national purpose, and we think we're working with a national purpose," to take trucks off the roads by increasing rail capacity.
And while dozens of municipal and county boards, planning and parks departments, and agencies including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have filed resolutions and letters with the STB against the project, Patton said he will not be swayed.
"I hear that over and over again, they want this pastoral lifestyle and that's great, but the population is growing. Hopefully, we don't stay in a flat economy, and business is expanding," he said. "Our contention from Day 1 is we're tightening the logistics for the farmer to ship his product, and nobody but the traveling minstrels argues with that statement."
Others have come out in support of the project, or at least want to give it more consideration. Some LaPorte County officials have said the project could be a boon to an intermodal transportation facility there, bringing industry and businesses to the rail line's end point.
After inquiring about the project in early April, Diane McNeilly, a member of the Rochelle, Ill., planning and zoning commission, submitted an April 5 letter to STB in favor of the project.
"I think this is a wonderful project and very necessary," she wrote. "(I) don't really want any more trains in our community but this is the right thing to do for lots of reason."
The project has even spawned an opposition newspaper. Richard Allen joined forces with a couple of other people against GLBT's proposal to come up with their own form of protest, a free, 16-page, full-color newspaper.
"Great Lakes Basin Rail: News and Views," with the motto, "Working together and sharing, we make a difference," had an initial run last week of 4,000 copies, which Allen, who lives in Winnebago County, Ill., said was distributed to opposition groups in all three states, and left at coffee shops to inform people who don't have Internet access.
"People are thinking this is anything from an Amtrak train to general freight. They don't know," he said, adding the paper's message is that the freight line isn't needed.
In the era of social media, Allen said he went with a print edition for the elderly or others who are not Internet savvy.
"You put something in their hands, and it strikes a chord with them," he said.
In Janesville, Wis., the proposed rail line will cut through one of the three parcels that comprise Emerald Grove Cemetery. The land, said Jill Bier, secretary of the cemetery's board of directors, is for future expansion and is up on a hill, which also creates drainage concerns.
The cemetery was established in 1850 and contains Civil War gravestones that already are deteriorating.
"The rumble from the rail line would destroy them," said Bier, who grew up in the area and whose father is buried at the cemetery. She added that every Memorial Day, the cemetery has a longstanding tradition of a parade with local school children who decorate veterans' graves.
"We would ask when addressing this proposal, you would realize that this project is not worth the sacrifice," the cemetery board wrote in its March 28 letter to the STB.
Boone County, Ill., has 55,000 residents, but 400 people showed up to a meeting about the project, said Cathy Ward, a 14-year member of the county board. The response was great enough to convince one of the county's elected officials that the rail line wasn't needed.
Like other officials in other counties, Ward sees no economic benefit to her county from the project, and envisions only a freight train coming through her area.
"It seems to me we are the path of least resistance. We don't have a voice in Springfield. We don't have a voice in Chicago. We don't have a voice in D.C.," she said, "but the opposition has pointed out numerous ways it's not going to benefit Boone County."
Amy Lavalley is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.