An attorney representing several groups across the Midwest opposed to Great Lakes Basin Transportation's proposal for a freight train line is asking a federal agency to re-open a public comment period now that GLBT filed an alternate route.
In a Sept. 23 letter to Victoria Rutson, director of the Office of Environmental Analysis, Chicago attorney Thomas McFarland asks for a 77-day window for public comment.
The timeframe, he notes, is how long it took GLBT to respond to a request for an alternate route. That timeframe included a three-week extension.
"Procedural fairness dictates that there be a public comment period in regard" to GLBT's response, McFarland wrote. "The comment period should be commensurate with the time that was consumed by GLBT in filing its response…. A similar period should be allowed for public comment."
McFarland also notes that GLBT's filing, made Sept. 20 and including 24 documents, "is very lengthy and detailed," and includes substantive changes from GLBT's initial route. GLBT officials said in the filing that the new route was their preferred one.
"There are many people who are newly affected or affected in different ways by the new route, and in order to have a complete scope of the new impacts, their voices should be heard," said Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, whose Porter Township property would be bisected by the route.
An official with the Surface Transportation Board, which oversees the Office of Environmental Management, confirmed Monday that the OEA received the letter and said OEA officials are considering the request.
GLBT's proposal, at $8 billion using private funds, would be the largest new rail line in recent times and is meant to provide a bypass for Chicago's congested rail yard and take trucks off the road. The route, from Milton, Wis., into LaPorte County, will have the capacity for up to 110 trains a day.
Mike Blaszak, attorney for GLBT, said he had not seen McFarland's letter and declined to comment.
McFarland is representing opposition groups in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, including Residents Against Invasion of Land by Eminent Domain, or RAILED, in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.
The OEA held a series of public meetings in the spring about GLBT's initial proposed route. Citizens and officials in all three states potentially affected by the freight train line also submitted more than 3,900 comments about that initial route. The STB twice extended the public comment period, which ended July 15.
All of the comments will be taken into consideration for an environmental impact statement. Ultimately, the STB will decide whether GLBT's plans go forward as suggested, on an alternate route, or not at all. McFarland also filed a motion in mid-July asking the STB to adopt a "no-build" alternative.
The alternate route filed last week shaved 21 miles off the initial route, takes it further away from Lowell Middle School, and runs south of Westville instead of through the city limits.
Modifications also were made to the route in Illinois and Wisconsin, but it is unchanged as it runs through southern Porter County.
"With the newly affected areas and yet more negative issues than previously existed, an additional comment period would be the right thing for the STB to do," said Eagle Creek Township resident Linda Cosgrove, adding the environmental impact statement would be flawed without additional comment. "The landowners know their properties and surrounding areas better than anyone and should be given the right to comment. If the STB wants to be transparent, they need to grant this."
Amy Lavalley is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.
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