Opponents keeping close eye on Great Lakes Basin rail plan
February 17, 2017 at 4:00 pm | By AUSTIN MONTGOMERY Staff writer
Hillary Gavan/Beloit Daily News Mirjam Melin of Rock Against the Rail encourages attendees at a listening session regarding the Great Lakes Basin Transportation’s (GLBT) newest proposal rail line route to write to the Surface Transportation Board and legislators about safety issues and concerns over the route. The meeting was held in December at Beloit Turner High School.
BELOIT — Grassroots community groups against the Great Lakes Basin Rail Line have submitted additional information to an official motion in rebuttal to Great Lakes Basin Transportation’s (GLBT) responses to Surface Transportation Board (STB) questions.
The Feb. 13 supplemental motion comes ahead of an anticipated update by GLBT officials over the status of the company’s progress on an official application to the STB by Feb. 28.
In December, the company requested, and was granted, a temporary suspension from the STB over its environmental impact statement review process. This week’s statements from opponents contested the company’s responses, claiming all questions answered were vague and also provided misleading and contradictory information not in line with previously-presented plan specifics.
The proposed rail line would extend from La Porte, Indiana, through Illinois to Milton, Wisconsin. Developers say the privately-funded $8 billion rail line would ease freight train congestion and better manage traffic from Chicago.
The latest plan has the GLBT rail line running west of Beloit and not going through Boone County in Illinois as was originally planned. Instead it is planned to run west of Rockford in Winnebago County.
The company could submit its application as soon as Feb. 28, but the process, along with the environmental impact statement, would take years to be settled before a final STB ruling is made.
Rock Against the Rail co-founder Mirjam Melin urged residents to stay involved throughout the process, and the grassroots leader wanted to dispel any confusion about the current lull in the process.
“We want to make sure that people know the fight isn’t over,” Melin said. “Nothing has changed. People need to understand that the process is still ongoing.”
Since the plan was announced in March of last year, there has been considerable pushback throughout the affected counties in the three states listed in the plan. Landowners and farmers across the proposed 270-mile route said the plan would decrease property values, impact farmland production and disrupt rural life at multiple hearings held in Rock and Winnebago counties.
The recent court filing claims the company’s responses are “unsupported” and that comments need to be accepted as part of the official record to clarify the situation.
The proposed plan would add 184-miles of two-track rails, nearly 73.5 miles of single-track rails and 13 miles of three-track rails. There are a total of 1,718 homes within the proposed rail route and 449 properties are within one mile of the proposed route.
The grassroots group took issue with the discussion of right-of-way widths discussed in the company’s responses. The company claims it would ask for 200-foot right-of-way widths in order to provide 150 feet for tracks, 50 feet for cuts and fills, bridge embankments, roadway vehicle access and placement of utilities, signals and defect detectors to support operation of the railroad.
Opponents claim the detailed list of right-of-way uses was only added to the plan since the STB does not have jurisdiction to authorize acquisition of property for non-rail use. The opposition also took issue with the company’s previous statement saying rail congestion in Chicago had prompted the plan, while stating the average time to send a freight train through the city sat at over 30 hours, Melin said. The claim has been disputed, and community groups pointed to the implementation of the Chicago Integrated Rail Operations Center (CIROC) in 2015. The plan includes direct connections to each carrier and track to assist rail employees in resolving operational issues and identifying congestion points. Recent data showed the time required for a unit train to pass through the Chicago Rail Terminal has declined from 20 hours to less than 15 hours.
Company representatives could not immediately be reached for comment. STB staff said there was no new information regarding the plan currently, and the Feb. 28 deadline set by the STB’s Office of Environmental Analysis still stands.
The current plan would bring the rail line through the Riverside Energy Center developed by Alliant Energy, set for construction in March. The site is being developed as a natural gas and solar energy generating station through a $700 million investment. It is estimated the power station could have a $250 million annual economic impact, according to Alliant.
Melin reassured residents and noted there would be more opportunities for public comment, which was confirmed by the STB. Once an application and environmental statement is submitted, the public will be able to give input on both crucial documents.
“Our stance has not changed,” Melin said. “Behind the scenes we are working. It’s been a full-court press educating ourselves and everyone else. We need to pick it back up again soon.”
For updates over the plan, visit greatlakesbasin.net.