Posted: Feb 23, 2017 11:00 PM CST
ROCHELLE (WREX) -
By next week, the developers behind the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes Basin Railroad are expected to update the federal government on the project.
They called for a time out in December to refile their application.
All indications are this plan is moving forward. While there are those fighting to keep this railroad from ever happening, there are those at least interested in hearing more.
John and Bonnie Murphy own a Winnebago County farm. This February warm up has kept them busy.
"Father's grandfather's father started the farm in about 1840 and we've been here ever since," said John. He said they farm "corn, beans and dairy cows."
There's a lot of action down at the Rochelle rail yard, too. Workers packing hundreds of rail cars onto city tracks to make way for even more.
There is a deep sense of tradition steeped in the farming and the railroad industries in Northern Illinois. These two economic engines at a crossroads now with the idea of a 270-plus mile railroad. The Great Lakes Basin Railroad would run from Wisconsin through Illinois into Indiana cutting through farms along the way including the Murphys.
"They're gonna come and take a few acres of my land, and it'd be like I opening a restaurant in Rockford and taking a homeowners 20 feet of their property," said John. "It doesn't make you feel good."
Their concerns echoed when the federal agency reviewing Great Lakes Basin's potential environmental impact held meetings across local counties the rail could cut through. Those concerns, very real. Some say, so is the potential for growing the Stateline's economy.
To see what this new investment could mean for towns along the railroad's path, we travel to Rochelle. Where more than 20 years ago, the city formed its own railroad system to capitalize on an opportunity.
Rochelle's economic development director, Jason Anderson, said the city's dual access rail line connects to two major Class 1 railroads: the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
"We've added $1.5 billion in capital investment in land, equipment and buildings in the last 10 years," said Anderson.
Since building an industrial park to serve the railroad. 15 businesses have come to ogle county. What you see here, could become the norm in Winnebago, Lee and other counties up and down the Great Lakes Basin Railroad. The purpose: to bypass Chicago.
"It takes about 2 days to get a product from southern California or Seattle, Tacoma to Rochelle. But because of the congestion in Chicago it can take almost 2 days to go that last 75 miles," said Anderson.
So what's in it for the communities that relieve the bottleneck? Rochelle's economy lends the best insight:
Take the city's tax base: Rochelle's more than doubled its value since focusing on rail.
"It took us 100 years to get to $100 million tax base. It took us an additional 13 years to get $225 million, most of that was driven by access to rail," said Anderson. "That means your city, your park district, your school districts your library districts all receive a larger revenue stream from that tax base."
In that same time, the city's created 2,200 new jobs. The third benefit, he said, Rochelle was in a good position to leverage assets it already had, like access to major highways.
"If we start to work together on how we can leverage those things that already exist, we'll be unstoppable from an economic development standpoint," said Anderson.
You'd think Anderson is all for the Great Lakes Basin Railroad. But he isn't, nor is he against it. He's cautiously optimistic:
"I know this is a concern locally. By tying all these communities all together, Rochelle loses its uniqueness as being a community that has multiple rail service because all the communities along the great lakes basin railroad will have access to those 6 class 1 railroads," said Anderson.
So we've told you why some people don't want the rail and what communities have seen a positive impact of having a hub. But what if there was another way?
There's already a railroad that runs from Rochelle to Rockford, but Anderson and others say it's not utilized to its potential. So whether it's the Great Lakes Basin Railroad or something else, they say it's time to leverage that rail.
"Why doesn't a new railroad take advantage of some of the existing rail right-of-way," said Mike Dunn, Jr., the executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
The lines already in existence between Rochelle and Rockford are called the Illinois RailNet. It stretches from Winnebago to Ogle County. Right now the short lines are in private hands and would need to be purchased. Then upgraded to handle Class 1 railroads, but that's not on the proposed route for the Great Lakes line.
"The RMAP policy board has supported the concept of the Great Lakes Basin Railroad, but it has not supported a specific route," said Dunn.
It's why Great Lakes basin or not, RMAPs long term plan is for a railroad to better serve Rockford's airport to compliment the global trade park north of RFD and the industrial park earmarked for development south of the airport along Interstate 39.
Meanwhile we all wait to hear from the Great Lakes Basin on its next proposal. Like the Murphys who look at this land and see their future in farming. That same land a railroad company could have a future on as it charts its course through the Stateline.
The earliest the government could make its decision about the project is 2019. Eminent domain wouldn't be sorted out until then either. We contacted Great Lakes Basin Railroad to be part of our story, but they declined multiple times. So this update next week could be everything from them asking for an extension, or revealing a 3rd proposed route. 13 News will keep you posted.