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Monday, March 10, 2008

Rumbling you hear is haggling over more freight trains

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

If dozens of freight trains were blasting through your neighborhood every day, you'd probably complain too.

And so, folks in a ring of outer suburbs, from Waukegan, down through Barrington, Elgin and Joliet, and over to Gary, are beefing about a proposal to turn an underused railroad bypass around Chicago into something of a freight superhighway. But in the usual game of winners and losers, Chicago and inner suburbs are cheering because they see the plan as deliverance from the same trains that now rumble through their neighborhoods.

The project also has broader implications for the region's economic health and its pre-eminence as the nation's transportation hub. This could turn into a contentious and important regional fight.

Under the bypass proposal, Canadian National Railway would buy the 198-mile Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway Co. for about $300 million. It would spend another $100 million on upgrades to allow roughly 20 trains a day -- compared with today's four or so -- to avoid the delays caused by wending through the city's maze of freight yards, switches and crossovers. Chicago's railroad pioneers as far back as the 19th Century knew that they had created problems when they made Chicago the nation's rail hub, with lines from all over the country terminating here but few passing around. So a group of 21 railroads in 1888 built the EJ&E railroad as a bypass.

After the CN and the EJ&E announced the planned buyout in September, communities along the route began mobilizing in protest of the noise, pollution, traffic backups at grade crossings and other blights. A group called Barrington Communities Against CN Rail Congestion wants the railroad to pay for building viaducts -- at a cost of $1.5 billion -- at 30 of the line's 133 grade crossings. The railroad says it would contribute its "fair share" for three or four bridges, but that state and federal taxpayers should pay most.

DuPage County won't sell an acre of its forest preserve land the CN says it needs for switching improvements. Metra wants to know how the project will affect its long-planned construction of suburb-to-suburb commuter service along the EJ&E route and whether its service on existing lines that cross the EJ&E route will be hurt.

Further, would the plan affect CREATE? That's an ongoing $1.5 billion public-private partnership designed to speed freight and passenger trains through Chicago, instead of around it. The partnership also would build new viaducts to eliminate the unnerving traffic delays at 25 of its 180 grade crossings. The railroads' share of the six-year project is about $212 million; the rest is supposed to be the government's. But Chicago Metropolis 2020, a leading civic group, notes that assured project funding is short by about $1.2 billion, and at its current pace, CREATE won't be done for at least 25 years. Notably, CN's bypass plans are not limited by similar constraints because the railroad will fund the entire project.

So, here come more questions. Will the new bypass threaten prospective funding for CREATE? Will the railroads funding CREATE have full interchange access to the bypass? Will the bypass have unimpeded access to existing and new "intermodal" yards on the South Side where freight containers are swapped between trucks and rail cars? Maybe it's not a sign of things to come, but a CN spokesman said other railroads could not become a part of the bypass deal.

Answers will come from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, a regulatory agency that reviews proposed mergers and settles railroad disputes, but only after an environmental impact study is completed, which could take three years.

As dry as these issues sound, the stakes -- in terms of employment and the region's economy -- are high. Edward Hamberger, head of the Association of American Railroads, notes that one-third of America's rail and truck cargo moves to, from or through the Chicago area.

"Chicago is by far the busiest rail freight gateway in the United States," he said in a statement, "[handling] more than 37,500 rail freight cars every day. Twenty years from now that's expected to increase to 67,000 cars a day."

As usual, the temptation is to paint the issues as black and white. Instead, it is a classic example of how making public policy is difficult because it requires compromise. Someone's going to hear more train whistles, others fewer. The CN may have to become more attuned to its impact on families; impacted communities may have to moderate their demands. But with the prospect that rail traffic must double here in 25 years, it's suicide for us to view this as the usual zero-sum game.

1 comment:

Cal Skinner said...

Just got an emailed copy of the CN's letter to Durbin and Bean at McHenry County Blog.

Have they found you yet?