By Shane Nicholson
ROCKTON – Hundreds of Winnebago County residents turned up for a meeting Monday night in Rockton to learn about the proposed Great Lakes Basin Transportation (GLBT) railway line.
The activist group Block GLB Railroad was out at the Rockton Township Office through the evening as crowds gathered outside to hear information about the transportation company’s proposed railway that was recently rejected by residents in Boone County.
“There is no need for this project,” Block GLB organizer Susan Sack told the crowd outside as dozens more heard a presentation and collected materials inside the township’s meeting hall.
“This is the largest rail project this country has seen in 125 years, and they’re using eminent domain laws from 125 years ago to force this through.”
Sack says that GLBT has tried to mislead residents in areas it hopes to construct its railway. “This is a for-profit company trying to use these laws to make money via a (toll collecting) railway. This is not a railroad. This company didn’t exist even a few years ago.”
Block GLB said in a handout that GLBT was started in 2011 and has tried to position itself as similar to other joint public-private railway projects such as the C.R.E.A.T.E. Program.
But, the group says, GLBT is doing that to confuse residents as to where they plan to construct the railway and the means they intend to use to acquire the land.
Two prior proposals by the company included a stretch of track through Boone County. But after residents organized there, the county board sought more time to evaluate environmental, ecological and financial impacts.
GLBT responded by producing a new proposal which avoided Boone County altogether, taking the proposed line on a more southern route through LaSalle, Lee and Ogle counties, before passing through Winnebago County through what is largely farmlands west of Rockford.
Now groups and resident opposed to the project are asking the federal Surface Transportation Board for more time to evaluate and respond to the most recent changes proposed by GLBT.
“They gave us this new map,” said one resident Monday night, “and it doesn’t mean anything. The way this (railway) is proposed – the way they’ve drawn this project up and are trying to ram it through – the lines on this map could vary anywhere up to five miles in any direction. How are we supposed to know what we’re looking at if they can’t even tell us what the project is?”
Frank Patton, the head of GLBT, said the idea for the proposed rail bypass around Chicago and its suburbs came to him as he sat at Briar Ridge Country Club in 2009 while discussing the now-defunct Illiana Expressway project, a proposed 50-mile toll road that would have bypassed the southside of Chicago.
“I looked at Ed Paesel (executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association) and said, ‘Does this make any sense?’” Patton told the Northwest Indiana Times earlier this year. “And Ed looked at me and he smiled and he said, ‘It makes all the sense in the world.’ And that’s when it started.”
But convincing locals along the proposed line has been harder than Patton anticipated. “I haven’t seen one good thing about it,” Lake County Indiana Commissioner Gerry Scheub said in January. “It’s not only the effect on the environment and the effect on the school kids in that area, but you are also killing development in that area. No one will build a new home near a railroad track.”
GLBT said similar pushback led to the redrawing of the map to avoid Boone County.
“We listened to (residents), we read their statements and this is partly in response to their positions they took,” GLBT attorney Mike Blaszak told WREX13 last month.
“We feel that this is the best possible alternative for our project and it generally runs through industrial areas. And it minimizes on existing farms. Not to say there will be no impact but there will be some.”
Most politicians in Winnebago County have played their cards close to the chest in the early goings of discussions, but one county board candidate was at the meeting Monday night made sure the crowd knew where he stood.
“I am 100 percent against this,” David Soll, candidate for the District-17 seat currently occupied by Republican Fred Wescott, told the crowd. “People need more time to know what this project is.”
Soll said he would like to see the current county board members come out and make their stance on the GLBT project known.
“The current board and the chairman need to come and say if they’re in favor of this or not,” Soll said.
“We’ve got ourself situated very well here logistically for something like this here,” outgoing county board Chairman Scott Christiansen told WREX in September. “There’s a long ways to go but the one thing we can do is make sure obviously there’s plenty of opportunity for people to be heard.”
But Soll says the county should be looking elsewhere for economic gains.
“If we could find better manufacturing in the green energy sector, why not go down that route? Why let millions of gallons of crude oil or other potentially hazardous materials come through here? We’ve seen over and over again in recent years the dangers these kinds of projects can create.”
A series of high-profile train incidents has raised questions over the long-term prospects of using rail to transport oil and other chemicals. A BNSF train carrying crude oil from the Bakken formation of North Dakota derailed outside Galena in March 2015. Five crude-oil cars carrying approximately 30,000 gallons of oil each spilled their contents and ultimately caught fire, causing a smoke plume that was visible for dozens of miles and risked polluting a tributary to the Mississippi River.
So far, GLBT has yet to find a single rail partner to endorse the proposed 280-mile project through parts of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Union Pacific passed on joining the proposal in 2014, according to a Chicago Tribune report from earlier this year. No other railroad companies have come out in support of the project.
That, Block GLB organizers say, should be enough to see state and local government leaders step in and halt this project before Patton’s company can ever get on track.