By Jim Hagerty
Those behind the contentious 261-mile railroad extension that would meander through parts of Winnebago County took another step toward federal approval, as partners on behalf of Great Lakes Basin Railroad on May 2, filed an application to go ahead with the project.
“This is a historic day for Great Lakes Basin Transportation to file its formal application to construct the Great Lakes Basin Railroad,” Chairman Frank Patton said in a statement. “Our application explains the need for this vital project to the STB (United States Surface Transportation Board) and the public.”
But, it may take a lot to sell the public, which so far has chided the $2.8 billion project aimed at taking freight cars off of Chicago’s tracks, making them better suited for passenger service. The new line would run through LaSalle, Lee and Ogle counties, and pass through Winnebago County west of Rockford. The company would likely utilize eminent domain laws to obtain farmland for the project, something that has spurred significant debate.
“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,” Susan Sack told The Times in an earlier report.
Sack helped organize the group, Block GLB, which hasn’t relented since last fall.
“Private toll roads have been sold to the public as a surefire something-for-nothing bargain – new infrastructure with no taxes,” Block GLB posted on its Facebook page. “But it turns out that the risk for taxpayers is actually substantial. The firms performing traffic projections have strong incentives to inflate the numbers. And the new breed of private finance deals are structured so that when the forecasts turn out wrong, the public incurs major losses.”
The project does not sit well with U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, who says not only would it be inappropriate for Great Lakes to seize land through eminent domain, there is no demand.
“I am skeptical of the demand and need for the proposed project,” Kinzinger said in a letter to the transportation board. “Decades of investment by six Class I railroads have made Chicago a national rail hub and with it comes congestion. These rail companies are working in concert with U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago and other stakeholders to improve efficiency within the existing network.”
Kinzinger said the GLBT line will not serve two of the six Class I railroads, calling into question the viability of the project and whether it makes sense economically.
“The proposed line will be detrimental to the prime farm land in northern Illinois,” Kinzinger continued. “According to some estimates, the rail line would require tens of thousands of acres of farm land to be bought or seized. Nearly all of this farmland is considered prime, is some of the best quality soil in the country, and is often the most productive in the country. Furthermore, the project would sever tracts of farmland making it more difficult farm. These are just some of the costs of this project and I do not believe the project’s benefits outweigh them.”
If approved, the privately funded rail project could be finished and up and running within the next 10 years.