“Do your homework.” That’s advice from Laura Harmon, Illinois Farm Bureau (ILFB) Senior Counsel, to landowners potentially impacted by the proposed Great Lakes Basin (GLB) railroad. Harmon explained Frank Patton, GLB managing partner, is leading a 278-mile private railroad project that would impact several Northeast Illinois counties. The purpose of the $8 billion GLB railway is to bypass rail congestion in Chicago.
As questions over the railroad project mount, here are 10 important points Harmon explained:
1. The project is at the starting gate.
The Surface Transportation Board (STB), a division of the United States Department of Transportation that oversees railroads, must approve the project. However, GLB has not filed formal paperwork with the STB. Once paperwork is filed, the STB will evaluate the project based on demand, adequate funding, and “whether or not the proposal is in the public interest”.
2. Review process=time
The STB held public meetings in April to gather comments and prepare the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a key step in the approval process. Harmon noted that Dave Navecky, Office of Environmental Analysis and coordinator of the recent public scoping meetings, said the STB will need roughly a year to draft the project EIS. Another round of reviews will follow the formal proposal.
3. GLB may seek exemption
To avoid the lengthy approval process, GLB may seek exemption from the full review. An exemption may be granted based on the scope and merit of the project. Harmon noted Patton describes the GLB line as the largest railway project in 125 years. “We don’t think an exemption is appropriate here,” Harmon said. “We’ve been urging the company and the STB to require a full review on the merits of this project.”
4. Make way for more than a railway?
Originally, the project required 150-foot right of way. Today GLB is requesting an additional 50-foot corridor for potential use by utility companies. Harmon said the STB has no authority over a utility corridor. “You have to file with the appropriate agency that has jurisdiction,” Harmon said. “You describe your project and request the right of way you need. You don’t get approval for uses that aren’t related to your project. He (Patton) clearly indicated this would be a revenue stream for the railroad. That’s another area of concern.”
5. Prepare for impact
The current proposed route tracks through 6 counties in Illinois: Kankakee, LaSalle, Ogle, Lee, Grundy, Winnebago and Boone. The project includes a rail port in Kankakee County spanning 15,000 acres. “The largest rail port in the world is Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard and that takes up 2,850 acres,” said Harmon. “We’re not really sure why he (Patton) needs 15,000 acres.” The 15,000 acres is in addition to the 278-mile long and 200-foot wide right of way. Harmon noted the project will impact existing infrastructure, such as interstates and highways, along with rivers, creeks and farmland.
6. Railroads are not ‘all aboard’
Major railroad companies, including Union Pacific, have not agreed to use the proposed railroad. “None of the Chicago railroads have committed to using it,” Harmon noted. “He (Patton) can’t proceed without their formal commitment to use the railroad.”
7. Organizations weighing in.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) will also provide input on the project. The NRCS will evaluate the quality and productivity of the soils affected by the railway route. The IDOA will look at factors such as the amount of land required, the creation of several farm parcels, remnants, landlocked parcels and adverse travel.
8. Your farm, your impact, your feedback.
Harmon said farmers should evaluate the real, potential impact on their farm and provide useful feedback to the STB. County Farm Bureau offices have an extensive check list and talking points to use as a guide.
Related content in Audio player on this page: Max Armstrong interview with Carl Zimmerman, part-time farmer near Leland.
9. Put it in writing.
After you’ve calculated the potential impact on your farm, share your comments in writing. Landowners, farmers, citizens and anyone impacted by the proposed project have until June 15, 2016, to provide comments to the STB. “If you are impacted by this, educate yourself on the proposal, and comment to the STB so they understand what they should be looking at in respect to the environmental impact.”
10. Covering the bases:
ILFB and county farm bureau agencies will provide written comments to the STB. “We will point out the economic impact of this project on the agricultural industry, in each county and the state, because it would have a huge impact,” Harmon said. Harmon also noted the ILFB is studying freight lines and continuing to educate individuals potentially impacted by this project. The goal is to be fully prepared when GLB formally files paperwork.
BYPASSING CHICAGO: The GLB rail line would span 278 miles and cross 6 Illinois counties to avoid Chicago rail congestion. (Map: Surface Transportation Board)