Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the proposed Great Lake Basin Railroad project. You can read more about this story in a related article on Page 29, detailing the results of the first public scoping meeting.
MAZON – Michelle Weber remembers when, as a child, she climbed into the family’s combine with her father so they could work the farmland her parents bought in rural Mazon.
Today, she and her husband, Nick, farm 10 acres of that land.
In her strawberry-patterned rubber boots, she stood in the decades-old crib last week on that very farm. She looked out at the strawberry plants, set to bear fruit in June, and questioned the future of the dream she and Nick have with the same degree of care as she and her husband bestowed on the plants.
“We rent 10 acres for our farm from my mother,” she said. “My parents moved here in the ’70s and I was born in 1978. My dad was a grain farmer who passed when I was just 9 years old. My mom kept the farm and rented it out.”
The Great Lakes Basin Railroad, a privately funded proposed plan by Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc., would, if approved, come right over her small farm, essentially wiping out the several years of hard work her family has put in.
The railroad is also someone’s dream. Frank Patton of Crete came up with the idea of taking a railroad from the Rockford area to Indiana to bypass the rail congestion in Chicago.
“This is my baby. It’s like bragging about a grandchild,” Patton said in a phone interview. “This isn’t for me, it’s for our children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren.”
Patton’s plan is to help bring light manufacturing back to the Midwest, and to provide a way to get the products to market in a cost-effective way.
He said thin profit margins are one aspect that drives manufacturing away, and the only way to achieve larger margins is to either lower the cost of production or of distribution.
His goal is to do the latter.
The proposed railroad
The Great Lakes Basin Railroad project, with an estimated $8 billion price tag, would run 275 miles from La Porte, Indiana, to Milton, Wisconsin, cutting through Grundy and LaSalle counties locally.
The rail line would expedite freight movement by providing an interconnection for existing Class I railroads that operate in the Chicago area – including the BNSF and Union Pacific rail lines servicing the Joliet and Elwood intermodals – Patton, the company’s founder and managing partner has said. The proposed route would enter Grundy County south of South Wilmington and East Brooklyn and cut northwest of Mazon, crossing the Illinois River east of Seneca. It would enter LaSalle County for a short stretch in the unincorporated northeast corner of the county.
Patton said the idea is to construct the line around the metropolitan Chicago area to expedite freight movements across the nation and to provide additional capacity for growing railroad traffic.
“The proposed preferred route is on the web. It is not written in cement,” Patton said. “In May, we are going to try to start talking to everyone on the route.”
He said in addition to bypassing the Chicago rail terminals – which can postpone freight delivery as much as 30 days – the additional rail line could get an estimated 1 million trucks off the roads. Fewer trucks mean a lower carbon footprint, and less damage to roads, according to Patton.
According to the Great Lakes Basin website, the proposed route takes into account the location of towns, residential areas, greenfield territory and the locations where interchanges with other railroads will work.
What about the landowners?
The Webers say the proposed railroad will destroy their business.
“People enjoy the peace and quiet of the country,” Nick Weber said. “We already have 80 trains a day going by on the existing railroad. This will bring another 100 a day.”
Michelle Weber said they were considering running electricity to the primitive crib that serves as a shelter and a checkout stand. They were even considering constructing a pole barn to give them more space.
With the uncertainty of the proposed tracks, those expansions don’t seem to make sense now.
The farm is more than business for Michelle Weber, however.
“For me, this land has a bunch of memories. It’s upsetting,” she said as she started to cry. “This is my childhood. I never thought I’d be a farmer. This is where I played and grew up and rode in a tractor with my dad.”
There are other concerns, too. Brad Male, a resident on Filman Road near Gardner Road, said he is worried about his home and the equity he has in it.
“How close is too close to a resident’s home?” Male said in a phone interview. “What will it do to my property value?”
He said he put 20 percent down on his home when he purchased it, and he thinks the addition of the rail line will put him upside down in his mortgage – something he never thought possible when he bought the rural residence.
Patton said he has taken such concerns into account as he and his partners try to get the railroad approved, and has a three-point offer to landowners.
He intends to offer a rate of approximately $20,000 an acre for a 200-foot right-of-way, a price he said is well above the average $10,000 an acre that farmland is getting in the area.
He also would offer free electricity to residences on the rail right-of-way for as long as current or immediate family members live at the home.
“We are seeking a 200 foot right-of-way; 150 foot of that is for current and future tracks, 50 foot of it is for a utility corridor,” he said. “We think this will be an estimated savings of $300 to $400 per month for the residents who receive electricity.”
The third point – one Patton feels isn’t completely understood – is offering every piece of property along the right-of-way local rail access. That would allow those who own land along the tracks to get more money if they sell their property to a developer that wants rail access.
The group behind the proposed railroad recently filed paperwork with the federal Surface Transportation Board, triggering a series of public hearings and the beginnings of an environmental impact study.
The public has until May 16 to weigh in. During the process, an environmental impact statement, which will identify and assess potential environmental consequences for the project, will be drafted by the STB.
The public is invited to attend the scoping meetings, which started April 11 and will continue throughout the month. The one closest to Grundy County is scheduled for 5:30 to 8 p.m. April 21 at Seneca High School Auditorium, 307 E. Scott St.
The meetings will include an open house format for the first hour, followed by a presentation by the STB’s Office of Environmental Analysis and an opportunity for public comments and questions, STB officials said.
Residents are invited to file scoping comments regarding the proposed Great Lakes Basin Railroad. Comments are due by June 15. Please refer to Docket No. FD 35952 in all correspondence, including e-filings, addressed to the Board.
• Scoping comments may be submitted electronically at www.stb.dot.gov by clicking on the “E–FILING” link on the home page and then selecting “Environmental Comments.” Accounts are not needed to file environmental comments electronically, and comments can be typed into the text box provided or attached as a file. Anyone having difficulties with the e-filing process should call 202-245-0350.
• Scoping comments also can be submitted by mail to: Dave Navecky, Surface Transportation Board, 395 E Street SW, Washington, DC 20423-0001, Docket No. FD 35952.
Source: Surface Transportation Board