MORRIS – Hundreds of Grundy County residents came out Monday night to Morris Community High School to hear Great Lakes Basin Railroad co-founder Frank Patton answer questions about the privately funded railroad he wants to build, and many left disappointed.
“Fifty percent of the questions he never answered,” said Jack Schroeder of Morris. “I understand the ones that pertain to nondisclosure, but most of the other ones he deflected to the guy sitting next to him. If he is not qualified to address the concerns of the county, why is he here?”
The person next to Patton was Lee Hutchins Jr., director of Freight Logistics & Planning at AECOM in Chicago.
As proposed, the Great Lakes Basin Railroad project would run 275 miles from La Porte, Indiana, to Milton, Wisconsin, and cut through Grundy County. Those spearheading the effort filed paperwork in March with the federal Surface Transportation Board, the governmental agency responsible for approving or denying the project on its merits while examining potential environmental impacts.
After a 15-minute presentation by Hutchins and Patton, moderator Anne Heinze Silvis, from University of Illinois Extension, read to Patton questions written down by attendees.
When questions asked specifics of where the money for the proposed $8 billion project was coming from, Patton responded that he had been discussing the project for three years and he could not disclose those who may be financing the project. He had similar responses to questions about which Class 1 railroads he has commitments from.
“Answer the question,” was shouted several times from both sides of the gymnasium where the forum was held.
After similar questions were reiterated in other phrasing Patton responded with, “we have two years’ worth of discussions with people who can fund the project.”
Patton answered one question about whether he would use Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing for the project by stating it is one option they have looked at.
“The RRIF currently has a balance of $30 billion and the federal government is aggressive to use it,” Patton said.
When questions arose about the safety of the community from crossings, road closures, and possible hazardous spills from a derailment, Hutchins said the railroad has a requirement to operate safely and securely not only to the federal government, but to the clients whose products they will be shipping.
When asked how much of the $8 billion will come from foreign investors, Patton said he couldn’t say, but added at the moment he doesn’t plan to have any foreign investors.
The questions aimed more at addressing the concerns of the farmers – including how they will be compensated if the railroad goes near their property but not on it, or what will be done to address drainage in the fields – were often met with vague answers stating they would be addressed once a final route is determined.
Patton did tell farmers at the beginning of the meeting that he would offer those whose land would be needed $20,000 an acre, double the estimated value, as well as free electricity and rail access.
Those facts were met with shouts from the audience including the question of who would provide the free electricity. Patton said the railroad would provide it.
More than one question was discredited by Patton; he stated he didn’t believe they were legitimate concerns, including the possibility of decreased value of property along the proposed route.
“I don’t think that is a valid point,” Patton said. “Our position is the value of the land will not decrease but increase.”
Mary Pfeifer of Gardner said Patton dismissed too many questions and she was not satisfied with the answers he did give.