Farmers and landowners in eastern Rock County are just learning about a proposed railroad bypass route that may some day run through their countryside, and some of them are none too pleased.
To farmer Ken Luety, who owns cropland in Bradford Township, the Great Lakes Basin Railroad project would be a disaster. The proposed route, with a projected cost of $8 billion, crosses his land along its 280-mile trek around Chicago, passing east of Beloit and Janesville as it heads north through Rock County to connect with the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad east of Milton.
“It’s like a bad dream,” Luety said. “Nobody’s asked us if we want a railroad. Hell no I don’t want a railroad. Railroads are dinosaurs.”
But other local farmers, like Mike Seach, are more optimistic. He owns land east of the Village of Clinton, which is not on the proposed route. He thinks the new line could lead to better grain prices by giving farmers more options to bring their crops to market.
“That could be a plus for us,” he said. “For the economy part, we kind of need it.”
Seach empathizes with farmers in the path of the proposed railroad route who don’t want to sell their land, but he himself probably wouldn’t mind so much if he were in their shoes so long as the railroad company offered a fair price. But then again, he always kind of liked trains.
“If it came by my house, it wouldn’t bother me too much,” he said. “I like railroads.”
Luety said the railroad tracks that already pass through the area don’t see heavy use, and he doesn’t see why a new one is needed. He thinks the existing railroads should be better administered and used more efficiently.
“To me, this is the easy way out for them as far as less money. But it’s a waste of farm ground,” he said. “The landscape will be scarred and changed forever.”
Bo DeLong, of the DeLong Company, said the railroad very well could bring local farmers better grain prices, but only if efficiencies are gained by bypassing the “Chicago bottleneck” are passed on.
“I know that it will speed up the transit time, but I have no idea (how much it will bring up prices) until they come out with rates,” he said. “I think it will be good for all the elevators that do have rail access.”
The DeLong Company grain elevator in Clinton does have rail access, but it doesn’t use it right now because it’s less expensive to transport grain by truck. That formula could change if the cost of shipping by rail goes down.
David Hooker, interim Clinton Village administrator, said he also anticipates some positive economic results if the railroad is built so close to town.
“I could see it having some very positive economic effects,” Hooker said. “There is probably some good potential for industry building off the line.”
Even so, Luety plans to fight the railroad, and he questions whether it’s right for a private company to march in and claim his land via eminent domain.
“I own the farm. I made the farm easy to farm, and now they want to come through at an angle and make it into three different pieces,” he said. “They could not pay me enough.”
There is already a railroad near his property that he has had a history of problems working with, he said.
“They still owe me money,” he said
He hasn’t joined up with a coalition of like-minded landowners yet, and he’s not even sure if one has formed.
“We just found out about this last week,” he said.
But opposition is starting to coalesce. A few hundred people showed up at a regularly-scheduled Boone County board meeting in Illinois Wednesday night to voice their displeasure with the railroad route, according to a report in the Rockford Register Star. A “Block GLB Railroad” Facebook page was created on March 13; as of Thursday afternoon it had 420 likes.
Steve Apfelbaum, who works for a Brodhead-based ecological firm the railroad company hired to review its route, said the path is subject to change. It was already rerouted from a path of Rockford and Beloit to avoid crossing a wealth of wetlands, flood plains and conservation lands, he said.
“The line on the map should be viewed as a conversation starter,” he said, adding that project leaders will endeavor to minimize the impact to farming by running along fences and roads wherever possible.
State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, said she is concerned about the planned railroad route and plans to follow it closely, even though the Wisconsin legislature may never have a chance to weigh in on the project that is currently being considered by federal regulators.
“I am very concerned that there are still a lot of unknowns,” he said. “It’s a huge infrastructure project.”
Right now, she’s hearing more negatives than positives about the project, but she’s willing to learn more, she said.
“Based on what I do know, I’m concerned about the quality of life and I’m concerned about agriculture production,” she said. “This isn’t just farmland. This is excellent farmland.”
Luety agrees with that last sentiment.
“They think it’s going to be a boon to local economies. But I hate to tell them that our local farmland is already a boon to the national economy and local economies,” he said.
Hank Brill, the supervisor representing Clinton and the surrounding area on the Rock County board, hadn’t heard anything yet from his constituents. But there hasn’t yet been a board meeting since the route change was published in local newspapers. The next county board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 24.