Rail project would run through Rock County

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The above photo shows the proposed rail line, proposed by Great Lakes Transportation Corporation, that would run through Rock County and east into Indiana.

A proposed railroad that may some day pass through Rock County has a new route.

The plan calls for a bypass that, if built, would allow trains to go around Chicago to the south, and it then shoots north past Rockford to hook up with another rail line in Rock County. Along the way, it would interchange with a few dozen existing class 1 railroads.

The new route will bring it through Boone County east of Rockford and then across the state line past the east side of Clinton, as it travels north to hook up with the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad east of Milton. The original route passed to the west of Rockford and west of Beloit, but it still went through Rock County and hooked up with the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad between Brodhead and Orfordville.

Frank Patton, the founder and managing partner of the Great Lakes Transportation Corporation that plans to build the railroad, said the route was altered after an environmental firm was hired to analyze it.

“It was for environmental purposes that we switched it,” Patton said.“There were just too many areas of wetlands.”

The adjustment added to both the estimated cost and total mileage of the project, Patton said. The new route will be nearly 280 miles, up from 265, and the estimated cost increased from $6 billion to $8 billion, according to Patton.

The entire project and plan will be privately financed, according to Patton. He said the plan has been in the works since 2007 and really started to come together in 2011.

It was submitted to the federal government for approval in 2015.

The project has its share of doubters. There have been proposals to build a railroad bypass around Chicago for more than a century, and this would also be the biggest rail project in the United States in more than a century.

Patton said he’s been hearing doubters for years but, quoting author Victor Hugo, he said the mightiest army can’t stop an idea whose time has come.

“I can understand their view, I really can,” he said. “In the beginning, there was almost total disbelief. I’m continually hearing that people had no idea that we would get this far. You just don’t quit. I don’t think we’ve had a setback yet. It just takes a lot of time.”

Patton touts the potential economic benefits of the project. Right now, he said, it takes trains some 33 hours to get through Chicago, and this rail line could dramatically reduce their travel time.

“We think it’s going to be a building block for the whole rebirth of light manufacturing and logistics in the midwest,” he said. “There’s a lot of great manufacturing potential in southern Wisconsin.”

The project will need a 200-foot right-of-way, and Patton said he sees eminent domain as a last resort. He said he hopes to have the compensation packages the company will be offering landowners posted to the company website in the next few days.

“We think the package is going to be so attractive. And, if somebody says ‘no,’ the first thing we’ll do is say, ‘fine, we’ll talk to your neighbor.’”

Both this new route and the original route were tentative, and the company anticipates altering the route further during the planning and approval process, according to its website.

“The map provided shows only the general location of the proposed route,” the website says. “The actual location of the railroad will depend on many factors, including geography, our intention to avoid cities, towns, and residential areas as much as possible, along with the location of rivers, creeks, wetlands, and other environmental features.”

Patton said that, while the current route on the company’s website is its preferred route, it will be subject to a lot of input before the first spike is driven.

“In our view, this is the most workable route,” he said. “Someone else may have a better idea. There’s no monopoly on wisdom. This route is not written in cement.”

Dennis Watson, spokesman for Surface Transportation Board and its subsidiary, the Office of Environmental Analysis, said there will be numerous opportunities for the public and other interested parties to provide input in the review process.

“Soon, the Office of Environmental Analysis will formally launch its environmental review process with the widespread publication of a Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement,” he said.

The notice of intent starts a 60-day period when the office will solicit public input regarding impacts, alternatives and mitigation, which can be submitted by mail or electronically.

There will also be two weeks of public meetings this spring, Watson said. The dates, times and locations will be provided in the forthcoming Notice of Intent.

“At these public meetings, individuals can learn more about the proposed rail line and OEA’s environmental review process, submit written and oral comments, and talk informally with OEA staff,” he said.

Patton said company officials will not attend the public meetings hosted by the government officials, but they will have their own meetings further along in the process to provide information and solicit input.

“We have nothing to do with the public meetings. In fact, we’re not going to attend. They prefer that we not attend,” Patton said. “Afterwards, we will be available to talk to civic groups and landowners.”

There will be additional opportunities for public input later in the environmental review process, and they will also be summarized in the Notice of Intent, Watson said.

Watson said the environmental review process typically takes 18 to 36 months to complete. And, at the end of the process, the board will either deny, approve or approve with conditions the plan.

Other federal and state approvals may be required, and those are still being investigated, according to Watson.

Patton said he expects the environmental impact statement process, where alternate routes will be considered, to last 1-½ to 2 years. His goal is to have the process completed in 2017.

“We’re hopeful we can build it in two years, which would be 2018 and 2019,” he said. Operations would be in 2019 or 2020, but that’s only 4 years from now.”

Patton said it’s hard to predict exactly how many trains would use any specific portion of the route in a given day, but he expects more traffic on the southern portions that will be heading up into Wisconsin.

“It could be anywhere from one or two (a day) to 10 or 15,” he said. “It’s probably going to be in that range.”

Patton went on to say that all the types of freight that currently travels on the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad will likely travel on the new route. He doesn’t think local residents should be afraid of the railroad because, even though there is a risk of accident, it isn’t any different than with other forms of transportation.

According to Watson, the proposed railroad would have the capacity to handle as many as 110 trains a day. He said any safety concerns, as well as traffic and noise concerns, will be investigated during the board’s environmental review process.

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