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Fighting over trains
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

A Union Pacific freight train from the Proviso yards, near Melrose Park, destined for Janesville, Wis., passes through Mount Prospect.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/13/200 12:02 AM

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The headlines have a familiar look.

"Suburbs vow to derail train proposal." "Lawmakers fight train plan."

But these aren't from recent newspaper articles on the Canadian National Railway's recent push to buy an obscure freight railroad and move trains from urban to suburban areas throughout the Chicago area.

Instead, the headlines appeared in Cleveland-area newspapers a decade ago when a maelstrom raged over a proposed merger of two railway giants that would quadruple freight traffic in some communities.

Like the Canadian National issue, the Cleveland question fell under the authority of the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency charged with authority to approve or nix railroad mergers.

Some of the country's and state's most powerful lawmakers are pressuring the board regarding CN's plan to purchase the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway Co. Known to train buffs as the "J," it arcs around the metropolitan area stretching from Waukegan to Gary, Ind.

Not surprisingly, residents in communities on the losing end of the freight equation are protesting the plan, while those in towns hoping for fewer trains rumbling through support rail giant CN.

For an agency that receives multiple requests from railroads on business transactions - what's the ultimate impact of the rallies, sound bites and news conferences?

Joseph DiJohn, director of the Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago, discounts the effect of emotion or politicking on board members who are used to high-stakes cases.

"These are professionally trained people who will take into consideration the various grievances," he said.

Track record

Last fall, CN announced it intended to spend $300 million to buy the EJ&E and $100 million on improvements to its infrastructure.

Company leaders contend it will relieve congestion in the Chicago area where a train bottleneck causes costly delays. But as CN moves freight trains off its lines, numerous locations on the EJ&E would handle 15 to 24 more a day, the company projects.

Municipalities along the EJ&E from Barrington to Naperville to Lake Zurich oppose the deal, citing fears about long trains choking arterial roads and delaying emergency vehicles.

Another concern is whether the plan will doom the STAR line, a future commuter rail system linking South, West and North suburbs, which was intended to travel along the EJ&E tracks.

Pro-merger groups such as the West Central Municipal Conference representing West suburban Cook County, say it's time someone else shared the burden. "We've lived with the congestion of freight rail for the last 100 years," conference Executive Director Richard Pellegrino said.

Experts such as DiJohn point to a consistent trend at the federal level to approve mergers.

And, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk contended "the STB generally has been a rubber stamp for the railroad industry." The Highland Park Republican supports the plan with the caveat that it leads to improved service on Metra's North Central Line.

But is this one different than others approved by the federal agency despite local opposition?

Certainly it's generated more attention in Illinois than previous proposals, including the fact a certain presidential candidate named Barack Obama announced his opposition in May.

"This has a much higher profile than when CN bought the Illinois Central," the Metropolitan Planning Council's Transportation Director Michael McLaughlin said. "One of the reasons is that not only are people concerned with increased rail traffic in their backyards but it's raised the awareness of people who are supporters of the STAR line."

Wrong side of the tracks

Freight trains rattle through Cleveland and its suburbs on a regular basis. But when railroad giants CSX and Norfolk Southern sought to acquire competitor Conrail and put their freights on its tracks through northeast Ohio, communities reacted with outrage.

Initial plans in 1997 called for tripling trains through towns like Lakewood, a densely populated suburb west of Cleveland with homes just a stone's throw from the tracks.

Unlike the CN/EJ&E dichotomy, the region presented a unified front. A coalition of mayors, state leaders and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Cleveland Democrat, negotiated with the two companies and emerged with an $87 million agreement for safety gates, noise barriers and grade separations.

The deal was done before the STB approved the transaction.

Ken Prendergast, director of research and communications at All Aboard Ohio, recalls at the time it appeared the merger was inevitable. But because the coalition "didn't treat the railroad as the enemy," the coalition reached significant concessions. "There was something for everyone to gain," he said.

Eleven years later, while Lakewood ended up losing freight trains, in other towns, "train traffic has multiplied," said Linda Kramer, editor of the News Sun in Berea, a community south of Cleveland.

While the merger helped the region economically, residents suffer when "train whistles are going off day and night," Kramer said.

Yet Richard Enty, a former senior transportation planner with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority, says he thinks the protests by residents prompted the railroad company to do things to mitigate the noise that would not have been done otherwise.

"I still think all the communities did OK because noise barriers were erected and grade crossings were erected," Enty said.

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Playing the odds

The city of Reno, Nev., faced similar friction in 1995, when Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads requested merger approval from the STB and received it.

The deal would have upped train traffic from 14 to 24 trains a day.

In this case, the city took legal action seeking to stop the merger, explained Mark Demuth, an environmental planner who served as a consultant to the city at the time.

That led both sides back to the bargaining table. It resulted in UP cooperating with Reno on a massive project to relocate the train tracks below street level in the urban area.

"You have to find leverage that's meaningful," said Demuth, an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "You're dealing with large entities that know the rules."

He also noted that the STB's mandate goes beyond environmental concerns.

"It's primary issue is competitiveness," he said.

In the Chicago deal, CN has offered $40 million to pay for improvements aimed at counteracting the nuisances extra trains create. Some opponents say that's a pittance compared to what's really needed to make a deal livable.

Asked if the company was willing to go higher, CN spokesman Jim Kvedaras didn't get into specifics but said "right now the $40 million is a working number."

Traditionally, it could be months before the STB announces a decision. This spring CN asked the STB to speed up the ruling but there's been no response.

U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean considers that delay a sign board members are listening to community concerns. Another positive is that the STB ordered an environmental impact report, she said.

The Barrington Democrat was one of the first to speak out against the merger.

"One of the things that's been helpful is that there's been a groundswell from the beginning," she said. "The board has responded with efforts you typically don't see."

Bean's optimism is matched by CN's.

"It is considered a minor transaction," Kvedaras said. "We feel strongly that we meet all criteria for STB approval under their process of evaluation."

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How they stand

Communities in the metropolitan region are divided on whether CN's plan to buy the EJ&E is a good one. Here's a geographical sampling plus what some governments are willing to spend to fight the deal.

Supports

Bellwood

Berwyn

Brookfield

Buffalo Grove

Chicago

Cicero

Countryside

Des Plaines

Elmwood Park

Forest Park

Hillside

La Grange

Maywood

North Riverside

Northlake

Oak Park

Riverside

Rosemont

Schiller Park

South Holland

Vernon Hills

Westchester

Willow Springs

Opposes

Aurora, $15,000

DuPage County, $10,000

Barrington

Bartlett, $10,000

Deer Park

Frankfort

Hawthorn Woods

Hoffman Estates

Lake Barrington

Lake Zurich

Mokena

Mundelein

Naperville, $10,000

North Barrington

Wayne, $10,000

West Chicago

Will County

Source: Staff reports, West Central Municipal Conference

Congressional view

Here's a snapshot of where some local members of Congress stand on CN buying the EJ&E. Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama oppose the plan.

Against

Peter Roskam, R-6th District

Melissa Bean, D-8th District

Judy Biggert, R-13th District

Bill Foster, D-14th District

Don Manzullo, R-16th District

Favors

Jesse Jackson Jr., D- 2nd District*

Danny Davis, D-7th District

Jan Schakowsky, D-9th District

Mark Kirk, R-10th District*

Uncommitted

Bobby Rush, D-1st District

*With provisos