Illinois congressmen, community leaders, regional planners and local transit officials on Tuesday blasted a federal study designed to show the environmental impacts of Canadian National's proposed purchase of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway Co.
U.S. Reps. Melissa Bean of Barrington, Bill Foster of Geneva, Judy Biggert of Hinsdale and Don Manzullo of Ogle County hosted a hearing in Chicago on whether the recently released draft study sufficiently identified all local environmental and safety effects of the proposed sale.
Proponents of the deal continue to assert that detractors are downplaying its benefits and that more towns would see reductions in freight traffic than increases.
But most who testified Tuesday agreed the study fell short in many areas.
"I think it is apparent that the people who prepared this get an 'F,'" Manzullo said. "This is an embarrassment."
Bean said she was disappointed the study didn't provide solutions to potential problems facing local towns if the deal goes through.
"It validates the concerns we raised, but it doesn't provide any viable solutions," she said.
CN wants to buy the EJ&E for $300 million and use the line, which runs in an arc around the Chicago region, to reroute some freight traffic from lines in Chicago and inner suburbs.
CN declined to testify Tuesday but released a statement following the proceedings.
"To date, the parties conducting today's hearing have not yet acknowledged the significant public benefits this transaction would provide to the regional economy and to dozens of Chicago area communities that would see a reduction in freight traffic as a result of the transaction," the statement said.
"The reality is that, if this transaction were approved ... more than 60 communities would experience rail congestion relief ... roughly two times the number that would see increased rail traffic," it said.
Bean was skeptical.
"The negative impacts that are measurable far outweigh the measurable benefits," she said.
Among those testifying from towns facing 15 to 24 more freight trains a day were Barrington Village President Karen Darch and Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner.
"Approval of this rail sale will be totally life-changing," Darch said, citing the number of schoolchildren and emergency vehicles needing to cross those tracks.
Weisner said if CN wants approval, it should be willing to spend the money to offset potential problems. CN has committed $40 million, which critics say is way too little.
"We do not care to subsidize" CN, he said. "If they want to operate on that line, then they have the obligation to pay for the mitigation."
But Buffalo Grove Trustee Jeffrey Berman also testified on possible benefits of the deal to towns like his that would see less freight traffic.
"Thousands of people in towns that abut the existing CN lines stand to benefit from reductions in rail and highway congestion, a decrease in train noise and relative improvements to safety," he said. "It would also set the stage for possible enhancements to Metra service."
Manzullo countered that "the way to resolve the problem ... is not to shift the problem. (It's) is to not make it a problem for anyone."
Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, said the environmental impact study did not provide enough information for his agency to determine if the sale is in the region's best interests.
The draft study "falls short of our expectations," he said.
He added the scope of the study was too narrow and didn't address whether shifting trains to the EJ&E is the best way to run them.
"We need to take a step back and see how we want to move freight traffic through the region," Blankenhorn said.
The congressmen said they hope legislation introduced last week will give more consideration to the impact of rail line sales on local towns. The bill would require the federal government to reject an acquisition if its adverse effects on safety outweigh its benefits.
Biggert said she's hopeful the bill will be approved before the draft study's public comment period ends Sept. 30.
The public wasn't allowed to testify Tuesday, but there will be several chances for the public to be heard.
The U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which has final say on the deal, has scheduled a series of public meetings: Aug. 26 in Mundelein, Aug. 27 in Barrington, Aug. 28 in Bartlett and Sept. 9 in Aurora.