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Bill would give communities more say in rail purchases
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/25/2008 12:06 AM

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Legislation aimed at making federal regulators pay closer attention to community concerns when ruling on railroad mergers such as the controversial plan by Canadian National Railway to buy the EJ&E railroad cleared the U.S. House transportation committee Wednesday.

The next step is a vote in the House but it's uncertain whether the policy will be prioritized given the pending election and financial bailout maelstrom in Congress.

CN is seeking to buy the smaller "J," which runs in a semicircle between Gary, Ind., and Waukegan. The Canadian-based company would move freight trains from its tracks in Chicago and nearby suburbs onto the EJ&E. CN contends this will relieve a bottleneck in the city that's causing a headache for the entire region.

The proposed purchase has generated support from towns eager to see fewer freights rumbling through their downtowns while drawing fierce protests from suburbs who are fighting to stave off the problems extra trains would bring.

Lawmakers representing towns along the EJ&E have backed the legislation that would require the Surface Transportation Board to consider the effect on communities when deciding on railroad mergers. Traditionally, the STB focuses on the business aspects of a transaction.

Barrington is one town opposed to the merger. Mayor Karen Darch was heartened by the committee's unanimous vote but acknowledged Congress has a lot on its plate.

"There's a lot going on out here. But it's moved very quickly so far," Darch said. "We'd be much happier to see it passed. It really clarifies the law and strengthens our position."

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat and the only local congressman on the transportation committee, supports the merger proposal and the law.

If the STB considers community concerns, it will have to take into account towns that will be helped by the merger, he argued.

"We need to make sure all voices are heard and all of the costs and benefits are fully considered," he said.

If passed as its written now, the law would be applied to all transactions that have not been approved by the STB as of Aug. 1. CN disagreed with the retroactive provision, saying the transaction was a minor one and should have been voted on by now.