Clear sides began emerging Tuesday among Surface Transportation Board members who spent a day grilling staff about the implications of the Canadian National Railway's plan to merge with the smaller EJ&E railroad.
STB planners in Washington, D.C. also talked about recommendations expected to appear in their final report requiring CN to contribute to grade separations, to install cameras at crossings to let emergency responders know if trains are blocking tracks and to appoint a liaison to address environmental concerns.
The board, which has final say on the issue, has yet to decide on CN's controversial plan to divert freight trains from busy routes in Chicago and nearby suburbs onto the quieter EJ&E, which runs in a semicircle between Waukegan and Gary, Ind.
The railroad giant contends the move will ease a freight bottleneck in Chicago and is supported by numerous towns beleaguered by CN train traffic that are pushing for relief.
But municipalities along the "J" are fighting the proposal, arguing that more trains will slow emergency vehicles, cause noise and pollution, delay cars and endanger the public if a hazardous materials accident occurs.
Officials indicated that a final environmental impact statement will come out in a few weeks, which board members will use as a guide when they vote.
Board Member Douglas Buttrey, a Tennessee Republican, was critical of the merger.
"I have serious concerns about this transaction based on environmental grounds," he said. Buttrey also cited a huge gap between CN and communities in opposition to the proposal.
"I would prefer we find a way to keep all stakeholders focused on a way to work out their differences."
STB Vice Chairman Francis Mulvey, a Democrat from Maryland, was concerned some of the ideas CN proposed to remedy problems caused by more trains on the EJ&E didn't go far enough. "Many of the mitigations I see here simply say, 'I will obey the law,'" he said.
But STB Chairman Charles Nottingham, a Virginia Republican, noted that "in listening to history, I can't help but observe that people in the core of Chicago have experienced and continue to experience a disproportionate share of the nation's rail traffic. It's an enormous burden on the people of the area."
After receiving comments from the public following the release of a preliminary environmental impact statement in July, STB staff listed some modifications expected to be included in the final report. These included: identifying a need for grade separations at the EJ&E tracks along Ogden Avenue in Aurora and in Lynwood in the south suburbs; adding Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington and two fire stations in West Chicago as emergency facilities impacted by more freights on the EJ&E; and requiring CN to install turtle crossings to protect endangered species at Pratt's Wayne Woods Forest Preserve in northwest DuPage County.
Significantly, planners said they were considering requesting CN to contribute 15 percent of the cost of grade separations because overall the project could contribute 15 percent to total delays in the region.
STB staffers stuck to original estimates that the merger would not preclude the proposed STAR line, Metra's plan to run commuter trains along parts of the EJ&E for a suburb-to-suburb system. But they noted it could increase costs for the STAR line from 2 percent to 8 percent.
In a statement, CN officials encouraged the board to rule on the proposal soon so "the transaction's benefits to the Chicagoland region, business community and transportation system can be realized."
Barrington Mayor Karen Darch, whose community has battled the merger from the start, attended the hearing in Washington, D.C. and surmised that the board appeared split on the issue.
"I think answers to some of the questions confirm that it's very problematic for the region," Darch said.