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Winners, losers and the CN merger
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Published: 12/27/2008 9:38 PM

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Few issues of local impact have seemed as inherently polarizing as the Canadian National Railway's acquisition of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway line, which runs in an arc around Chicago from Gary, Ind., to Waukegan.

Maybe the battle over expansion of O'Hare Airport was. Like the CN deal, it was a conflict that inevitably set up winners and losers. Either you stood to gain one way or the other with the growth of O'Hare, or you were like Bensenville or Elk Grove Village, about to be devastated by it.

Or maybe it's similar to the decades-old fight years ago over the Northwest Municipal Conference's plan to put a landfill (more precisely described as a balefill) in Bartlett's back yard. Virtually every Northwest suburb loved the idea, saw it as a sensible way to keep garbage costs down. Every suburb, that is, except Bartlett, which would have suffered all the negative consequences of it.

That's how this CN merger has been. Winners and losers, a situation where it's been impossible to forge a compromise out of that fundamental reality. Lines in the sand drawn by towns that will see less freight traffic vs. towns that will see more.

It's been a nasty battle that has had everyone taking sides, all on the basis of understandable self-interest.

In that light, we can understand why the U.S. Surface Transportation Board took such great lengths of time before finally approving the acquisition. No one envied that board in its challenging task.

But really, settling the issue on Christmas Eve, when no one was stirring, not even a mouse? Talk about putting the word out when it would get the least attention and reverberation. It's hard to believe that the timing was merely coincidental.

Here's the thing though. It doesn't matter when the decision was made. The fallout is substantial and thus, it will reverberate.

There is a basic logic to the approval. From all appearances, the merger will be good for the Chicago area as a whole, both in alleviating overall train congestion in the region and economically in moving goods more efficiently.

That much is good.

But there also is a fundamental unfairness.

How is it fair to go to a community like Barrington and say, you're going to get more freight congestion and, for the most part, if you want to take steps to mitigate the impact of that congestion, you're going to have to pay for it yourself, all for the greater good?

The STB approval came with a variety of conditions to relieve the negative impact of the merger, but it did not come with enough of them. It's important that the board reconsider the matter and impose significantly more.

If not, all those involved should remember the story of the Bartlett balefill. That proposal, like this one, seemed to be a done deal. Bartlett, everyone said back then, was tilting at windmills. Maybe so, but Bartlett was tenacious in its resolve, and in the end, the community won. Today, there is no balefill.

There's a lesson in that for both sides in the CN merger.