A federal regulatory agency is running public meetings to gather input on a proposed 278-mile rail line project that would extend from southern Wisconsin to northern Indiana.
Building the Great Lakes Basin Railroad would cost an estimated $8 billion. The rail system would be entirely funded by private investors led by Frank Patton of Crete, a former software developer.
The system would extend from La Porte, Indiana, to Milton, Wisconsin, requiring overpasses for several interstates and four rivers, including the Rock in Ogle County. The rails would reach Illinois near Manteno, and catch the far eastern edge of Lee County.
The route would run through sparsely populated areas, bypassing the congested Chicago rail system. The new rail lines would connect with existing Class I railroads.
The 10 public meetings were organized by the Surface Transportation Board, an agency that works independently within the U.S. Department of Transportation. The information gathered at the meetings is used primarily for the assessment of the project’s potential environmental impact.
Opponents, primarily landowners, have gathered to voice their concerns about the project. About 300 people showed up at the first public meeting Monday in Manteno. Farmers there said the path would split through farmland, ruin irrigation systems, and displace wildlife in nature areas. Landowners also were concerned about the possible use of eminent domain to acquire property.
In Rochelle, about 150 opponents didn’t even wait for the public meeting planned for April 20 at the high school. The crowd gathered Sunday at Lincoln Elementary School, sharing many of the same concerns as the landowners in Manteno.
While regional officials are intrigued by the proposed project, the enormity of it presents many challenges. Plans call for one of the branches to connect with Rochelle’s rail system on the city’s southeast side before continuing to an Interstate 39 overpass.
“If it ever does come to pass, it would be an interesting dynamic to have equal access to three major railroads,” Rochelle Economic Development Director Jason Anderson said.
But Anderson knows firsthand what an arduous process it can be to bring rail projects to fruition.
“We have been trying to get one small bridge over a tiny creek for the city’s system, and we’re still working on it well over a year later,” Anderson said. “We think it’s going to take a while to get permitting for a project like this.”
Patton has said he thought permitting and construction could be done in 4 years, which at that time would have put the project’s completion date in 2019. That timetable would seem overly optimistic.
“Looking at the map, this involves building overpasses over several major highways, and bridges over four rivers,” Anderson said. “This could be a long process.”
Lee County Board President Rick Ketchum said he will go to one of the public meetings, but it’s too early in the process to spend much of the county’s time or energy on it.
“I didn’t want to bring it to the full board until I had more details,” Ketchum said. “It’s kind of a pie-in-the-sky project at this point.”
The county board is also working on a more pressing rail project. Rochelle is working with the county to expand the city’s rail system north of tiny Steward into the intermodal hub.
“Our industrial park is built to the county line, so our next major project will probably be in that Steward area,” Anderson said.
Utilities would be run along the Elva Road area, as part of a 1,000-acre buildout included in Rochelle’s comprehensive plan.
“It’s not that we’re not interested in the Great Lakes Basin project, it’s just that the rail extension with Rochelle is more important right now,” Ketchum said.
The public comment period for the Great Lakes Basin environmental impact study has been extended to June 15.
Today – 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Civic Auditorium banquet room, 1001 Ridge St. in La Porte, Indiana.
Monday – 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Craig High School cafeteria, 401 S. Randall St. in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Tuesday – 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Boone County auditorium community building complex, 111 W. First St. in Belvidere.
Tuesday – 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Cherry Valley Fire Station 2 hall, 4919 Blackhawk Road in Rockford.
Wednesday – 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Rochelle Township High School auditorium, 1401 Flagg Road.
Thursday – 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Seneca High School auditorium, 307 E. Scott St..