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They may be labeled ‘screamers and yellers’ but local opposition to railroad vows to continue fighting for their livelihood

LaSalle News Tribune

Monday, July 17, 2017  |  Article  |  

Railroads (77)

EARLVILLE — Carl Zimmerman first heard about Great Lakes Basin Railroad when his father called him in a panic.

After checking a map himself, Zimmerman saw the proposed route would go through several properties the family owns or farms, passing close to both their homes. At Carl Zimmerman’s place, the rail would be about 900 feet from his house.

“I thought, ‘We have to get the word out,” he said.

So he set up a meeting at Earlville High School for community residents. While 200 people showed up to the meeting in Earlville, Zimmerman has connected with groups along the route and is part of a network in three states and 11 counties, all in opposition to Great Lakes Basin Railroad.

The railroad is the brainchild of Frank Patton, a businessman from the Chicago area. Originally, the rail was supposed to be part of the Illiana expressway project, but while the roadway fell through, the rail project morphed.

The current proposal is a 200-plus mile project stretching from southern Wisconsin to northwest Indiana, bypassing a gridlock in Illinois that can stall trains up to 36 hours, even if Chicago isn’t that train’s final destination.

The proposal has received very little public support and has attracted resistance across its route. On Facebook, the Block GLB group has affiliates in 11 counties. Zimmerman runs the website for the La Salle County group. He said his activism was unexpected.

“Three years ago I wasn’t going to be involved in anything like this,” he said. Since he began opposing the railroad, however, he said he has spoken across the state in several counties the railroad would run through.

“It’s not affecting my way of life,” Zimmerman said. “It’s affecting my livelihood.”

Surface Transportation Board, the federal board that would approve any rail project, hosts a complete record of public comments its receives regarding the Great Lakes Basin project. It received notification from the project’s attorneys in September 2015. The first letter objecting to the railroad was received in March 2016, from a Grand Prairie resident who said it would pass very close to their home.

Local governments also voiced opposition. Many of the counties the proposed route would pass through, including La Salle, have issued resolutions against the project. State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) sent a letter to the STB in June 2016 opposing the project, citing the negatives of “crossing farms, cutting drainage lines, a 200-foot right-of-way, landlocked fields and not wanting to pay fair price for the land taken out of production” as reasons for her opposition. A resolution passed the Illinois House in June of this year opposing the project was co-sponsored by state Rep. Jerry Long (R-Streator).

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R.-Ill.) sent a letter to the STB encouraging it to go through the full process and ensure that his constituents’ voices were heard.

There are still several steps to go through before the company can begin laying track. First, it needs to have its application approved by the STB to become a railroad: right now, it is still a transportation company. An environmental impact study along the proposed route also needs to be completed. It was suspended in December so the company could focus on the application, which was filed May 1.

The route preferred by the railroad would come within a mile of Earlville and cut through the lands of area farmers. Alternative routes were also proposed, one of which comes as far south as Troy Grove before heading east,

Allen Fischer of Earlville owns several properties the rail would traverse along the preferred route,

“I’m not happy,” he said. The railroad has affected him before one track was laid. Fischer said he was renting one of his properties and the people were going to buy it before they saw where the railroad was going to go.

“They didn’t want to buy,” Fischer said.

He said the rail would cut his property, keeping him from the back.

None of the farmers in Earlville the NewsTribune spoke to said they had been contacted by Great Lakes Basin Transportation about selling or leasing their land, and Zimmerman said he knew of no landowner in the area who would sell.

Frank Patton, the chief executive officer of Great Lakes Basin Transportation LLC, said the railroad wouldn’t have contacted people yet because the final route hasn’t been determined.

Patton said he had not expected to encounter this much opposition. He said the railroad would be a solution to a national problem.

“The huge difference of opinion between ourselves and our supporter, and the social media crowd, is we see a national purpose and they don’t,” he said. “Everything else flows from that difference of opinion.”

Patton said 50 percent of all freight in the United States passes through northeastern Illinois. If the bypass isn’t constructed now, he said, the current congestion doesn’t come close to what it will be in the next 15-20 years.

Organized labor has shown support for the project, he said, offering to attend the public hearings in support and write letters to the STB in support of the project. But Patton said he didn’t want that until the application was filed, which was done May 1.

So when public hearings began, there was little visible support, but Patton said he had 8,000-12,000 members of organized labor willing to show support.

“The reason our support is so strong in organized labor is that those folks, and they’re not just talking about the jobs to build it. They’re talking about the future growth of the Midwest,” Patton said. He said the opposition, the “screamers and the yellers,” are just concerned with their space in the universe.

Zimmerman said it’s different with farmers Even if the route was changed 20 miles from his property he still wouldn’t give up the fight.

“I’m not just defending my livelihood, I’m defending their rights as landowners,” he said, while pointing to neighboring farms.

Patton said he would speak to his opposition, and they can send him an email and set up a time to talk.

Zimmerman said he would like to have a beer with Patton when this is all over.