CN rail deal OK'd; opponent vow to keep fighting
By Marni Pyke and Nadia Malik | Daily Herald Staff
The sale of a train line that will affect rail traffic levels throughout the Chicago region got the final green light from federal regulators Wednesday - but suburban opponents vow to keep fighting it.
The U.S. Surface Transportation Board unanimously approved the acquisition of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway line - which runs in an arc through around Chicago, from Waukegan to Gary, Ind. - by the Canadian National Railway Co.
The decision comes before a Dec. 31 deadline for the merger and goes into effect Jan. 23.
The board said the merger was a major step toward alleviating train congestion in the Chicago area. But the plan has drawn strong opposition from towns along the EJ&E like Barrington, West Chicago and Hawthorn Woods that will see more train traffic as a result.
Barrington alone has spent thousands of dollars fighting the proposal because of the extra freight traffic it will bring through town.
"Apparently, Scrooge got appointed to the STB," Hawthorn Woods Mayor Keith Hunt said. "It's really unfortunate that they couldn't have seen their way to consider what's in the best interest of area residents, rather than just simply acting as a rubber stamp for the railroads' financial interests."
The approval of the deal did come with many conditions, though, including:
Two highway-rail grade separation projects, where CN will pay for the majority of the cost.
Cameras to monitor highway crossings to assist emergency responders.
School and pedestrian safety measures.
Noise reduction measures.
A 5-year environmental reporting requirements that include quarterly reports.
With the decision, CN plans to move freight trains from its tracks in Chicago and nearby suburbs onto the "J," a little-used railroad owned by the U.S. Steel.
CN will pay $300 million for the EJ&E and has pledged $100 million in upgrades to the system, plus $60 million in mitigation for affected communities.
But towns along the EJ&E fear more trains will mean traffic tie-ups, pollution, noise and delays to emergency responders.
Leaders such as Barrington Mayor Karen Darch have called the $60 million a pittance, considering that road overpasses and underpasses - what many towns want - are mega-million dollar projects.
A 'sea of negatives'
It was not the kind of news officials were expecting to hear on Christmas Eve.
"The timing is ridiculous," Darch said.
The one bright spot in the settlement, she said, was that CN has to help fund two more two overpasses, in Aurora and Lynwood. The deal calls for CN to pay for 67 percent of the cost of one and 78.5 percent of the other where it initially called for 15 percent payments.
"It's a positive in a sea of negative decisions, but I'm confused as to why it didn't go further," Darch said.
She said the main impacts on Barrington ญญญ- including overpasses - were not addressed.
"Obviously we disagree that there was a hard look taken at the environmental costs," she said.
She said Barrington's view has always been that the rail deal will cause life-and-death situations, such as ambulances getting to the hospital and safety issues for buses taking children to school.
"There doesn't seem to be an answer to the very real problem of life-changing issues," she said. "This is going to change lives."
Towns fears costs
She said a grade separation project would cost $100 million - not something Barrington can pay for on its own.
Hawthorn Woods' Hunt said called the board's decision "just another unfunded mandate that's going to cost local governments tens of millions of dollars, and it's going to place the burden of the transaction on the taxpayers' back."
He said conservative estimates put the cost to Hawthorn Woods alone at about $100 million.
Also, if the village wants other improvements such as sound barriers and noise and vibration abatement, it's going to cost residents.
"The STB is not requiring that (the railroads) fund that kind of mitigation," Hunt said. "(CN is) going to pass about 35 times a day through the center of Hawthorn Woods. How are you possibly going to get emergency vehicles to the opposite side? If one of those (crossings) is blocked you've got to go several miles out of your way to get around. The fire districts are going to have to look at satellite stations, certainly the police departments will."
Hunt said the coalition of roughly 40 municipalities against the CN deal won't stand idly by and will most likely appeal the decision.
West Chicago Mayor Michael Kwasman wasn't shocked by the decision but is still unhappy about the effect it will have on his community.
"We anticipated this result, and we will continue to fight through our Congressmen," he said. "We have a meeting in January, and my guess is the next step would be litigation."
Kwasman said the deal is an inconvenience that basically means the federal government is ignoring the needs of the community.
"The biggest impact will be on the schools getting kids from Point A to Point B," he said.
Threat to free trade?
Lake Zurich Mayor John Tolomei said the decision undermines U.S. jobs and trade, and ensures CN a private monopoly on a route around Chicago "by destroying our quality of life."
"I was hoping that the STB would actually be standing up for the interest of the American public," he said. "It's appalling that the STB is subsidizing a Canadian company that is also, in turn subsidizing cheap Chinese goods all for a minor, temporary gain in freight-loading in Chicago and nearby suburbs ... at the expense of killing commuter rail service for our outer suburbs. It's also subsidizing cheap goods and making U.S. goods less competitive and hurting the overall country."
Lake Zurich has six at-grade crossings in or near town, and a high school and several residential areas that back up to the EJ&E railroad tracks.
Tolomei estimated the mitigation costs could exceed $50 million.
"The STB failed to consider the miserable safety record that the CN has in Canada and elsewhere," Tolomei said. "I'm sure we'll be taking legal recourse because the STB study was fatally flawed when they failed to consider the father western routes as a reasonable alternative."
But CN contends that moving freight will free up a train bottleneck in Chicago and solve a regional congestion problem. Towns intersected by CN train lines say any relief is welcome and it's time other towns share the burden.
The merger could move 15 to 24 more trains a day to a number of towns along the EJ&E but also relieve traffic from other towns that have had to deal with it for years.
Buffalo Grove has been a staunch supporter of the merger because it would mean less train traffic on the North Central Line, which is owned by CN.
"I think this is good news not just for Buffalo Grove but for the region as a whole," Buffalo Grove Trustee Jeff Berman said. "They did a nice job of taking into consideration the positive and negative impacts. This addresses the needs of our neighbors and provides significant benefits to the region, to the country and specifically to Buffalo Grove."
Berman said towns like Buffalo Grove have had to deal with the environmental impacts of train traffic for years, and that burden is being shared more equally now.
CN reaction mixed
E. Hunter Harrison, CN president and CEO, welcomed the ruling but also expressed disappointment with the additional mitigation beyond the recommendations in the environmental impact study issued earlier in the month.
"CN commends the STB for issuing its decision approving our railroad transaction - a transaction that was subject to unprecedented scrutiny and stakeholder involvement," Harrison said in a statement.
CN has struck deals with a number of municipalities, including Mundelein, Hoffman Estates and Joliet for improvements to make the changes more palatable.
Elected officials have fallen on both sides of the issues, with U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski supporting the merger and U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean opposing it.
In a prepared statement Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin expressed his disappointment in what he called an "expedited process used by the STB under pressure from Canadian National."
"They rushed a decision - giving final approval on Christmas Eve - for a project that has untold negative consequences on communities in our region and on quality of life for affected residents," Durbin said.
Bean, of Barrington, said in a statement that she was also disappointed in what she called the failures of the STB.
"The Bush-appointed STB gives the people of Illinois another reason to be cynical about the government's ability to act in the interests of the people," Bean said. "The timing of this ruling is as suspect and disappointing as its contents. It inflicts severe traffic congestion, safety concerns and quality of life impacts on our communities with disregard to those who will suffer them, and negligible cost or accountability for CN."
In the summary of its decision, the STB acknowledged that the merger would have an adverse environmental impact on the towns along the EJ&E but not enough to outweight the benefits.
"In reaching our decision, we have balanced both the transportation-related aspects of this transaction and the potential environmental impacts," the summary said.
According to the STB, this decision is final regulatory approval, but interested parties can still ask for reconsideration.
That process is available on three grounds: if there is new evidence not available previously, a belief the agency made a material error or a change of circumstances.
Darch said a court challenge is certainly among the options the opponents are considering, but they'll have to discuss what to do next.
"We're prepared to take the next steps and pursue this and see it through," Darch said.
Staff Writers Madhu Krishnamurthy and Jake Griffin contributed to this report