Communities Move to Block Sale of Chicago-Area Rail Line

Published March 1, 2009

The Canadian National Railway has received federal approval to buy the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, but two Chicago suburbs have filed legal challenges to the sale, claiming increased freight traffic could harm their communities.

On December 24 the federal government’s Surface Transportation Board (STB) approved the $300 million sale of the EJ&E line owned by U.S. Steel. The line follows a nearly 200-mile arc around Chicago, from suburbs northwest of the city into Indiana to the southeast.

CN plans to link the line with several other freight lines in the area and put long-haul freight trains onto the EJ&E line. About 30 suburban communities with a combined population of 1.5 million residents would see increased rail traffic as a result of the sale, which officials in all those communities oppose. But more than 60 suburban communities with a combined population of 4.1 million residents would see less rail traffic, as would Chicago.

On January 5, northwest suburban Barrington and southwest suburban Will County filed a “stay of petition” with the STB to try to block the sale. Barrington also filed a petition for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC.

Unique Problems

Barrington has several major roads crisscrossed by the EJ&E and commuter rail lines, resulting in major traffic congestion problems. In a telephone interview shortly before the court filings, Village President Karen Darch said STB approval of the EJ&E line sale would make traffic congestion worse and possibly endanger people in the village, because police, firefighters, and paramedics could be blocked at crossings.

“I don’t think anyone else has quite the issues we have with train and road commuters,” Darch said. “It’s 5,917 feet between Lake-Cook Road and Lake Zurich Road, and we have two major crossings [U.S. Highway 14 and Illinois Route 59] between those two roads. That’s a little over a mile, and some of these long-haul freight trains can be two miles long.”

That means trains could block four major crossings at once, she said.

In addition, the EJ&E line also crosses a Union Pacific commuter rail line, potentially affecting commuter rail service.

Darch said the EJ&E runs three trains a day through Barrington, two of them at night. With CN ownership, up to 12 freight trains a day could roll through town, she said.

Less Traffic Elsewhere

However, many other communities would see less rail traffic.

That was a strong selling point for STB Board Chairman Charles Nottingham. He said, “Approval of this important railroad merger, with the conditions we have imposed, marks a significant step forward in our nation’s efforts to alleviate rail and highway congestion. I am pleased that the board agreed … to grant the relief that this merger will provide to the many Chicago neighborhoods that have been disproportionately burdened for many decades with severe rail traffic-related roadway congestion.”

Two other communities that would see sharply higher freight traffic, Aurora and Lynwood, would receive railroad overpasses or underpasses to ease automobile traffic congestion. Each could cost more than $50 million, with CN paying two-thirds of the cost in Aurora and nearly 80 percent of the cost in Lynwood. Taxpayers would pay the remainder.

The railroad must spend millions more on other mitigation measures, including installing cameras to monitor grade crossings to assist emergency responders, school and pedestrian safety measures, and noise reduction measures.

‘Significant Mandates’

CN officials were not entirely happy with the conditions for STB’s approval of the sale.

“We are pleased that the board has recognized the public-interest benefits of the transaction—the critical need for rail-congestion relief in the Chicago region—while mitigating the rail acquisition’s impact on certain communities situated on the EJ&E,” said CN President and Chief Executive Officer E. Hunter Harrison in a prepared statement.

“[But] we are nonetheless disappointed that the STB has mandated significant additional mitigation beyond the recommendations provided in the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the STB’s Section of Environmental Analysis with respect to the grade crossings in Lynwood and Aurora,” Harrison added.

Gordon Trafton, a CN senior vice president, noted in an article for the Chicago Tribune that the railroad already had agreed to $60 million in mitigation spending before STB ruled the railroad also would have to build the Aurora and Lynwood overpasses and underpasses.

Darch said she’d have preferred overpasses or underpasses in Barrington. Instead, the crossings will remain at grade.

‘Not Responsive’

“It was disappointing that the STB approved the sale,” Darch said. “We don’t feel the STB has been responsive to our issues.”

Congresswoman Melissa Bean, a Democrat who lives in Barrington, agrees with Darch.

Bean said in a statement, “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 to CN.

“This ruling,” Bean continued, “and the STB’s process, is unjust and un-American, and if it holds up, many U.S. taxpayers will subsidize the profits of a foreign company.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.