Matteson, IL–(ENEWSPF)– Several village officials and residents from Park Forest attended a public comment session held Monday, August 25, at the Holiday Inn, Matteson, regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Study on the proposed acquisition of EJ&E railroad by Canadian National. Representatives from the Surface Transportation Board were on hand to explain the Draft EIS, answer questions, and take public comment. The session began at 4:00 p.m. in an “open house” format. Members of the public and elected officials took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions, study maps, and make either written comments or register comments personally with court reporters.
A formal public comment session began at 6:00 p.m. A little over 20 people signed up to make comments. All were limited to three minute time slots in the large group session. While the large public comment session was taking place, those in attendance were able to continue registering comments with court reporters or in writing in a separate room.
Several Park Forest residents in attendance made comments in opposition to the proposed sale during the large group session, in writing and to court reporters.
Prior to the large-group public comment session, Rick Bryant, top aide for Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., told eNews Park Forest that the congressman favors the sale, but his support is contingent on mitigation and funding for mediation, “He supports the sale, the acquisition, but its conditional support.”
Bryant says Jackson wants several conditions written into the sale agreement, saying there are four roads in the congressman’s district that would need overpasses or underpasses, “[Congressman Jackson] believes the Surface Transportation Board not only should require those [mitigation] projects, but should find where the funding is going to come from.”
According to Bryant, the funding should come from a combination of Canadian National, along with the federal and/or state government – not the local communities, “The local communities out here cannot afford to build these multimillion dollar underpasses so that the railroad company can make more profits. The railroad operation will benefit from the sale. It would overall improve their rail transportation network in the region, reduce congestion on the rails, but we don’t think the local communities should get stuck with the bills in accommodating that.”
During the public comment session, Bryant said the Village of Homewood, the US corporate headquarters for CN, favors the sale, “Local officials there fear that without this transaction, Canadian National will move a significant number of its current and future freight operations, and its local jobs, from the Chicago area to Memphis, Tennessee.”
Bryant reiterated Congressman Jackson’s conditional approval of the sale, “[Congressman Jackson] has asked the Surface Transportation Board twice in writing to ensure that the terms of the sale include specific mitigation requirements in the communities between Matteson and the Indiana state line. That mitigation includes underpasses or overpasses at four locations: Cicero Avenue in Matteson, Western Avenue in Park Forest, Chicago Road in Chicago Heights, and Lincoln Highway in Lynwood.”
Officials from Park Forest spoke with Jim Kvedaras, Senior Manager, US Public and Government Affairs for CN, prior to the large group session.
In response to a question from Park Forest Trustee Robert McCray, Kvedaras said Park Forest would benefit indirectly from the transaction, “The impacts are going to be a little more indirect than I think you would want. The impacts are on surface transportation and the benefits that any businesses, any of your employers have, as they fill their needs for surface transportation.”
Kvedaras said CN is a transportation provider, “We exist to serve our customers. Anything we do to improve their efficiencies, eliminating and reducing the time spent in transit is clearly something that they were very sensitive to. The benefits accrue to them directly because they are users of our service. Hopefully, as it comes through, any associated stuff that Park Forest or other communities have, that’s an indirect benefit.”
McCray expressed concern regarding the impact of increased rail traffic and the village’s redevelopment of Norwood Plaza, and the ability of emergency vehicles to cross the tracks.
In response, Kvedaras said overpasses and underpasses are a concern of all communities affected by the sale, “bar none.”
“While you have an existing underpass in very close proximity, we do understand your concerns about what it would do for the development of Norwood Plaza. As we’ve said, our operating plan, our goal, is to operate as close to track speed as possible and minimize the amount of time we’re going to be in any of these communities. Our track speed right now is 40/45 miles per hour. We are highly motivated to maintain that as much as possible.”
Kvedaras, a lifelong resident of Homewood, said CN is still working on a design for a proposed connection for trains that will go north into Markham Yard after crossing through Park Forest. He says travels Western Avenue through Park Forest and gets stopped at the tracks also.
“If our operations are fluid and we are able to move them, we will minimize the amount of time [the gate] is down there. Now, it’s not going to be to anybody’s satisfaction, because they don’t want any inconvenience. I understand that. But what we’re trying to do is develop a reasonable transportation improvement that we’ll be able to get some efficiencies out of the Chicago metropolitan area that don’t exist today. As a result, it does end up putting more traffic through Park Forest.”
Village Manager Tom Mick challenged Kvedaras’ contention that trains travel at track speed through Park Forest, “The next train that comes down those tracks at 30, 35, 40, 45 miles an hour through Park Forest will be the first one.”
“I heard that,” Kvedaras responded.
Mick said the village is in the process of videotaping rail traffic on the EJ&E to substantiate its position.
“Unless we have our regional hats on, we see no positive impact for Park Forest specifically,” Mick said. “Through any of the meetings we’ve had with you, any of the meetings we’ve had amongst ourselves, we cannot find one positive impact for Park Forest’s sake.”
Asked about trains approaching two miles, Kvedaras said that was a misconception, “We don’t have trains approaching two miles. Right now our average train length is a little over 6,300 feet.” Kvedaras said CN does have other trains that run “no more than” 9,000 feet.
“Okay, so it’s a mile-and-a-half pushing. Whatever. It’s a picky distinction, but it’s not two mile trains.”
During the “open house” session that began at 4:00 p.m., CN displayed maps with pieces of rope measured so attendees could see how far 10,000 feet extended from point to point. In addition, according to a recent report in the Chicago Tribune, Canadian National intends to bring the monster trains to the suburbs:
Freight trains on the EJ&E now average about 2,600 feet, about half a mile long. But a CN presentation to analysts in June talked about trains that would run up to 12,000 feet—well over 2 miles long.
Longer, faster freights are the industry’s watchwords, experts say. And CN says its plan to bypass Chicago’s rail gridlock will mean fewer blocked crossings in the city and many close-in communities.
Kvedaras said, regardless of length, “Our operating plan is to maintain as close to allowable track speed as possible, 40 to 45 miles an hour. I heard what Tom [Mick] said. Tom said they crawl through Park Forest.”
With respect to trains currently blocking the tracks on Western Avenue for upwards of 20 minutes, Kvedaras said, “If that’s the case, I suspect it’s moving in and out of that yard, and that yard will not be an operating yard for us. We’re trying to make the operation to be as fluid as possible for all the communities. We recognize that nobody wants change, nobody wants additional delays for the motorists in a town, especially when you have a redevelopment program through there.”
No one at CN is investigating funding options for an overpass or underpass through Park Forest, according to Kvedaras, “If Park Forest or any community feels strong enough to still pursue a grade crossing separation, we have said that we will be there with you, we will work through it, but we do have a historical funding percentage, which is on average five, maybe ten percent match.”
“That is what national policy is, guys,” Kvedaras stressed.
CN showed two billion dollars in profit last year, according to Kvedaras, “Of that two billion dollars, we automatically, always, roll over 70% to 75% back into capital improvements on the property.”
In an interview with eNews Park Forewst, Vicki Rutson, Chief of the Environmental Analysis of the Surface Transportation Board, stressed the need for more public comments when asked about trains approaching two miles in length, “We do need to hear public comments. We took our best shot in the draft EIS, taking all the information that we had, testing it, double testing it, challenging it, verifying it, and doing our own analysis and making conclusions. Now we need to hear from you, the public.
“Did we do a good job? Have we missed something? Do we need to think about more mitigation? Is the mitigation we’ve suggested inadequate? We need to hear what you’re thinking about in terms of your community and the job that we did in that draft EIS.”
Is the sale of the EJ&E to CN inevitable? Rutson insists nothing is written in stone at this point, “It’s absolutely not ‘done’ at all. The board won’t make a decision until it has the full record in front of it. There will be no final decision until the record closes, and that’s not going to happen until we hear from the public, we issue a final Environmental Impact Statement, and the board considers the full record.”
What about the lengthy stops commuters on Western Avenue currently experience, with gates down and trains at a complete stop for upwards of 20 minutes or more? Rutson acknowledged the board has heard many similar concerns from other towns beside Park Forest, “Emergency vehicle access has been a huge issue throughout all of the communities. Obviously public safety is critically important. We’re doing our best to see if there are ways that we can mitigate. Any suggestions we have from the public will only help.”
Rutson says public comments will be open until September 30. Written comments must be postmarked by that date. “E-filed and hotline calls must be submitted before September 30,” Rutson says.
Two scheduled meetings for public comment on the Draft EIS remain:
- Wednesday, September 10, from 4:00 – 9:00 p.m. at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Indiana
- Thursday, September 11, from 4:00 – 9:00 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Hotel and Conference Center in Joliet
Written comments regarding the proposed sale should be sent to:
Surface Transportation Board
395 E. Street, SW
Washington, DC 20423.
Electronic comments can be submitted by visiting the Board’s web site, www.stb.dot.gov, under the heading E-Filing. Please refer to STB Finance Docket no. 35087.
Comments may also be recorded at any time during the comment period on the project hotline: 1-800-347-0689.
According to the STB, all comments received will receive equal weight in helping to finalize the EIS and guide the board.
Again, the comment period on the Draft EIS will end on September 30, 2008. All comments must be postmarked or submitted electronically by that date.