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home : most recent : government-federal September 24, 2017


8/31/2017 6:39:00 PM
Federal agency decision derails 261-mile freight line from Indiana to Wisconsin
Farmer Mike Herlitz, on right, stands with his father, Wayne Herlitz, and his son, Harvey, 3, on the spot on his family's farmland that would be divided by the proposed railroad freight line. (Kyle Telechan / Post-Tribune)
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Farmer Mike Herlitz, on right, stands with his father, Wayne Herlitz, and his son, Harvey, 3, on the spot on his family's farmland that would be divided by the proposed railroad freight line. (Kyle Telechan / Post-Tribune)

Amy Lavalley, Post-Tribune Correspondent

About a year and a half ago, Mike Herlitz found out his Porter Township farmland was in the crosshairs of a plan to build a rail line through it.

On Thursday, Herlitz learned the federal Surface Transportation Board has rejected Great Lakes Basin Transportation's plan for a 261-mile freight train line running from Milton, Wis., into LaPorte County.

Officials here first learned of Patton's proposal in March 2016, when they received notice from the transportation board about public hearings to start the process for an environmental impact study.

Great Lakes founder and chairman Frank Patton proposed funding the $2.8 billion freight line privately, and said it would relieve congestion through Chicago's clogged rail system, as well as take trucks off of local highways.

The plan was to serve the six Class 1 railroads going through Chicago, though two of them said they would not use it and the remaining four never committed to supporting the project.

Local officials were surprised by the plan and opposition groups in communities along the route in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana quickly took root, eventually banding together to hire an attorney and ask the federal board to reject Great Lakes' proposal.

Their answer came Thursday, when, in a five-page ruling, the transportation board outlined the growing opposition to the proposal; the lack of accurate financial information for the board to examine in weighing the proposal's merits; and the "fundamentally flawed" financial information filed by Great Lakes.

"GLBT's current assets of $151 are so clearly deficient for purposes of constructing a 261-mile rail line that the Board will not proceed with this application given the impacts on stakeholders and the demands upon Board resources," the ruling states.

Local municipalities along the length of the route passed resolutions against the freight train line, including officials in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. Residents and officials decried the loss of farmland, safety concerns for a line that could host upwards of 100 trains a day in some places, and drainage woes.

Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, fought the proposal on two fronts: as an elected official whose county would be affected by the freight train line, and as a Porter Township resident whose property would be bisected by its proposed route.

"I think the STB did their job. The application wasn't sufficient and it's nice to see government work for the best interest of the people," she said.

Federal officials listened to the outcry against the proposal, she said, a proposal that brought together U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, who lobbied early on for a meeting in Valparaiso, and State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, who worked to change the state's outdated eminent domain laws for railroads.

"We had help from all different angles and different parties," Blaney said, adding there wasn't any benefit to Porter County residents from the proposal.

The outcry from the public was unreal, said Bob Cauffman, founder of Residents Against Invasion of Land by Eminent Domain, or RAILED, an opposition group based in Porter County.

Fighting Great Lakes was a big deal, he said, and with the support of the community and elected officials, opponents were able to accomplish something.

"When they come together, small groups can accomplish great things," Cauffman said.

Linda Cosgrove, who lives in Eagle Creek Township outside of Lowell, was thankful for the efforts of everyone who opposed Great Lakes' plans. Over the years, Cosgrove also has fought the Illiana toll road and other measures that would hurt the quality of life in rural Lake County.

"I'm getting back to normal life. I'm ecstatic," she said. "I'm tired of fighting these kinds of projects."

For Herlitz and others along the proposed route, the transportation board's ruling provides a measure of relief. In the days after Herlitz found out about the proposal, he lost sleep worrying about keeping his family farm together as a legacy for his children. 

"You hate to be tied up in this for a long time because you need answers," he said. "I'm glad they didn't take forever to make a decision.

Copyright 2017, Chicago Tribune






Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR


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