Freight rail proposal piggybacks on Illiana Expressway

2013-11-10T08:27:00Z 2013-11-11T14:59:05Z Freight rail proposal piggybacks on Illiana ExpresswayBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

A visionary rail plan piggybacking on the Illiana Expressway is gaining widespread notice but so far attracting little support from railroads.

Former Union League Club of Chicago President Frank Patton has been pitching his plans for an "Illiana Rail Bypass" to an impressive array of Indiana and Illinois officials and says he's ready to raise the $8 million needed for an environmental study.

As proposed by Patton, phase one of his proposed freight rail bypass would run 90 miles from Coal City, Ill., to Wellsboro, Ind., about six miles south of LaPorte. It would use about 47 miles of joint right-of-way with the Illiana Expressway, have no at-grade crossings, and operate as a double-tracked "toll road" for trains.

"We are breaking the mold here," Patton said on a recent afternoon as he spread out rail maps with the rail route outlined in red and green on a conference table at The Times' Munster office.

Patton said money for the environmental study and the building of phase one, which would cost around $3.5 billion, could be raised entirely from private investors. As such, it would be at the extreme end of the current rush to public-private partnerships, requiring very little government involvement.

In March, Illinois Secretary of Transportation Ann Schneider rejected Patton's request to include the Illiana Rail Bypass in the current environmental study for the Illiana Expressway. But she did offer the Illinois Department of Transportation's assistance in providing information for any environmental study Patton might undertake on his own.

The reception from railroads has been even cooler.

"We oppose the idea of a freight railroad line running or built in association with the Illiana Expressway," said Joseph Ciaccio, president of the Illinois Railroad Association, which represents the interests of all six Class I railroads as well as numerous short line railroads operating in Illinois.

Railroads feel Patton's Illiana Rail Bypass could steer attention away from the $3.2 billion Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program in Chicago, Ciaccio said. CREATE seeks to speed up freight movements and reduce traffic congestion by building grade separations and other rail improvements across Chicagoland.

The railroads do support the Illiana Expressway project, which would help speed truck traffic in and out of intermodal rail yards south of Chicago as well as relieve truck congestion on local roads, Ciaccio said.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the Illiana Expressway will be important for the railroad's Global IV intermodal yard at Joliet as well as the region. But he said many of the problems the Illiana Rail Bypass seeks to resolve have already been taken care of for Union Pacific by the opening of Global IV in 2010.

But Patton brushes those arguments aside, pointing out the Illiana Rail Bypass could cut the current 25-hour trip from Galesburg, Ill., to the CSX intermodal yard at North Baltimore, Ohio, to just eight hours. That would result in huge savings in car leases, fuel and other expenses for railroads -- even if they were paying a per-car, per-mile toll to owners of the Illiana Rail Bypass, he contends.

"Everyone said to me don't pay attention to what anyone tells you, those are time savings just too good to ignore," Patton said.

Patton, who founded a software firm in 1970 that serviced major banks for more than 30 years, has now formed Great Lakes Basin LLC to find financing for the Illiana Rail Bypass. The idea was unveiled at DePaul University's Chaddick Institute in May and enthusiastically received by institute director Joe Schwieterman.

As for CREATE, Patton said the $3.2 billion to be spent on that program will not solve Chicago's congestion problems and his Illiana Rail Bypass will. He notes that he sees the bypass as a complement to CREATE, not a competitor.

The Illiana Rail bypass holds particular promise for Northwest Indiana, Patton said.

First, it would help get some of the train traffic off rail routes through lakefront cities. That would cut down on the long lines of traffic at rail crossings that pollute the air and waste precious time for truckers.

But more important would be the potential jobs impact, Patton said.

He points out the South Shore Freight railroad operates tracks that reach almost to Wellsboro. That line could serve as an important back door to the industrial corridor along Lake Michigan, including its struggling cities.

That would open up new opportunities for economic development from LaPorte County to Gary, Patton said.

"Just look at all the rail ads on TV," Patton said. "Their big deal is where there's rail, there's jobs. But right now all those trains just go right through Northwest Indiana."

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