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Rail traffic rolls on in region

A BNSF train parked just before the Grand Trunk crossing on Calumet Avenue in Munster, where train traffic is heavy and parked trains sometimes block vehicular traffic. Backers of a proposed Great Lakes Basin Rail Line through south Lake and Porter counties say the new line could relieve freight train congestion in more urban areas to the north.

Freight congestion is so bad in the Chicago region, transportation experts said trains take three days to travel from Los Angeles to Chicago — and then another three days to get through the Windy City.

That’s why developer Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. is proposing a 278-mile rail line that would run from LaPorte, through rural Lake and Porter counties, to Illinois and Wisconsin. The new railroad could handle up to 110 trains a day, so they don’t have to pass through packed rail terminals in Chicago.

The urban bypass, which would be the first constructed anywhere in the country in more than a decade, would cost an estimated $8 billion and would be the largest railroad project in the United States since 1911, according to Great Lakes Basin President Jim Wilson.

Founder and managing partner Frank Patton has planned the Great Lakes Basin Rail Line for years, originally eyeing the proposed Illiana Expressway’s right-of-way.

“We have a long-term vision,” Wilson said. “This would have a significant national impact, serving six Class 1 railroads.”

Freight traffic is expected to pick up by 45 to 50 percent nationally during the next 20 to 40 years, and there simply isn’t enough capacity in Chicago to handle that many trains, Wilson said.

The bottleneck is worsened by the 25 percent of trains that must pass through Chicago on the way to somewhere else, but have no actual business there.

Great Lakes Basin Transportation plans to present its proposal for the 278-mile rail line to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board this month. The board is the chief regulator of railroads in the United States.

Wilson estimates the new tracks could save trains passing through the Chicago region as much as 24 hours each way, which would be especially helpful when they’re shipping frozen foods or apples, oranges and other produce from the West Coast. Grapes, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables grown in California and Washington state would have a longer shelf life when they finally reached supermarkets.

Railroad companies generally prefer to own their own rail lines, but the demand for a bypass around Chicago is so strong they likely would end up using the proposed Great Lakes Basin Rail Line, said Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.

Such a project is overdue and will have to be pursued at some point, because of the projected rise in freight traffic, he said.

“It certainly goes against the grain of incremental improvements at low cost,” Schwieterman said. “But it could save shippers a lot of money.”

The main existing rail lines through the Chicago region are landlocked and can’t be expanded, Wilson said. Great Lakes Basin Transportation would buy enough land so it could build up to six main tracks, which should be enough to accommodate all freight traffic for the next 50 to 75 years.

Wilson estimates securing the permits could cost $30 million to $50 million, and construction is at least two years out.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission won’t need to add the proposed rail line to its list of projects because it would not receive any federal funding, but will keep track of the project as it wends its way through the approval process, Executive Director Ty Warner said.

“There is a freight bottleneck in Northwest Indiana, and this proposal is trying to find a way to address that need,” Warner said.

“We have to deal with freight congestion in one way or another, and this is one solution.”

The price tag is big, and there are many potential issues, including acquiring property since there isn’t an existing rail line, Warner said. But he said he knows Patton isn’t just plunging headlong into the venture.

“He’s done his homework and has been talking about this for some time,” Warner said.

“He’s not just lightly diving in. Now that it’s going to the Surface Transportation Board, everybody can look at the potential impacts and benefits to the Region. Now it’s something to talk about seriously, as a project with potential legs.”

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.