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Logistics pros get look at Great Lakes Basin RR
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Logistics pros get look at Great Lakes Basin RR

Rail Summit - Frank Patton

Frank Patton explains his ideas for the Great Lakes Basin Rail Line during a recent interview. The proposed line would go just south of this point at Cline Avenue and Belshaw Road in Lowell. Patton promoted the rail plan at a Rail Summit last week in Chicago.

CHICAGO — The managing partner of Great Lakes Basin Transportation was in familiar surroundings Wednesday as he promoted his idea to build a freight railroad from the LaPorte area to southeast Wisconsin, circling Chicago to serve as a bypass around that congested city.

The 2016 Rail Summit brought professionals from across the country and throughout the supply chain to the Urban League Club of Chicago, where Patton was once president, for a day-long series of seminars on railroads, ports, waterways and long-haul trucking.

Patton and Great Lakes Basin President Jim Wilson argued during afternoon breakout sessions that the proposed railroad would provide valuable service to cargo haulers throughout the country.

"We could give connectivity to the entire North American rail network," Wilson said.

The $8 billion railroad plan is currently subject to public comment through the U.S. Department of Transportation's Surface Transportation Board.

The controversial plan has met strong opposition from some property owners in south Porter and Lake counties, as well as other places along its 281-mile route.

Porter County government already has expressed its opposition to the plan, arguing it presents no economic benefit to the county.

At the rail summit, Patton focused on several areas he argued would promote significant economic activity.

"We wanted three large potential industrial areas within the 281 miles," he said.

The three "we've really zoned in on" are Rockford, Illinois, to take advantage of its airport; Manteno, Illinois, where Great Lakes Basin would build a "railport" to provide switching and maintainence services; and Kingsbury in the LaPorte area, where an industrial park is seeking to grow.

"There's a whole slew of opportunities for anyone with that industrial park," Patton said of Kingsbury.

LaPorte County officials were at the summit to promote the industrial park, though David Christian, executive director of economic development for LaPorte County, noted the county hasn't taken a position on the railroad.

"We're waiting for more information," he said.

Economic development professionals from Lake and Porter counties also led breakout sessions at the Rail Summit.

Gulf Coast, Panama Canal offer opportunity

The summit had a significant southern orientation with presentations by Louisiana port officials, and with talk of the expanded Panama Canal's potential impact on the flow of goods.

Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, talked about New Orleans as a gateway to the Midwest. In the course of his presentation, he showed a graphic with the time a train takes to get to various cities that illustrated Chicago's impact: New Orleans to Chicago was next-day service; New Orleans to Detroit was fourth-day service.

Those extra days are part of the Great Lakes Basin developers' argument. As much as 25 percent of the train traffic arriving in Chicago is simply passing through, Wilson said.

The Panama Canal's ability to accept much larger ships than in the past will shift the economics of shipping throughout the country, affecting middle America the most, according to several presenters.

The expanded canal is set to open June 26.

John Vickerman, a planner and designer of logistics facilities, said "the Midwest and the Mississippi (River area) could be the real beneficiaries" of the canal project.

Vickerman displayed a map with a line running roughly north-south through the country. To the east of the line, it's cheaper to move cargo from the eastern seaboard or gulf coast; to the west of the line, it's more economical to transit from the western seaboard.

The canal's expansion shifts that line westward to include the gulf ports of Texas  and to include Northwest Indiana and much of the Chicago area.

"The Panama Canal will prove to be a strong contender for Asian cargo," Vickerman said.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soybean Transportation Coalition, said the canal will grow business for inland waterways, widening the area that will use the Mississippi River for transportation.

"We think we really stand to benefit," Steenhoek said.

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