LOWELL — The 200 chairs set up for the public forum on the proposed freight rail line from Wisconsin to LaPorte filled quickly and another 200 people were forced to stand Tuesday.
The session at the VFW hall in Lowell was one of several being held by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to hear public comments on possible problems with the proposed route, potential alternate routes and suggested mitigation measures that can be used on the problems cited by area residents.
It's all part of the process of developing an environmental impact statement that will be a major factor in the board deciding whether the rail line can be built. The project is proposed by the Great Lakes Basin Rail Line to bypass the congestion of trains heading in and out of Chicago by going around the city.
Although the meeting venue was changed to accommodate a bigger anticipated crowd, David Navecky, environmental protection specialist with the STB environmental analysis section, already learned one lesson: the next time they hold a public meeting, they will do it somewhere that can handle a bigger crowd.
Local officials, including Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, County Councilman Eldon Strong, state Sen. Rick Niemeyer, county Surveyor Bill Emerson Jr. and Cedar Creek Town Board President Dan Blankenship, all spoke opposing the rail line, citing its impact on nearby schools, the well systems, drainage, wetlands and wildlife and the difficulties it would create for police and fire departments.
"It would annihilate home values, and it would kill us," Scheub said, suggesting a route farther south would be better.
Strong opposed building it at all saying the only one to benefit would be the Great Lakes Basin owners. Emerson said South Lake County is a flood plain, and the railroad would create more drainage problems for local governments and taxpayers. Niemeyer said the eminent domain laws need to be updated so as not to allow a railroad to use them for such a long corridor.
"Why use our area to solve a problem we didn't create," Niemeyer said of the train congestion in Chicago.
The officials criticized the rail line company for not notifying them well in advance of the proposal. School officials said the trains would travel close to three schools and be a safety hazard as well as a distraction for young students. The trains could also force rerouting buses and longer travel times, increasing costs to the schools.
Lawrence Maka of the Calumet Astronomical Society said an astronomical center being built at 191st and Chase is very sensitive to even footsteps, and the trains would be a big problem. Most of the people present were farmers like David Echterling, who said the trains would destroy the drainage systems he and his neighbors have installed in their fields.
"We've spent a lot of money over the years to drain the fields and make them productive," Echterling said. "The railroad is going to change the whole focus of the drainage. They could pay us 10 or 20-fold the value of the land, and we still would not recoup what it will cost in drainage work."
More public meetings are planned after the STB drafts the environmental impact statement, and residents were urged to continue to submit comments by email, letter or any other means until June 15. Comments can be made at the agency's website, www.stb.dot.gov.
Click here to view a larger version of the map.