Two generations have worked the Wolfe Brothers Farm with plans to pass it on to the children, until someone drew a line through it big enough to accommodate up to 110 rumbling freight trains per day.
The 278-mile route of the proposed Great Lakes Basin Rail Line slashes diagonally across their 265 acres near the Lake-Porter county border and has stirred anger and fear among residents from Boone Grove to Lowell; many consider this another unwanted intrusion on their rural communities.
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"I don't see why they want to put it right here," Dawn Wolfe said, predicting, "The cows won't milk with all that noise coming through. We won't be able to get across to our hay and crop fields. Everything we and father's worked for will all go down the drain.
"My oldest boy is graduating this year. He is already adding to the herd with 12 of his own he's bought. My youngest wants to do the green farming. They want to stay right here on the farm. But we will be done. We will have to pick up and leave. It's just sad. We don't know what else we can do," Wolfe said.
Lowell Town Councilman Chris Salatas said he is trying to keep an open mind, but "the residents are wary after coming out of battles fighting the Illiana Expressway, the idea of the South Shore coming down here or the (Singleton) quarry. It's being received poorly."
The reception may get vocal at 5:30 p.m. April 12 at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, 17401 Morse St., in Lowell, at a public meeting of the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency overseeing the project.
The board also will meet 5:30 p.m. April 13 at the American Legion Banquet Hall, 203 S. Washington St., Wanatah, in LaPorte County, and 5:30 p.m. April 14 at the Civic Auditorium Banquet Room, 1001 Ridge St., LaPorte.
Those unable to attend a public meeting in person can register for an online board meeting from 1 to 3:30 p.m. April 27 at http://www.greatlakesbasinraileis.com/public_involve.html.
The railroad's proponent, Frank Patton, founder and managing partner of Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc., said he won't be going.
"I have been asked not to attend because a certain element believe I'm the worst thing walking the face of the earth, and they want to keep the personal stuff out of the meeting," Patton said.
Nevertheless, Shaw Friedman, LaPorte County attorney, said Patton was well received at a recent LaPorte County Redevelopment Commission meeting. At the meeting, Patton promised to deliver industrial development and jobs without "splitting towns" or abusing eminent domain, that is, the government's right to seize land for the railroad's right-of-way.
Patton insists his railroad will avoid population centers and wetlands, won't make farms inaccessible, won't block emergency routes and will listen to residents.
Nevertheless, Patton said he is prepared to use eminent domain to obtain the 200-foot-wide right-of-way needed, and the freight line will carry toxic materials.
"I was told there are just under 6,000 chemicals that are shipped by rail and is already going through Northwest Indiana. We don't have the choice.
"We want to get everybody's input. It sounds like a crock, but it is absolutely sincere," Patton said.
Warning lights are flashing
State Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, said, "The proposed route doesn't look that strong. It's close to our school, the water treatment plant and sewer line. It will cut across two (north-south) rail lines we already have. I really have some concerns about whether there will be some environmentally sensitive material being transported. That worries me."
A map provided by Great Lakes indicates its tracks would run as near as an eighth of a mile of Lowell Middle School.
Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney, whose Boone Grove area farm and house are in the railroad's path, said residents also are concerned about the proposed railroad's proximity to Boone Grove Middle School and Morgan Township School in Porter County.
"They cross my property, and less than a quarter of a mile from my house. It's 150 yards from my aunt's front door. We moved here because it's quiet. If there are 110 trains a day, I cannot imagine living here," she said.
Patton said the figure of 110 trains per day is the carrying capacity of the tracks, not the likely traffic. "Our financial projections are nowhere near that number," Patton said.
Blaney is more concerned about her neighbors. "There is a lot of residential area. These are the fastest-growing in Porter County. I feel like Porter County is being ignored."
She said she asked the Surface Transportation Board and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, to consider adding a public meeting in her community.
Blaney complains the greatest length of new tracks would be laid in Porter County, yet the federal government refuses to hold a public meeting for its residents, claiming its travel budget cannot support it.
Ed and Sandy Linden, who live southeast of Lowell and within a half mile of the proposed tracks, complain the developers will misuse the government's authority to take the land they need.
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Sandy Linden said, "This is a privately owned company with private investors, and they are going to make a huge profit that won't provide any benefit to this area. Using eminent domain to make private money isn't enough of a reason to take private land."
Her husband, Ed Linden, said, "These billionaires say they will give $20,000 for property, but they only want to buy a 200-foot-wide path. It ruins the property next to it and probably decreasing property values within miles of it."
The Lindens and others noted the estimated frequency of trains, one every 15 minutes on the proposed set of double tracks, would be an obstacle to emergency vehicles.
Others said they don't understand why the government would approve a new railroad across virgin farmland when there are plenty of abandoned lines that once crisscrossed south Lake and Porter counties.
An alternate route?
Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point, whose district is most affected, said he will propose an alternate route at the April 12 meeting that would carry train traffic on existing Norfolk and Southern tracks near the Kankakee River in northern Jasper County.
Scheub said, "There is nothing in it for Lake County whatsoever. No jobs and nothing for our businesses."
Two Republicans seeking to unseat Scheub this fall — County Councilman Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point, and Schererville Town Councilman Jerry Tippy — have taken a more reserved position.
Strong, whose district includes Lowell, said, "They are in just the very preliminary stages. I want to understand all this before I get aboard this. After Illiana Expressway and the Singleton Quarry fiasco, I have reservations given what we have already gone through. I don't support road closures or trains going through school property."
Tippy stated, "This project is in the proposal phase and is very preliminary. In general, I do not favor disrupting farmland and wetlands for projects that do not provide benefit to Lake County. This project appears to be undesirable, but I will attend the meeting in a couple weeks to get more information."
Patton said he hopes to dispel these doubts during the 18-month permitting process.
"The route we have on the map is what we called our proposed, preferred route," he said. "It is not in cement."
"Anybody who thinks we are too close to this, or too far away from that, or we are cutting it in front of their farm, I am pleading with them to go to those meetings, make those comments and send us an email through our website http://greatlakesbasinraileis.com/ what their concerns are," Patton said.
Great Lakes promises to face property owners
Patton said the public meetings will be followed by face-to-face meetings with every property owner on the route.
"If someone says they absolutely don't want this on my property, our answer will be, fine, we will talk to your neighbor. Hopefully, that will work out. If it doesn't work out, then unfortunately it could end up in the courts. We hope it doesn't happen, but you know it will."
Patton said property rights must be balanced with the interests of interstate commerce.
"Eminent domain for the railroads goes back to Abraham Lincoln," Patton said.
"If you didn't have that possibility, there would be no railroad or interstate highways or schools, because at one point everything was farmland."
He said Great Lakes will be flexible. "There will be work-arounds. I can guarantee you no one is going to say there is no way I can get to the other side of the field; will not happen."
He said abundant rail and road overpasses will mitigate any concerns about blocked highways.
Patton said Scheub's proposal to move the freight cars to the Norfolk and Southern tracks farther south is flawed, since those tracks travel through the towns of Schneider and Wheatfield. "We told the STB we aren't going through any towns," Patton said.
Patton also denied Scheub's claim the project won't yield any jobs for Northwest Indiana.
"Our labor estimate for 2018 is between 10,000 to 12,000 people altogether," Patton said. "The tracks through Northwest Indiana represent $2 billion of our costs. There will be thousands of jobs."