LOWELL —The Tri-Creek School Board and administration is urging residents to attend an upcoming public hearing regarding a proposed new freight rail line that would run between Ind. 2 and Belshaw Road from LaPorte to Illinois and Wisconsin.
The board learned of the rail line on Wednesday and the hearing is in less than three weeks.
The Office of Environmental Analysis of the Surface Transportation Board (STB) will hold what is billed as a "local public scoping meeting" from 5:30 to 8 p.m. April 12 at Lowell Town Hall, 501 E. Main St. It will be the second of eight such hearings planned along the Illinois and Indiana portions of the route. The first such meeting is April 11 in Manteno, Illinois.
Another hearing will take place April 13 at the same time in the American Legion Banquet Hall, 203 S. Washington St., Wanatah. Another is April 14 in the Civic Auditorium, 1001 Ridge St., LaPorte.
The proposed, privately owned Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. rail line would extend for 278 miles between LaPorte and Milton, Wisconsin, with the expressed intent of reducing rail congestion around Chicago.
The STB, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is an independent adjudicatory and economic regulatory agency charged by the U.S. Congress with resolving railroad rate and service disputes and reviewing proposed railroad mergers. It will prepare the environmental impact statement following input from the public meetings.
The rail project has an estimated $8 billion price tag.
In its public notice, the STB states Great Lakes Basin Transportation may file for an exemption from regulation by the STB for the project. There are regulations that allow for such exemption for projects limited in scope or that will not adversely affect shippers.
Alternatively, the notice states Great Lakes Basin Transportation may file an application seeking STB authority to construct and operate the 278-mile rail line.
The rail line could result in the closure of some rural roads and allow up to 110 trains daily, the notice said.
Opposition to the line is mounting, with many local residents gearing up for a fight similar to the one that put the brakes on the proposed Illiana Expressway last year.
Tri-Creek Superintendent Debra Howe was taken aback by the short notice of the proposed rail line and an associated public hearing. It leaves concerned school officials little time to prepare questions and input because spring break begins Friday.
It appears, but is not truly clear, Howe said, that the proposed line would run extremely close to Lowell Middle School on Cline Avenue. How it would affect Lake County Parks' Buckley Homestead, was equally unclear.
Howe strongly urged residents to research the proposal and bring their information to the April 12 meeting.
Frank Patton, the chairman of Great Lakes Basin Transportation, says construction of the rail line could begin in as little as 18 months. He said 14 other investors have joined him. They could expend up to $50 million on developing the environmental impact statement, he said.
He said the project would offer an unparalleled economic development opportunity for the Region, because rail access would be offered to agricultural and industrial facilities all along the route. The route would operate as a bypass to the congested Chicago rail corridor, cutting the trip needed to transit the Chicago region to just 8 hours from the 33 hours it takes trains on average now.
"You have to understand if you are driving to Rockford from Northwest Indiana you don't go on the Kennedy through downtown Chicago, you go around Chicago," Patton said. "It should be the same with rail freight."
He said he and his staff plan to talk to every landowner along the proposed route. Changes have already been made to their plan in response to community input, he said.
"We live in a democracy," Patton said. "Everyone has a voice. They have their voice and I have mine."
Times Business Editor Keith Benman contributed to this story.