One of the main arguments Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. has made in favor of its rail project is that it would act as an economic driver for the region. Company lawyer Mike Blaszak says construction would create a significant number of jobs.
"Those of course, would be temporary," he said, "but the construction period would last at least two years."
Once the railroad is in operation, he envisions a smaller set of permanent positions operating trains, maintaining track, and other daily functions.
"I’m not trying to set a bar here for what we ought to pay somebody, but railroad people typically make in the upper five figures," he said. "We think that’s going to be an attractive option for people in the community who might be looking for employment."
As for the route's customers, Blaszak claims various companies have reached out, with a "substantial amount of interest" expressed in confidential meetings.
A Planning Agency's Tentative Support
One of the groups which first examined the project was the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or RMAP. Per federal law, it plans and coordinates decisions regarding the region's current and future transportation networks. In keeping with its name, RMAP works with Loves Park, Machesney Park, Belvidere, and Winnebago and Boone Counties as well as Rockford.
Executive Director Michael Dunn says their involvement with GLBR began early.
“My predecessor, Steve Ernst, was the one who was mostly involved in the Great Lakes Basin Railroad project. He had been working with the leaders of that project for the last three or four years.”
After examining the initial concept, Dunn says RMAP envisioned two potential benefits that GLBR could bring to Rockford-area freight transport.
“There’s a linkage that is defunct between the Rockford airport and Rochelle that would be supplemented by the Great Lakes Basin Railroad and allow more throughput between the two communities. Another benefit, if this happens, would be that traffic would be able to bypass the city of Rockford and not have to come through the central city.”
Dunn believes diverting these shipments could allow the area to modernize the Canadian National rail yards and put them closer to Chicago Rockford International Airport.
These advantages intrigued the RMAP board, which is made up of elected officials from the representative cities and counties. In their June meeting, six members voted in favor of a letter endorsing the project, and sent it to the federal Surface Transportation Board.
However, one member of the body abstained, and Dunn says the letter doesn’t represent complete support.
“That board did want to support this concept," he said, "but they withheld support for any specific route because we want to make sure that the routes are in conformance with the county comprehensive plan, RMAP’s plan, and all that.”
RMAP has a detailed greenways plan that maps environmentally sensitive areas throughout Winnebago and Boone Counties. In their letter, the board noted they "do not have enough information from GLBRR to fully understand how the current route will affect the existing transportation, agricultural land use, and environmental asset-mapping plans for the region."
Local Business Groups Say It's Too Early
Despite GLBR's claims of "significant interest," other business groups have their own reservations. Mike Nicholas of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council said he is trying to get GLBR founder and managing partner Frank Patton to speak with them so they can have a "better understanding of his plans." The Rockford Chamber of Commerce said they didn't have a position on the railroad.
Shipping company UPS has its second-largest hub at Rockford’s airport and could potentially benefit from the increased freight traffic. However, spokesman Dan McMackin said the line is not something they've studied. He says one of their transportation managers would meet with GLBR next year, but it was too early to disclose anything.
What Comes Next
Ultimately, the final path of the railroad will be determined by the Surface Transportation Board's environmental impact statement. Dunn says before this happens, everyone needs more information.
“Until there’s public participation on the routes, until routes are narrowed down, nobody’s going to spend the money to bring in-the-field research on whatever the final route might be," he says. "Even then, the research might show that there’s some issues, and they’re gonna have to go back and refine again. It’s a very long process.”
Great Lakes Basin founder Frank Patton recently filed a request to put the environmental impact review on hold. Blaszak says that will allow them to provide more comprehensive information on the railroad’s business and operating impact. Their request was granted December 13, but the Surface Transportation Board expects a progress report by Feburary 28.
Great Lakes Basin can’t begin any construction until the STB makes a final ruling -- and that could still take years, even after the review process resumes.