The man behind an $8-billion plan to route train traffic around Chicago met with the public in a forum in Grundy County Monday night. Great Lakes Basin Railroad co-founder Frank Patton was in the hot seat. A very hot seat.
The crowd in the Morris High School gym had a lot of questions about the proposed 275-mile private railroad that would curve around the Chicago area, from LaPorte, Indiana to Milton, Wisconsin. Much of the path runs through farmland, so people wanted to know if their field tiles would be destroyed, interrupting their water supply and affecting wetlands. Patton answered “no,” and was greeted with hoots of disbelief. He added, “If we do that we will not get the permit to build the railroad.” The crowd burst into cheers.
Patton was asked repeatedly who was funding the massive infrastructure project: he said he has non-disclosure agreements with potential investors, but did offer that he had no plans with foreign investors at this time. He also said he was not at liberty to release the names of rail companies interested in using his tracks. The crowd scoffed when Patton told them landowners would get free electricity from the railroad.
They were also skeptical about the $20-thousand an acre price Patton said landowners would be paid, pro-rated to the 200-foot right of way strip needed for the rails. And they mocked Patton for saying rail access will actually increase their property values.
One of the biggest concerns for residents along the route is the congestion Chicago would avoid landing in their front yards. Patton told the group estimates of 110 trains per day are maximums, and they could expect about a quarter of that traffic.
After the meeting, Patton told reporters he is positive the Great Lakes Basin Railroad will be built. He says it’s a philosophical question America needs to confront.
“Can this country do a project like this in this day and age with people who see the environment differently? We are going to find out.”
The proposed route is far from final. The public has until June 15th to get comments to the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency conducting the environmental impact study. One Grundy county landowner, George Schweneker, caught Patton’s ear after the meeting by suggesting the train route follow a European model by running along Interstates 80 and 39.
Patton says there will be more public meetings in the counties affected this summer. His lawyers advised him the entire process will take two to three years. They still have to win federal approval of a draft and final environmental impact study.