A bipartisan resolution in the Illinois state senate is pivoting off a controversial rail merger outside Chicago, as it asks President Obama to name a community-minded freight specialist to fill a federal rail regulatory vacancy.
The measure cites the recent purchase by Canadian National Railway of the suburban short line Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, a little-used short line that CN wants to beef up and use to carry a lot of cross-country trains that are now bogging down on CN’s clogged rail network in downtown Chicago.
The three-person Surface Transportation Board OK’d the merger in late December, over strong opposition by suburbs worried that a big ramp-up of train traffic would cause more roadway delays and other lifestyle problems in their bedroom communities.
Although the STB had conducted a lengthy environmental impact review, opponents say both its process and mitigation measures it ordered were insufficient to protect them from significant disruptions. Some have asked the STB to reconsider its decision and are appealing in federal court even though CN has already begun absorbing EJ&E.
CN has also appealed, saying some of the STB’s expensive mitigation requirements are out of line, and the company continues to negotiate new agreements of its own with affected suburbs. CN is already implementing some STB conditions, including monthly reports on rail-caused road traffic delays and operating changes to reduce them.
But an STB board position came open March 13 when former commissioner W. Douglas Buttrey left that job, and the Illinois senate measure is aiming straight at it. Although it cannot force the president’s hand, it would surely get his attention as Obama was a former member of that legislature from Chicago and then a U.S. senator who at one point cited his own concern over CN’s initial proposal.
And the senior U.S. senator from Illinois, Richard Durbin, told Journal of Commerce the STB’s December decision was “a weak ruling” and that the board “should have been more decisive in favor of the communities that face the impact from this merger.” Durbin is the assistant majority leader, or whip, for Democrats in the Senate.
An advocacy group for opponents of the rail merger, The Regional Answer to Canadian National or TRAC, says putting an ally on the STB could start to push those appeals in favor of the communities that have not yet signed mitigation agreements with CN.
That’s because the appeals court will not hear the case until the STB rules on reconsideration petitions, and some observers think a two-person board may not be able to agree enough to decide those issues.
The Illinois resolution, sponsored by Sens. Linda Holmes, a Democrat, and Dan Duffy, Republican, says “many communities throughout the Chicago area have already begun experiencing public safety issues and serious traffic congestion due to the acquisition.”
It urges Obama to quickly appoint an STB member with extensive freight shipping knowledge, but “someone who will take into consideration significant community impacts related to public safety, noise, vibration, traffic congestion, and other environmental concerns when evaluating railroad acquisitions and mergers.”
Besides what it asks of the president, the resolution would also lay down a marker of state intentions on how to allocate its own transportation spending.
It would tell Obama that Illinois “will show preference in the programming of railroad funds and rail-to-road grade separation project funds to projects where the (STB) has ordered a private entity to partially fund improvements necessary to mitigate impacts at significantly affected grade crossing.”
To see the proposed Illinois resolution, click here.