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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Freight forum stokes EJ&E concerns

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Squabbling in Congress over how to pay for transportation could mean no federal cash in the near future to fix Chicago's freight train bottleneck, a top official warned, the Daily Herald reports. At a forum on freight rail, representatives from the U.S. and Canadian governments and the business community emphasized that trains are cheaper and more fuel-efficient than trucks to move goods. Transport Canada official Kristine Burr said the public and private sectors were investing $2 billion in freight rail projects there.


"We wanted to make sure the transportation system is as effective and productive as possible," Burr said during the event, held at the Union League Club of Chicago and organized by the Metropolitan Planning Council.


In contrast, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, a member of the influential House Transportation Committee, said federal funding for projects such as CREATE, a program to modernize the congested rail system in Chicago with improvements like grade separations, won't happen anytime soon.


The current surface transportation act expires Sept. 30. A new $500-billion proposal to be spent over six years is under discussion but the White House and Senate are pushing a smaller 18-month version. The problem is, "there's no consensus on how to fund it," said Petri, a Wisconsin Republican.


The issue hit home for Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner and Barrington Mayor Karen Darch, who attended the forum. Both communities opposed the merger of the Canadian National Railroad and the smaller EJ&E railway that runs from Waukegan to Gary, Ind. The government approved the merger and agreed with CN's contention it would ease freight problems in Chicago.


Towns along the EJ&E fought the plan, saying it would increase traffic, delay emergency responders and cause environmental problems.


The mayors said there was a disconnect between the government approving the merger but holding back money to pay for improvements.


"There needs to be more planning," Darch said. "If you approve a deal making freights flow faster, there's got to be planning for the impact on communities."


Petri, however, said "we need to see progress made in moving goods through the Chicago area. CREATE is part of that but it's slow in coming. CN has stepped up to bat to try and close the gap."


Ron Pillsbury, a vice president with McCain Foods Ltd. who spoke at the event, said train delays are costly for everyone.


"It adds costs getting from Point A to Point B," Pillsbury said. "Ultimately the consumer pays for it."


CREATE has received about $220 million in public and private dollars and the state recently committed $320 million, but the entire project could cost up to $3 billion.


The forum was co-sponsored by the Canadian Consulate General of Chicago.

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