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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

No going back on CN's purchase of EJ&E, LaHood says

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Federal aid alone won't pay for meaningful highway projects these days, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Monday during a visit to the Chicago suburbs, the Daily Herald reports. Instead, tolls and public-private partnerships in addition to government funding are the wave of the future when it comes to transportation improvements, he noted.

"Public-private partnerships, tolling, the highway trust fund ... a combination of these things and we'll get there. But right now we're trying to find the path forward," LaHood said, while at a stop in Barrington, Ill.

The Peoria Republican returned to Illinois to meet with U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean, a Barrington Democrat, and local leaders to talk about transportation needs and tour several controversial railroad crossings.

The Canadian National Railway's purchase of the smaller EJ&E railroad to relieve congestion on some of its busier tracks is opposed by Barrington and other towns along the line because of traffic and safety concerns.

Although opponents are suing to overturn federal regulators' 2008 decision permitting the merger, "it's reality," LaHood said of the acquisition.

The pending surface transportation bill, a multi-year funding program for roads and transit, will provide critical assistance for projects across the country when it is passed, LaHood said.

"I think the region should look to the next transportation bill as an opportunity to solve some of these big transportation issues," he said.

But the secretary noted that finding the cash to finance the program is a challenge, particularly given the depleted state of the highway trust fund, which is funded largely by gasoline taxes and has had to receive emergency allocations from Congress.

"It's deficient because people drive less and drive more efficient cars," LaHood said.

And given that President Obama opposes raising the gas tax in the current economic climate, "we've got to be creative and think outside the box," when it comes to funding the surface transportation bill, LaHood said.

Touring EJ&E railroad crossings with LaHood was productive, Barrington Mayor Karen Darch said, adding the village will continue its legal fight against the U.S. Surface Transportation Board's ruling.

"One likely scenario is that the court could remand it back to the board for further environmental review that could lead to further mitigation," she said.