An alliance of five North Shore communities and their Congressional representatives are insisting the Federal Railroad Administration conduct a more detailed study before adding more than four miles of holding tracks to expand Amtrak service between Chicago and Milwaukee.
The Illinois Department of Transportation and Wisconsin Department of Transportation believe an Environmental Assessment released in October contains enough data to enable the FRA to make a decision.
The five communities—Lake Forest, Glenview, Northbrook, Deerfield and Bannockburn—await the FRA decision after asking for an environmental impact study and submitting more than 100 questions between them during a public comment period that ended January 15.
A decision is expected over the summer, according to Arun Rao, WisDOT’s passenger rail manager.
More than two years in the making, the federal and state agencies are trying to determine the additions to the railroad infrastructure necessary to add three-round Amtrak round trips a day between Chicago and Milwaukee, according to Don Owen, Glenview’s deputy village manager.
Details for the project are contained in an environmental assessment prepared by the FRA, WisDot and IDOT. The plan recommends three holding tracks running through Glenview, Northbrook, Deerfield and Lake Forest. Owen said they are “parking lots for trains.” They allow freights to wait while faster Amtrak and Metra trains pass.
Once the assessment was released, representatives of the five communities quickly met to form a joint effort. Metra was part of it too, according to Deerfield Village Manager Kent Street. He said Metra supports their position.
“We will have more of an impact working together,” said Street.
One nearly two-mile holding track is planned between Highway 60 in Lake Forest and Rondout near Highway 176, according to the assessment. Another of approximately the same length is planned between West Lake Avenue in Glenview and Techny Road in Northbrook. The third, 1,500 feet long for Metra trains, will extend north from Greenwood Avenue in Deerfield.
EIS Looks at Environmental Factors
The impact study will take a more detailed look at the effect the holding tracks will have on the environment, according to Owen. He said it considers the impact on the communities not just on the railroads.
“They are making a lot of assumptions and providing very little detail before spending $150 million,” said Owen. “They have not looked at noise, pollution, vibration or (the effect on) property values.”
Answers to scores of additional questions will be incorporated into the assessment by Quandel Consultants, LLC, according to Lake Forest City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. The company is an engineering firm hired by IDOT and WisDOT to help prepare the assessment. Kiely said the Lake Forest City Council unanimously passed a resolution requesting the impact statement.
“The full impact study is going to give us the answers we need,” said Kiely. “We have passed along comments from the community. Some residents made comments on their own.”
Rao said he believes once the additional information and analysis that addresses comments received from stakeholders and the public are added to the assessment, the FRA will be in a position to decide whether a decision can be made on information at hand, further analysis is needed or an impact study is warranted.
“We will work it into additional analysis,” said Rao. “Then we can submit the full environmental assessment. An EIS would only add procedural steps.”
The FRA can order the impact study on its own, according to Rao. FRA spokesperson Tiffany Lindemann declined to comment to DailyNorthShore.com when asked about the status of the project or the impact study. She referred all inquiries to IDOT and WisDOT because “they are the lead agencies.”
Northbrook Raises Public Safety Issues
Northbrook Village Manager Richard Nahrstadt said the village has a number of concerns. One of the most pressing is how long traffic will be delayed at Techny Road as the trains slow down and speed up when entering and leaving the holding track.
“The question has been asked but we still don’t have an answer yet,” said Nahrstadt. “This is a public safety concern. The fire department has to cross those tracks.”
Owen said he is hopeful the combined effort of the five towns along with support from Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Deerfield) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) will sway the FRA.
Schakowsky represents parts of Northbrook and Glenview. Schneider represents the rest of those communities along with Lake Forest, Deerfield and Bannockburn. The tracks are in Schneider’s district.
“The full impact of these projects on surrounding communities has yet to be determined,” Schneider wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to FRA Executive Director Patrick Warren. “The Environmental Assessment was an important first step, but more must be done. A full EIS would help determine the potential risks to the environment and safety of these surrounding communities and their residents.”
Schakowsky wrote in a December 22 letter to then FRA administrator Sarah E. Feinberg the data contained in the assessment was insufficient to make an informed decision. She said the impact study was necessary. She was joined in the communication by state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), state Rep. Laura Fine (D-Glenview) and state Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston).
“An Environmental Impact Study would ensure careful study of these potential risks to assure they are properly accounted for when the FRA makes a final decision,” Schakowsky wrote in the letter.
Warren is currently in charge of the FRA until President Donald Trump appoints a new administrator. Feinberg left her position with the change in administrations.
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