LAKE FOREST — After learning their hopes of thwarting a third rail between Highway 60 and Rondout as part of the proposed Amtrak Hiawatha expansion were diminished, Lake Forest officials are considering a shift of their position.
The Lake Forest City Council discussed a resolution Feb. 21 at City Hall changing their demand the Federal Railroad Administration conduct an environmental impact study on a nearly two-mile long holding track north of Highway 60 from absolute to conditional.
Mayor Donald Schoenheider said the council will vote on the resolution at 6:30 p.m. March 6 at City Hall when all eight aldermen will hopefully be present. Third Ward Aldermen Stanford Tack and Jack Reisenberg were absent.
Amtrak wants to add three round trips a day between Chicago and Milwaukee, according to a Nov. 8 DailyNorthShore.com story. The proposal, pushed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation, prompted an environmental assessment by the FRA.
The assessment recommended one 10,000-foot-long third rail between Highway 60 and Rondout, an additional 1,500-foot-track north of Greenwood Avenue in Deerfield and another spanning Northbrook and Glenview between Techny Road and West Lake Avenue.
Lake Forest, along with Glenview, Northbrook, Deerfield and Bannockburn, all asked the FRA for the more detailed environmental assessment. They were joined in their request by Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Deerfield) and Jan. Schakowsky (D-Evanston). All asked for additional information. Lake Forest may now be ready to accept the assessment’s findings.
Circumstances Have Changed
Circumstances have changed since Lake Forest took its hard-line position Nov. 7, according to City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. He said Metra came out in favor of the holding tracks proposed in the assessment. Metra owns the tracks between Rondout and downtown Chicago. The consultant the city hired said it was unlikely the FRA would order the impact study.
“Metra coming out against it was a watershed moment,” said Kiely in a DNS interview after the meeting . He said Metra was not in favor of the impact study. “The fact they own the rail line will have a major impact on the FRA.”
Donald Orseno, the executive director and CEO of Metra, was at the meeting to explain his organization’s position. He said Metra wants a third rail from Rondout to downtown Chicago but at this time the project would be too costly.
“We are not in the business of holding trains,” said Orseno. “We are in the business of moving trains. The third rail is not a holding track. It is there so faster trains can pass.”
Kiely said discussions with IDOT and WisDOT indicated the information that will be added to the assessment will be close to the information that would be produced in the impact. Those questions came from Lake Forest and the other North Shore towns.
When Lake Forest first learned of the assessment, it hired Hanson Professional Services, an engineering firm, to take a close look at the proposals, its impact on the city and assess what local officials can do, according to Kiely.
Consultant Doubts FRA Will Allow Impact Study
James Messmore, a Hanson senior vice president, said the FRA takes a very narrow look. As long as it meets the parameters for an assessment, he said it is unlikely the FRA will impose an impact study.
“They can do everything in their right of way,” said Messmore referring to the property where the tracks are located. “They don’t have to acquire any land. As long as there is no impact on the environment within their right of way the chances of FRA requiring an environmental impact study are remote.”
Some of the biggest objections came from the homeowners in the Academy Woods subdivision, which abuts the tracks. The third rail will pass by those homes. Joanne Desmond, president of the Academy Woods Homeowners Association, asked the council to stick with its original position.
“We do not agree with your rationale,” said Desmond. “What about our safety? Is this just to get more Amtrak trains and Metra trains? Be considerate and consult with the stakeholders. Please reinstate the environmental impact study. Right now there are vibrations.”
Alderman Prue Beidler said she spent several hours in the Academy Woods area February 21. She said she got a firsthand feel for the noise and vibrations as a pair of freight trains passed while she was there.
Beidler: I Feel for These People
“I really feel for these people,” said Beidler. “It seems pretty consequential. Can we get some kind of noise buffer because this really has an impact on their neighborhood?
Desmond held up a copy of a comment on the assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency critical of the impact of the proposal.
“Please read it,” said Desmond. “It’s only nine pages.”
The resolution calls for abiding by the decision coming from the assessment if the holding track is designed implementing what Kiely called Alternative 2. That will keep idling locomotives away from Academy Woods, according to the draft of the resolution. If the engines idle near the subdivision the city will continue to insist on the impact study.
The resolution also says WisDOT, IDOT, Metra and Amtrak will support Lake Forest’s effort to create an Amtrak stop at the west Lake Forest train station. Schoenheider said the city has been seeking this for years.
There is no southbound Metra service at the West station between 4:44 p.m. and 7:59 p.m., according to Kiely. The draft of the resolution says Metra will add service during those hours. Kiely said it will be a bonus for people who work in Lake Forest and live in Chicago. Once the third rail is in place, Metra will add express service between Lake Forest and Chicago.