Officials in Lake Forest and Glenview are trying to shift the regulatory focus of the proposed Amtrak Hiawatha expansion between Chicago and Milwaukee from passenger service to altering how freight trains operate.
The renewed emphasis on freight operations stems from a push from the United States Environmental Protection Agency asking the Federal Railroad Administration to weigh the impact of alterations to freight movement as the FRA considers the overall project.
Amtrak operates on Metra-owned tracks between downtown Chicago and Rondout near Highway 176 before it continues northward to Milwaukee on the Canadian Pacific right of way.
Freight has been the focus of a robust public debate on the proposed expansion in Lake Forest, Glenview, Northbrook and Deerfield since October. That is when the FRA issued an Environmental Assessment detailing infrastructure changes to accommodate the added passenger service.
Click here to read the full assessment.
In November, those four municipalities along with Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Deerfield) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) asked the FRA to conduct a more detailed environmental impact study before making a final decision.
Though the EPA did not specifically ask for the impact study, it raised concerns about freight impact, demanding answers from the FRA.
“Would extending sidings or adding new holding areas enable freight operators to run more trains?” the EPA wrote in comments on the assessment Nov. 8. “Would proposed changes allow freight trains to wait within the corridor for extended periods of time, since the project would provide a place to do so off the main-line track?
Lake Forest Pushes EPA Stance
That language prompted Lake Forest City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. to write to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation asking these issues be thoroughly considered. He criticized those agencies for failing to take a closer look at the impact of freight operations.
Kiely said in a letter to IDOT and WisDot they had not articulated how they will deal with freight operations. He asked for answers on the project’s impact on “air quality, emissions, noise and public safety.”
Glenview officials’ reaction to the EPA position was scheduling a meeting with IDOT and a representative from the office of Gov. Bruce Rauner, according to Don Owen, Glenview’s interim village manager. The meeting took place March 23.
“We want to know what will change at grade crossings,” said Owen in a DailyNorthShore.com interview. “Now the (freight) trains pass at 40 to 60 miles an hour and it takes a few minutes. If they slow down or stop it could take 10 to 15 minutes to clear a grade crossing.”
When Amtrak first proposed adding three daily round trips to its existing 17 runs more than two years ago, the FRA, IDOT and WisDOT embarked on an Environmental Assessment to determine how to best accommodate the change, according to Owen.
In October, the FRA, IDOT and WisDOT issued their assessment, calling for the addition of a pair of nearly two-mile long third rails to allow faster passenger trains to pass slower freights.
Holding Tracks Impact Lake Forest, Glenview, Northbrook, Deerfield
One of those tracks is proposed between Highway 60 in Lake Forest and Rondout, according to the assessment. The other will span Glenview and Northbrook between West Lake Avenue and Techny Road. A shorter 1,500-foot third rail is planned north of Greenwood Avenue in Deerfield.
“It’s essentially a parking lot for trains,” said Owen said in a September 30 DNS story. “The question will be if smells and sounds of the trains idling and blocked views hurt property values in the area. We believe it would.”
Lake Forest’s City Council discussed a resolution at a February 21 meeting to support a third rail it considered less onerous. That came when Metra publicly supported the proposed infrastructure additions. At that point, Kiely said the city wanted the best deal it could get.
Residents who live near the proposed third rail erupted in protest at the February 21 meeting and continued to press their case when the council met April 3. At that time they were unaware of Kiely’s communication with WisDOT and IDOT and he was on vacation at the time of the meeting.
“These are life safety concerns,” Joanne Desmond, the president of the Academy Woods Homeowners Association, said at the April 3 meeting. “Please keep us informed. Please keep us part of the process.”
Kiely said in an April 13 DNS interview the city currently has no intention of calling the resolution favoring the modified proposal for a vote. He said Lake Forest will continue to press for the impact study.
“Some of the aldermen were swayed by the residents’ concerns,” said Kiely. “We are going to hold firm on our request for the assessment.”