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One town’s fight imperils entire high-speed plan in Illinois, rail official warns

(The following story by Bernard Schoenburg appeared on The State Journal-Register website on September 9, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Springfield officials’ public fight against additional train traffic along the Third Street corridor could derail the entire plan to provide high-speed rail service between Springfield and Chicago, a vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad says.

Alternatively, railroad vice president John Rebensdorf warned in an Aug. 28 letter to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the railroad could carry out its plans unilaterally, and Springfield could “become the bottleneck of the new high speed passenger rail route.”

“The resulting delays will negatively impact the reliability of the new passenger service as well as increase delays to motorists in the Springfield area due to unnecessary train congestion,” Rebensdorf wrote.

In the four-page letter, Rebensdorf accused Mayor Tim Davlin, Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter and others in Springfield of not acting in good faith.

“Their strategy appears to be to not deal with UP and IDOT (the Illinois Department of Transportation) directly, but rather to force us to accede to their position through public and political pressure and, in particular, force you (Durbin) or Governor (Pat) Quinn, through IDOT, to impose a Tenth Street Corridor solution,” the letter states.

Davlin, Van Meter and others have been pushing for further study of their preferred option — routing high-speed trains and additional freight traffic along Springfield’s Tenth Street railroad line. The city, county and Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce have said that a Third Street route would create traffic tie-ups, close crossings and hurt long-term economic development plans.

IDOT and the Union Pacific maintain that Third Street is the only practical route through the city, especially if Illinois is to capture a share of federal economic stimulus funds set aside for high-speed rail.

‘Misinformation campaign’

Rebensdorf’s letter to Durbin complains that Davlin and Van Meter have employed a “campaign of misinformation” to inflame community groups. The railroad has not publicly fought such misinformation, the letter says, because “we do not desire to get drawn into a media discussion of High Speed Passenger Rail in Springfield, but rather desire to negotiate a solution both sides can live with.”

The UP doesn’t want to negotiate through the media, the letter adds.

Unless Springfield officials change course, Rebensdorf’s letter states, the city could become a bottleneck in the high-speed route.

“It is entirely possible that the actions of the Springfield Group could cause the High Speed Rail Intitiative between Chicago and St. Louis to fail and cause Union Pacific to withdraw from the effort,” Rebensdorf wrote. “From the start, we have consistently stated that we would only agree to host this service on our line if all the conditions could be put in place that we believe are necessary to make the service a success. Control of our own, dedicated route through Springfield is one of those conditions.”

Upgrading the Tenth Street track would be “significantly more expensive and have a far more detrimental effect on the Springfield community than we expect the Springfield group will admit to,” he wrote.

“In summary, we do not believe that the Springfield group is dealing with us in good faith. They basically are saying our plan cannot and will not be done, and they are interested in working with us only on their consolidated Tenth Street Corridor. …

“It is unfortunate that in this case, the Union Pacific desires to work up-front with the community to find a solution, but the community is saying it won’t cooperate or compromise.…”

Obligation to inform residents

Van Meter said via email late Tuesday that he and Davlin “explained to the UP early in our discussions that we have had an obligation to inform the community of the issues and options it faced.

“The UP has asked us not to negotiate in the public square, and we will continue to respect that request, as long as that is a path that looks like it will lead to a successful outcome for all,” Van Meter added. “We have not, for example, released our correspondence with the UP, although everyone recognizes that our files are a public record.”

Jim Donelan, Davlin’s executive assistant, said he hadn’t read Rebensdorf’s letter, but said the city has been and plans to continue working with all parties to come up with a solution.

The State Journal-Register Tuesday also obtained an Aug. 7 letter from Rebensdorf to Davlin, Van Meter and Milt Sees, a consultant to the local group, in which Rebensdorf outlined the railroad’s difficulties with the Tenth Street corridor.

A 10th Street alignment would be more dangerous than Third Street, the letter said, and would create new problems involving coordinating with other railroads, inadequate sidings, trackage and signals, and effects on nearby neighborhoods, the Aug. 7 letter says.

“We do not see how our concerns can be effectively addressed by the consolidated 10th Street corridor proposal,” Rebensdorf concluded.

In an Aug. 26 letter to Davlin, Van Meter and Sees, Rebensdorf expressed disappointment that they had not provided the UP with comments on the railroad’s draft of a Third Street improvement plan.

“We continue to stand ready to work with you in a cooperative manner to fashion a mitigation plan for the Third Street Corridor,” the Aug. 26 letter states. “However, as we have told you on numerous occasions, we will not do this through the media.”

Van Meter said the letters, some of which he said he hadn’t seen before, “support our belief that Senator Durbin and other key players have not been fully informed about the very real possibility for an outcome that is positive for all parties.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

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