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Editorial: Illinois high speed rail plan must benefit all

(The following editorial appeared on the State Journal-Register website on September 11, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — We are profoundly hopeful that today’s Illinois high-speed rail summit in Chicago can bring about a plan in which this state can have a good shot at federal funds for a Chicago-St. Louis route without severely damaging this community’s quality of life and future economic growth.

But based on recent correspondence between Union Pacific Railroad and local officials, Union Pacific is going to need a fairly drastic attitude adjustment if that is to happen. So far, the railroad’s attitude has been that Springfield needs to quit complaining about its plans because our objections might jeopardize the state’s shot at $2 billion-plus in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail. It has been abetted in this attitude by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Organized by IDOT, today’s meeting includes just about all interests in the high-speed rail bid, from Sen. Dick Durbin to the Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern railroads to Mayor Tim Davlin and Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter, among others. This is a meeting that should have happened late last year, as the potential for a federal stimulus package became apparent. Instead, Union Pacific got an exclusive seat at the table with IDOT and got a deal tailored to its interests.

FIRST ON THE AGENDA at today’s meeting should be a few words to Union Pacific about the meaning of the word “mitigation.” In the plan it favors, Union Pacific proposes building a second track along its existing line on the Third Street rail corridor. This would accommodate both a high-speed passenger line and greatly increased freight train traffic. Union Pacific says this won’t be a problem for Springfield street traffic because it will “mitigate” things by building overpasses above the tracks. IDOT has endorsed this plan.

In the most galling example of the current plan’s disregard for anything but moving trains and grabbing stimulus funds, Union Pacific proposes to “mitigate” the Lawrence Avenue crossing with an overpass. Never mind that the Dana-Thomas House then would be dwarfed by a massive concrete bridge. Never mind that the southern view of this national architectural treasure would be lost forever. To Union Pacific, the crossing would be “mitigated.” (For the record, Davlin has stated that that act of “mitigation” would be withdrawn at the city’s request if the process gets that far.)

There are nine such examples of “mitigation” spread along the tracks in this plan. Each would place concrete behemoths at current crossings, some to the detriment of businesses, some to residential neighborhoods. The entire plan would deal a potentially fatal blow to the nascent Mid-Illinois Medical District.

In an Aug. 28 letter to Durbin, Union Pacific threatens that if Springfield doesn’t accede to its wishes on the Third Street tracks, it will give this community the worst of both worlds — more freight trains without any “mitigation.” UP reiterates its oft-stated belief that using the 10th Street tracks instead of Third Street — a plan to which it had been amenable until federal funding came into the picture — is impossible.

“It is entirely possible that the actions of the Springfield Group could cause the High Speed Rail Initiative between Chicago and St. Louis to fail and cause Union Pacific to withdraw from the effort,” the letter states.

And walk away from a potential $2 billion-plus in government-funded rail enhancements? Really? We hope someone at today’s meeting, hopefully Sen. Durbin, calls UP’s bluff on this.

IF UNION PACIFIC wants to take its toys and go home, fine. Already, interests ranging from the Enos Park Neighborhood Association to local government are lining up attorneys for what promises to be a protracted legal battle if Union Pacific proceeds with its Third Street plan.

Given the intense competition across the country for high-speed rail stimulus money, we’re curious how this increasingly bitter squabble will play if it reaches a national stage. We don’t think public opinion nationally will be any more favorable to tax dollars funding Union Pacific’s mauling of a city than it was to tax dollars funding a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

Is that how Union Pacific wants this state’s bid for a share of high-speed rail stimulus to be received in Washington? With so much at stake, surely a long-planned move to the 10th Street tracks shouldn’t be a fatal obstacle, as Union Pacific and IDOT have portrayed it. We hope cooler heads can prevail today in Chicago and devise a plan beneficial to all involved, not just one railroad.

Friday, September 11, 2009

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