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Springfield mayor softens tone on high-speed rail lawsuit

(The following story by Deana Poole and Bruce Rushton appeared on the State Journal-Register website on September 15, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — On Sept. 1, the Springfield City Council unanimously passed a resolution saying the city should be prepared to use litigation to fight a proposal to bring high-speed rail through downtown on Third Street track owned by Union Pacific.

But Mayor Tim Davlin sounded less strident last week, after meeting in Chicago with officials from the Union Pacific Railroad, Amtrak, the Norfolk Southern railroad and the Illinois Department of Transportation, all of which support the project. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter also were there.

Asked if litigation was still a possibility, Davlin ducked.

“I don’t know as if I’ve ever talked about real litigation,” Davlin said Friday.

So litigation is no longer an option?

“I didn’t say either way,” Davlin said.

Van Meter stepped in to answer, saying the county stands ready to sue to halt the project, which critics say would divide and scar the city.

During a Monday interview with local radio personality Sam Madonia, Davlin suggested the city has a choice: surrender to the Union Pacific or lose the chance to get millions of dollars for overpasses and an underpass that would keep trains and automobiles moving at the same time.

The railroad has the right to run 36 additional freight trains daily, maybe more, down the Third Street corridor no matter what, the mayor said.

“No one on the face of this earth can stop that,” Davlin told Madonia. “They have the God-given right to go down their own tracks, and as many (trains) as they want.”

Aldermen split

City aldermen on Sept. 1 unanimously passed a resolution opposing IDOT and UP’s plans to put high-speed rail and additional freight trains along the Third Street corridor. During the meeting, aldermen added language staying they are prepared to sue to protect the community.

On Monday, two aldermen said the city should look before it leaps into the courts. Four others said they would endorse a lawsuit, if only as a last resort.

Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman said he couldn’t say whether he would support suing until he’s briefed by city attorneys.

“We have to seriously consider this,” Cahnman said. “If litigation stopped high-speed rail, Union Pacific would still run its additional freight trains on Third, and we’d have the worst of both worlds — a large increase in Third Street freight traffic with no federal mitigation funds and no high-speed rail.”

Ward 3 Ald. Frank Kunz also said the city should be cautious. Attorneys should find out whether other cities have beaten railroads in court.

“You cannot sue if there’s no chance of winning,” Kunz said. “If you don’t want the high-speed, that’s fine. I’m not too sure you’re going to stop UP from sending their freight trains.”

Downtown endangered

Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards, who amended the Sept. 1 resolution to add a clause stating the city should be prepared for litigation, said the city should sue if the project requires overpasses and an underpass, as outlined in a report from the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission.

“I’ll use any means we got,” Edwards said. “That just destroys downtown.”

Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney said litigation should be considered if no other means convinces the state and Union Pacific to back off.

“I think that’s an option we can’t ignore,” Mahoney said. “Nobody likes litigation. Sometimes it pays off.”

Ward 7 Ald. Debbie Cimarossa also said the city shouldn’t dismiss the idea of a lawsuit.

“I would entertain that, yes,” Cimarossa said. “I think it (the project) would be very detrimental to our community.”

Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen agreed that the city should not forget about lawsuits.

“You’re talking about taking our city and undoing the last 15 or 20 years’ worth of work in revitalizing downtown,” Theilen said.

The other four aldermen – Gayle Simpson in Ward 2, Frank Lesko in Ward 4, Steve Dove in Ward 9 and Tim Griffin in Ward 10 – couldn’t be reached Monday.

Mayor ‘being realistic’

Ernie Slottag, Davlin’s spokesman, said the mayor isn’t softening his stance, but rather “being realistic.”

He said the city still wants to study 10th Street in hopes of moving the freight traffic there.

“But in the interim, we need to be realistic and prepare for the increased train traffic on Third Street.”

Asked about the possibility of suing, Slottag said: “I think that was an option. I don’t know if it still is. I think there will have to be discussions on that, because in any litigation, you need to have a goal in mind.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

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