Will suburbs opposing railroad merger plan beat the odds?
Fourteen years ago, suburbanites marched with homemade signs, lobbied their congressmen and hired lawyers in hopes of defeating a proposed merger between mega railroad CN and the smaller EJ & E Railway.
Despite all that, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board approved the deal in late 2008, albeit with tough conditions costing millions.
Now, a separate union between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railways awaits the STB's decision. So, will history repeat itself in 2022?
In both cases. towns near the railway tracks have opposed the mergers, warning of long waits at crossings, delays for first responders, and increased crashes and hazmat spills.
The CP/KCS deal is far more ambitious than the 2008 one, and it would create a massive rail network from Canada to Mexico. So far, the STB staff is waving on the plan, expecting a "negligible" impact, analysts wrote in a draft report.
At a Thursday online forum, STB officials cited benefits like reduced air pollution.
CP anticipates "reducing truck transportation on highways in North America by more than 60,000 trucks each year," STB project manager Joshua Wayland said.
Risks like derailments and hazmat spills would increase on some rail line segments, he explained. "We expect the risk of such incidents would remain small." And most "would be minor and not result in injuries or fatalities," Wayland said.
However, staff recommendations don't necessarily cue board behavior. Experts note the STB's chairman is former Metra chairman Martin Oberman, a bicycle-riding former Chicago alderman known as an independent reformer.
And this time around, Democratic President Joe Biden appoints board members in contrast to Republican President George W. Bush in 2008.
"The STB has become much more assertive in imposing conditions on railroad mergers," said DePaul University Transportation Professor Joe Schwieterman. "The STB feels pressure not to gloss over the concerns of villages bisected by CP."
Nonetheless, Schwieterman predicts a "yes" vote.
Another new factor in 2022 is the supply chain quagmire. CP contends the combo railroad would expedite the delivery of goods and increase competition. Many shippers agree, which can't have escaped the White House's attention.
The plan for the 2008 merger forecast an average increase of 19 freights a day on EJ&E tracks in suburbs from Barrington to Aurora. But it also reduced trains on some CN tracks.
The STB required the railroad to contribute $68 million for grade separations in Aurora and Lynwood, report on train delays and offer noise reduction aid.
The CP/KCS deal would add eight more freights on average. The Coalition to Stop CPKC, comprising Bartlett, Bensenville, Elgin, Itasca, Hanover Park, Roselle, Wood Dale and Schaumburg, is objecting and seeks $9 billion in mitigations.
That's a big ask -- and there's competition from stakeholders in other states. Eugene Tibbetts, a tribal leader with the White Earth Nation in Minnesota, told the STB Thursday a hazmat spill "would pose a huge threat to water quality."
Still, "don't be surprised if the CP is required to pay for some of the cost of at least one overpass to lessen traffic impacts" locally, Schwieterman said.
Leading CN's charge in 2008 was Hunter Harrison, a proudly crusty, old-school railroader. CP's chief Keith Creel is polished and professional.
But CP's rhetoric in its STB filings is pretty salty. The railroad dismissed the coalition's concerns as "not in my backyard, never mind the impact on the public as a whole."
The coalition believes the draft report "woefully underrepresents many essential concerns of our communities, most importantly safety," spokeswoman Lissa Druss said.
Also different in 2022 is significant resistance from Metra, which projects a "several-fold" increase in delays on its Milwaukee District North and West Lines.
CP called Metra's analysis "not only overreaching, but also infeasible."
The STB will hold a public forum today in Itasca, and the board has hearings Sept. 28-30. For info, go to cp-kcsmergereis.com.
The Illinois tollway this week will close the northbound lanes on County Line Road between East Lake Street and Grand Avenue near Elmhurst. Work will last through summer 2023 and is part of the Tri-State Tollway rebuild.
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AAA announced that most -- 83% -- of Thanksgiving travelers will finalize plans by Sept. 30. AAA suggests you book a nonstop flight that leaves early in the morning and consider going a few days earlier to have a cushion for delays.