Opposition to Hiawatha Expansion Softening

Some north suburban Chicago officials are having second thoughts about their opposition to a proposed expansion of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service.

Hiawatha 2News reports indicate that officials in Lake Forest have softened their stance in view of the likelihood that the Federal Railroad Administration is unlikely to order that a full environmental impact study be done on a proposal to add a third track on the route used by Amtrak, Metra and Canadian Pacific.

Lake Forest, Glenview, Northbrook, Deerfield and Bannockburn have demanded the EIS after the release of an environmental assessment last fall that found installing the additional tracks would not adversely affect communities along the line.

That triggered intense opposition from homeowners and public officials who argue that CP freight trains will sit  for long period of time while awaiting permission to enter Union Pacific tracks. This, they argued, will create noise, pollution and lower property values.

Lake Forest Mayor Donald Schoenheider said the city council will vote on a resolution on March 6 pertaining to the proposed expansion.

The news reports indicate that meetings between Lake Forest officials and Metra also played a key role in the change of mind.

Lake Forest City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. said Metra, which owns the tracks between Rondout and Chicago, favors building the third track and opposes conducting an EIS.

Kiely said Metra CEO Donald Orseno recently told suburban officials, “We are not in the business of holding trains. We are in the business of moving trains. The third rail is not a holding track. It is there so faster trains can pass.”

A consulting firm hired by Lake Forest concluded after studying the environmental assessment that the FRA is unlikely to order an EIS and will take a “narrow” view of the proposed expansion because it involves an existing railroad right of way and won’t involve land acquisition.

The consultants concluded that as long as there is no impact on the environment within the railroad’s right of way the chances of FRA requiring an environmental impact study are remote.

Joanne Desmond, president of the Academy Woods Homeowners Association, which has been particularly vocal in its opposition disagrees with her city’s changing stance.

“We do not agree with your rationale,” Desmond said. “What about our safety? Is this just to get more Amtrak trains and Metra trains? Be considerate and consult with the stakeholders. Please reinstate the environmental impact study. Right now there are vibrations.”

Alderman Prue Beidler said she spent several hours in the Academy Woods area February 21. She said she got a first-hand feel for the noise and vibrations as a pair of freight trains passed while she was there.

“I really feel for these people,” said Beidler. “It seems pretty consequential. Can we get some kind of noise buffer because this really has an impact on their neighborhood?

A draft of the resolution that Lake Forest city council will vote on says the city will not oppose construction of the third track provided that idling locomotives are kept away from Academy Woods.

It also asks Metra, Amtrak and the departments of transportation of Illinois and Wisconsin to support the city’s effort to establish an Amtrak stop and increase the number of Metra trains that stop at the west Lake Forest Metra station.

Meta has said that once the third track is built it will launch express service between Chicago and Lake Forest.

In the meantime, representatives of the other cities opposing the expansion continue to insist that the FRA order an EIS.

Dan Owen, Glenview’s interim village manager, said that the project may affect communities in different ways. “We want to know what it is going to do to our community,” he said.

Deerfield Village Manager Kent Street said his town was not changed its position. The same is true for Northbrook Village President Sandy Frum.

“We are concerned about how the provisions put forth in the environmental assessment will affect our Northbrook community,” said Erik Jensen, assistant to the village manager of Northbrook.

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