By Bob Balgemann, REPORTER

 Steve Ernst has stayed busy since retiring in 2014 as Executive Director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning. He was one of those involved when the Great Lakes Basin Railroad (GLBR) was looking to provide freight transportation with a bypass around Chicago. A new rail line was in mind, starting in southern Wisconsin and winding its way to northern Indiana. That vision has since become a proposal, though there still is more than one route on the table. Ernest appeared before the Machesney Park Village Board on Dec. 5, at the request of Mayor Jerry D. Bolin, to provide trustees and others with an update on the 280-mile route.

As of November, the new rail line would start at Milton, Wis., go through the western side of Rockford and on to LaPorte, Ind. Strong opposition has led to Boone County being shelved as a preferred route, though officially it remains part of the mix. Ernst said the revised route goes south of the Chicago-Rockford International Airport.

For the Rockford area, the GLBR project would allow rail access for business and industry that currently isn’t available. He described the line as an interstate highway for railways. In the early stages he said he asked those who were proposing the project to look at the Rockford region. Based on his longtime involvement with freight and freight planning, he saw rail as having promise for this area. “Freight traffic is projected to more than triple in the United States by 2040,” he said. “Delays in Chicago are causing this area to lose a market share of freight. The problem is there are no rail connections in the Rockford area.”

Rockford Airport is an important piece of this puzzle, because it and O’Hare International Airport are the only ones in the national freight plan, he added. “The best areas for rail around here are the Rockford Airport and the Chrysler plant in Belvidere,” he said. “There are lots of opportunities on this particular spot,” he said of the acreage south of Rockford Airport.

All Private Funding

One of the attractive elements of the GLBR proposal is it would be funded entirely by private dollars. “The availability of public funding for rail improvements has always been a problem,” he said. “This is an opportunity to work with the private sector.” The GLBR proposal would cost an estimated $8 billion.

Ernst’s belief is this project could mean tens of millions of dollars in investments. “Just the influx of construction money would be a huge boost,” he said. “This (rail) is something that’s desperately needed in our area to be competitive.” “GLBR has negotiated about one-third of the Federal process needed to get permitted as a railroad,” he said. Next step is the environmental impact study, which will take 18-24 months to complete. Then officials of the Federal Surface Transportation Board, who will make the final decision on the route, will have another round of public comments. “Part of the (final) decision will be based on whether this is good for the nation as a whole,” he said. In all, the process should take another three years to complete.

Until recently, the proposed route went through the Capron and Garden Prairie areas of eastern Boone County. But opposition from the County Board, City of Belvidere and numerous residents prompted GLBR to recently withdraw that area from consideration.

Bob Walberg, now retired after eight years as Chairman of the Boone County Board, said in an interview last month that he initially supported the rail line coming through that county. But the depth of opposition from within the community prompted him to change his mind. “I thought it would be well received,” he said of the proposal. “I didn’t realize people had such a concern about rails and trains. My position was to support the County, so I set my thinking aside.”

Machesney Park Trustee Steve Johnson asked Dec. 5 about “quiet zones” along the route. Noise, he said, is a big factor. Ernst replied that there wouldn’t be any at-grade crossings and any train whistles. But engines, he said, would travel at 60-65 mph.

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