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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009 03:41 pm

Open up rail decisions

Oct. 2 is the deadline for Union Pacific and Illinois Department of Transportation to submit their request for $2.3 billion of federal stimulus funds, which will allow UP to construct an additional rail line to service their new freight distribution center in Joliet, as well as increase the number of passenger trains between St. Louis and Chicago. While this has colloquially been referred to as a “high-speed rail” project, it is actually about substantially increasing freight traffic, with a few slightly faster passenger trains thrown in to qualify for the federal funding.

A plan that involves spending this much taxpayer money should allow input from taxpayers. The citizens of Springfield are the ones who will have to live with the end result of these critical decisions. However, even though Union Pacific and IDOT signed a “memorandum of understanding” back in March, it has only been in recent weeks that the public has been informed of the scope of this project (largely by the media, rather than disclosure on the part of UP and IDOT), and many questions still remain unanswered.

The Grassroots Coalition for Consolidation has coordinated a town hall meeting to be held Monday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. at St. John’s Hospital in the Dove Auditorium. Mayor Tim Davlin, County Board chairman Andy Van Meter, and Erich Bloxdorf from the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce will answer questions and provide an update on the rail situation. Gov. Pat Quinn, Sen. Richard Durbin and IDOT Secretary Gary Hannig have also been invited to take this opportunity to engage in a public dialogue with the citizens of Springfield to explain how and why we have arrived at the proposed plan of the Third St. corridor, and why other options were not considered or discussed publicly. We would also like to know why a plan for mitigating the Third St. corridor — involving nine proposed overpasses — was included in the recommendation. Again, this was done without any public conversations regarding the impact on the Mid Illinois Medical District, downtown Springfield, historic neighborhoods, the Abraham Lincoln tourist sites, the Dana-Thomas House, etc.

Perhaps there are valid reasons for the decisions that have been made thus far, but we find it questionable. These conclusions were reached in direct defiance of the railroad consolidation plan that both the city and county have worked towards for decades. Millions of dollars have already been invested in planning for a multi-modal facility along the 10th St. corridor, as well as other projects that will no longer be feasible if Third St. is to become the primary rail line through the city.

At this point, it appears that litigation may be the only option if a consensus cannot be reached before the deadline. IDOT and Union Pacific have been saying this is a “done deal” since it was first made public, and we do not believe they have tried to negotiate a compromise in good faith. Springfield represents just 4.4 miles of a 300-mile railway, and many people believe that this project is critical for Illinois as a whole. We would also like to see economic development and growth for the state, but not at the expense of our capital city. Our two main industries for future growth are tourism and health care, and both would be decimated by the current proposal.

The clock is ticking, and we are asking Gov. Quinn, Sen. Durbin, and IDOT Secretary Hannig to engage in dialogue with the citizens of Springfield and our elected representatives to find a solution. We cannot accept the current proposal to make Third St. the primary rail line through the heart of our city, and we will not accept a half-hearted promise of future examination.

Michelle Higginbotham is one of the founders of the Grassroots Coalition for Consolidation, a group representing neighborhoods, businesses and community organizations that oppose the Third St. rail plan.

Also from Michelle Higginbotham

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