CN sweetens pot for rail merger
Canadian railway raises Chicago-area bid, but critics remain
By Richard Wronski | Chicago Tribune reporter
October 2, 2008

Canadian National Railway pledged at least $60 million Wednesday to make improvements in its bid to reroute freight traffic through unsympathetic suburbs, but the money won’t begin to cover the cost of 15 overpasses and underpasses that critics say might be needed.

In its bid to buy the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, CN previously had offered $40 million to help communities along the line cope with traffic delays, noise and other problems caused by increased trains.

But even CN’s sweetened offer won’t go far when it comes to constructing overpasses and underpasses in a dozen communities that a federal report warns would face significant traffic delays if the purchase is approved.

Not when the cost of a single overpass typically is $40 million to $60 million, state officials say. Some critics predict a proposed mile-long trench to keep traffic flowing along the EJ&E in Barrington would cost as much as $100 million.

The issue assumes locomotive-sized importance because the construction of overpasses and underpasses has become a crucial issue if CN is allowed to convert the 198-mile-long EJ&E into a freight-train superhighway.

The most recent underpass built in the Chicago area—at Grand Avenue in Franklin Park—opened last year, nearly half a century after it was proposed. Its cost soared from $16 million to $44 million.

It became the first underpass constructed under the public-private partnership called CREATE—short for Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency—that was established in 2003 to relieve rail congestion. But the effort has largely stalled because of a lack of funding.

“In a perfect world, a project [such as an overpass] can get done in 4 to 6 years,” said Michael Stead, rail safety program administrator for the Illinois Commerce Commission. “Unfortunately, there are usually complications.”

And they can be big ones. Railroads must cooperate. Affected businesses and residents often must be compensated. Land must be acquired.

But little money is available for public projects of this kind, which can take many decades to complete.

CN plans to buy EJ&E for $300 million, provided it gets approval from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

But communities along the EJ&E where freight traffic will triple or quadruple have mounted stiff opposition.

Many suburbs within the EJ&E arc, as well as Chicago, support the sale because they say it will lessen freight train congestion in their communities.