La PORTE — Area residents had another opportunity to voice concerns regarding a 278-mile proposed railroad line, which would extend from Ind. 2 in La Porte to Milton, Wisconsin.
Dave Navecky and Phillis Johnson-Ball presented the fifth public scoping meeting for the Great Lakes Basin Transportation railroad line on Thursday night at the La Porte Civic Auditorium.
Navecky and Johnson-Ball are members of the Office of Environmental Analysis of the Surface of Transportation Board, hired to conduct all meetings and analysis for the GLBT company.
The meeting was conducted in the same way as the previous ones, with attendees encouraged to study maps which were spread throughout the room and to sign-up to voice a public comment. The maps and designs were brought to the meeting by the ICF Consulting group, who are helping the OEA committee conduct the meetings and gather data.
Navecky presented the same presentation to the civic audience as he has been at the previous meetings. He again stressed the importance of the comments of those who will be affected, stating he believes the number of comments he will receive will be up in the thousands.
He also explained how people can comment online. The STB designed a website so community members can go on and comment to the board, and see the comments of their neighbors with the responses they received.
“We will post the letter we send to the GLBT and the response online,” he said. The letter is the Environmental Impact Statement the OEA will produce after years of reviewing and researching.
In the comments, he encouraged people to add any documents or photos they wished the board to look at too.
Similar to Wednesday’s meeting at the American Legion building in Wanatah, Navecky stressed the goal is to provide and review possible alternative routes the project can take.
“We will get alternate routes from you and from state agencies,” he said. “We will identify the range of alternatives and will study them.”
He also talked about the no-action alternative, which means the project will not go forward.
“All routes and options will be treated in our review,” Navecky added. “Everything gets equal review, equal details. There is no bias in this.”
The no-action alternative may be possible, according to Shaw Friedman, the La Porte County Commissioners Attorney, who said the magnitude of work the statement and review process will take is a huge and tremendous job.
The meetings were just a testing out the ice procedure. It was a way for the community to ask questions and learn more about the railroad and the STB’s plans in its construction, he wrote in an email sent before the scoping meetings.
“He (Frank Patton of GLBT) has two to three years plus of environmental review to get through, (before he gets to property acquisition) plus he doesn’t have the first deep pocket equity investor or venture capital fund signed up for this $8 billion project nor does he have a single Class 1 railroad committed to the project either,” Friedman stated in the email.
None of the La Porte County Commissioners have made any commitments with the developers of the project. Instead, Friedman published a list of conditions that need to be adhered to if the project was to begin, which were reported in The La Porte County Herald-Argus on April 6.
Friedman wanted to stress on eminent domain rules, and how they will be addressed with the railroad and land.
In regards to La Porte County, it is stated in the resolution, “the undersigned wish to state that while county government will assist various economic development efforts, the power of eminent domain will not be exercised to assist some corporation or private entity to force a private landowner to sell his or her property when they do not wish to.”
Friedman stated in the email, the resolution was used nine years ago in an issue with an intermodal development in the town of Union Mills.
“We’re awfully proud of this private protection policy,” he said. “It was made abundantly clear to the developer that he could not count on eminent domain from the county for a private project, but would need to negotiate transactions between willing buyers and sellers.”
During the public comment section another county commissioner spoke about his concerns about the GLBT company’s goals.
Commissioner Mike Bohacek asked the scoping board to remember what the original plans of the project were, and handed the board members a CD recording of a public meeting he attended with Patton speaking about the railroad.
“My concern is the project that was described to us just last month on the 30th of March, well perhaps developers get amnesia and forget what they promise and have committed to at the start of the projects,” he said. “To me, it is important while you’re looking at the scoping of this project, you’re looking at the displacing of peoples’ lives and homes and if you’re going to do that, lets make sure what his plan is what he’s sold to the county and the reality is what stays and moves forward.”
Another public commenter, Ashley Hedrick, asked whether or not the railroad would be federally managed for all of the maintenance and infrastructure work.
“I feel like Indiana can barely keep up with the infrastructure we have now and this would just be adding more,” Hedrick said.
Hedrick also pointed out issues with air pollution, stating in 2015 the Northwest Indiana region was voted 19 in the top regions of the country with the worst amounts of pollution.
Navecky said the last day to make a public comment to the OEA board will be June 15. To comment, visit the website: http://www.stb.dot.gov/stb/index.html.
To keep updated with more information as the project moves along, visit the STB managed website, http://www.greatlakesbasinraileis.com/.