WANATAH — The parking lot and roads surrounding the American Legion, at 203 S. Washington St., Wanatah, resembled the packed cars filing into the fairgrounds for the local fair.
Inside the building, well past the recommended capacity, residents of La Porte, Lake and Porter counties were there to learn more about the Great Lakes Basin Transportation Rail Line.
The event was the first La Porte County public scope meeting, conducted by the Surface Transportation Board for the GLBT company. Two members, Dave Navecky and Phillis Johnson-Ball, of the Office of Environmental Analysis, a subcommittee of the STB, are traveling throughout the area of the proposed line and holding the scope meetings.
Before the meeting started at 6 p.m, those in attendance were invited to walk around and ask questions to the eight members of the ICF Consulting group, which is working with the OEA as they conduct the meetings and gather data for the project. The ICF group also brought maps and charts for people to see the route of the proposed line.
Navecky gave the presentation to the audience of the fourth scope meeting and, according to Johnson-Ball, the packed-in crowd was not too surprising for them.
“This is a great turnout and is typical of what we have been seeing,” she said. “We are encouraging the expressing of opinions and people telling us us what they need us to know. That is what scoping means.”
The presentation included an overview of who the GLBT and STB are, in addition to the purpose and need of the project, and the projected list of things the board need to accomplish before the final approval can be submitted to the GLBT.
He went over the steps of the project. One, which is occurring now, is called the Environmental Review Process. This is the two- to three-year process where the OEA will hold the meetings, gather data, conduct field research and build models. The second step is called the Transportation Merits, which involves a different team of STB employees, and the economic side of the project, Navecky said. The final step is compiling all data and submitting the review called the Environmental Impact Statement to the GLBT.
Navecky also made it clear of any alternate routes or suggestions the audience members may have for the railroad, and highly encouraged people to comment through the online website the STB established to help people learn more about the project.
Issues that have been popping up at each meeting include: The impact on farming, drainage, noise and air pollution, school zones and safety and emergency-response related issues.
“I know all of you don’t support the project,” Navecky admitted. “Your comments will help us understand why.”
There were 26 people who spoke publicly at the meeting and had three minutes to voice a concern.
Rod Gardin, the superintendent of the East Porter County School Corp., came to the board with five concerns regarding the impact of the railroad on schools and the safety of the children.
“We have 35 bus routes and 16 crossings,” he said. “With the railroad, that will almost double to 31. We try to avoid railway crossings at all times to ensure the students are safe. In a collision with a train and a school bus, the train always wins.”
His other concerns included the longer routes the bus and emergency response vehicles will have to the school if the county roads are cut off and the high noise pollution the railroad will cause.
“There is information there will be up to 110 trains a day and a train’s horn sounds at 110 decimals, which must be sounded for 15 to 20 seconds at each crossing,” he explained. “110 trains a day at 15 seconds, that’s 27.45 hours per day.”
Brenda Pogue, of Hebron, said she is worried about the impacts the railroad will have on the wells in the area, along with the issues of noise and air pollution.
“It is literally in my backyard,” Pogue said.
She and her friend, Kim Westfall, who lives near Boone Grove Middle School, stood outside the building while people were lined up to get in. They sold signs they made for people to post in their yard. They asked for a donation of $10 to help cover costs, but said they really just wanted to get a stronger voice in the community.
For one public commenter, their private owned land would be split down the middle with his house on one side and his barn on the other.
“Two weeks ago I had never heard of the Great Lakes Basin Rail Line and since then I have heard about it 3,000 times a day,” said Ken Layton. “We understand this will be a great economic growth for here and for Wisconsin, but we also know this rail will be 200 feet from the back of our house and will divide the farm in two.”
The night continued on with concerns from residents of the northwest Indiana counties.
A second meeting on the proposed railroad will be held Thursday in La Porte from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the La Porte Civic Auditorium, 1001 Ridge St.
More information can be found at http://www.stb.dot.gov/stb/index.html.