Controversy surrounds proposed rail line: 'We were devastated'

An eight-billion dollar plan to steer freight trains around Chicago and through rural areas downstate is generating a lot of fear and anxiety among residents in its path.

The Great Lakes Basin Railroad would run roughly between Milton, Wisconsin and LaPorte, Indiana.

In the middle of the route, though, is Kankakee County, Illinois.

FOX 32’s Larry Yellen talked with the man behind the proposal, and with farmers who fear its impact.

“Our reaction was stunned. We were stunned that this was coming right through our back yard,” said Valinda King.

King and her husband Jeff have a 120 acre farm in Kankakee County. About a month ago, they learned that a proposed railroad will split their farmland in half, which is the same for their neighbor, Kevin Wancho.

“We were devastated. Our family and my wife’s family has had this ground for ever and ever,” Wancho said.

The proposed rail line is called Great Lakes Basin Railroad. It would run almost 250 miles from Northwest Indiana to Southwest Wisconsin, bypassing Chicago. It's the brainchild of Chicago businessman Frank Patton, who ran a successful software company, learned a lot about networks and says he's applying that to railroads.

“We take the traffic that's going through the city, that doesn't have to go into the city. It goes around,” Patton said.

GLBT officials say it's slow moving trains that illustrate the need for another route around the city. They say a freight train leaving Los Angeles takes 48 hours to get to Chicago, and then another 30 hours to make it through the city.

“Everybody wants to stick it out in the country where nobody lives. Well, we live here,” said Keith Mussman, the president of the Kankakee County Farm Bureau.

Mussman says the railroad will destroy farms, drainage systems and local lifestyles. 

“They're saying a 100 to a 110 trains a day. Every fifteen minutes. On double tracks,” King said.

“If we have 110 trains a day, I will make an offer to acquire Australia,” Patton said.

Patton is offering $20,000 an acre for farmers willing to sell. Plus, farmers willing to put a rail spur on their property, he says,   would have access to local rail service. He admits, though, some people might have to get used to seeing trains outside their kitchen windows.

"You're gonna have a train. So some people think that's just terrible, one guy told me, "I love looking at the trains,” Patton said.

He also says that while the railway would be privately owned, it benefits the entire country. Some farmers don't buy that.

“I don't think it's for the larger good, I think it's for the larger pocketbook. I think that's the whole thing behind this, that someone's going to try to make some money off of it,” Wancho said.

Patton says the Federal Surface Transportation Board has put the proposal on its key project's list. He sees that as good sign, but the rail line is still far from being a done deal.

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