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Proposed rail line claiming to ease congestion rejected by federal regulators

A proposal to ease rail and traffic congestion by constructing a 261-mile rail line around the Chicago area has been rejected by federal regulators.

Great Lakes Basin Transportation's proposed tri-state rail line, which would have bypassed Chicago's busy terminal and operated through parts of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, was turned down earlier this week by the federal Surface Transportation Board.

Regulators said the financial information in Great Lakes' application was "fundamentally flawed." The decision came after years of planning and several hearings, followed by a formal application submitted in May.

Great Lakes is "assessing its options" and will have no further comment, said Mike Blaszak, Great Lakes' chief legal and administrative officer.

Great Lakes didn't provide enough information so that regulators could determine the financial feasibility of the planned rail project, the regulators said.

The balance sheet, according to federal regulators, contained an "unexplained line item" for net income amounting to $1.2 million "that appears to account for a substantial difference between the company's assets, liabilities and stockholders' equity," regulators wrote in the decision.

"GLBT's current assets of $151 are so clearly deficient for purposes of constructing a 261-mile rail line that the Board will not proceed with this application given the impacts on stakeholders and the demands upon Board resources."

On its balance sheet published on the board's website, Great Lakes owes $802,000 and its stockholders' equity is $473,573.

During the vetting process, Great Lakes requested that its list of the project's 10 investors and their financial holdings remain undisclosed to the public, counter to the the regulator's rules.

The board said it made its decision to reject the rail line not to protect Great Lakes, but rather the communities and business that would be disrupted by the project should Great Lakes begin construction and not be able to complete it.

Great Lakes argued the proposed rail line — which stretches in relatively sparsely populated areas from as far north as Milton, Wis., south over the Fox and Illinois rivers and then east to La Porte, Ind. — could reduce 30-hour freight transit times through the Chicago area to 8 hours. In turn, it would provide relief to suburban commuters in cars and trains as more freight trains bypassed the downtown area.

Several opposition groups, including Openlands, a local conservation organization, filed petitions against Great Lakes' plan.

"We're thrilled to see the STB reject this horrible proposal that would've taken our region in the wrong direction," Stacy Meyers, Openlands' staff attorney, said Friday. "This would've pulled our industrial belt out into the middle of our farm fields and taken some of the most beautiful natural resources that we have."

Meyers said Openlands instead supports CREATE — the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program — a partnership among the U.S. Department of Transportation, the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and the nation's freight railroads to improve rail line efficiency.

crshropshire@chicagotribune.com

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