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Mayoral-backed $285 million rail yard project temporarily derailed

Updated: September 17, 2013 8:23AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to strengthen Chicago’s position as a rail and freight hub suffered a surprise setback Thursday.

The Chicago Plan Commission derailed for at least a month a vote on expanding a pair of tax-increment-financing districts needed to allow Norfolk Southern Railroad to proceed with a $285 million expansion of the railroad’s intermodal yard in Englewood.

Englewood residents and their environmental champions are demanding more concessions from Norfolk Southern armed with a new study that concludes the project would make the pollution problem worse in a neighborhood that has long suffered from high rates of asthma.

They’re also demanding a firmer commitment that residents of a neighborhood with 50 percent unemployment will benefit from the 400 jobs the $285 million project is expected to create.

On Thursday, Plan Commission members appointed by the mayor sided with local residents.

Although railroad officials disputed the methodology used by the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Plan Commission member Bishop John R. Bryant was not convinced.

“What I have heard is a history — and it’s hard to ignore a history. All across the country, these entities are always placed in poor communities that do not have the financial or political oomph to stop them. They’re never taken to communities of strength and economic and political clout,” Bryant said.

“I’m extremely disturbed…An entire community feels that their questions have not been answered in detail….I really want to [delay the vote] for one month to have some dialogue…to give some specific answers that will give a degree of comfort.”

Plan Commission member Linda Searl agreed, adding, “I just don’t think we’ve heard the answers to a number of questions and issues that have been raised, including how $3 million is going to do a whole lot of good for the environment… I don’t understand how they plan to mitigate the diesel fuel/diesel exhaust issue at all. We haven’t heard anything about how that’s gonna happen, how soon it’s gonna happen and how long it’s gonna take. That’s part of this whole health and environment problem they have here.”

Norfolk Southern spokesman Herbert Smith said the environmental study was based on “a lot of flawed assumptions…..It’s really good theater, but it’s not reality…It’s simply factually incorrect the modeling and the assumptions that we’re going to have an adverse impact on the neighborhood.”

At Emanuel’s behest, the City Council has already given Norfolk Southern the go-ahead to purchase 105 city-owned lots for $1.1 million to pave the way for the massive expansion of the railroad’s intermodal yard.

The vote came after Norfolk Southern promised to contribute $3 million toward transportation improvements, thousands more to area schools and donate unused rail spurs that the city hopes to convert into an elevated bike trail akin to the Bloomingdale Trail.

The $285 million project would expand by 57 percent and 84 acres an existing rail yard bounded by 47th, Wallace, Garfield and Stewart where rail containers are transferred to and from trucks. It’s expected to be phased in over a period of years.

The first phase would involve making the yard more efficient by closing off 58th Street and putting in a Y-connection that would allow the railroad to access the western portion of the intermodal facility that now functions as two separate yards.

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