By Norm Winick

Chicago architect Daniel Burnham exhorted that city's leaders to "Make no small plans" and the Aurora architectural firm of TKDA is telling Galesburg’s leaders the same thing. Commissioned to do a study of relocating the former Santa Fe Railroad tracks outside the city, they brought back an inch-thick report with charts and maps and three recommended proposals for moving the rail line. All are expensive.

Galesburg has been plagued by constant train and whistle noise and inconvenienced by oft-blocked main thoroughfares since the railroad came to town in 1854. It necessitated building fire stations on both sides of the tracks, has hindered emergency services and been a general nuisance – despite the economic boon it once brought to the growing community.

The idea of moving the rails acquired some momentum when the BNSF requested permission from the Illinois Commerce Commission to close a good number of the crossings through town. They are expensive to maintain and a safety hazard, they claim. Local officials objected to the plan which would have created even greater inconvenience. City Manager Gary Goddard says it’s dead for now. "The City Council just isn’t going to let that happen."

Instead, TKDA was commissioned to prepare a report on possible ways to reroute the rail line outside of town. Alternatives such as building several bridges or elevating the tracks were discounted as either not solving the noise issue or involving too much structure relocation.

The draft study, narrowed ten alternatives down to three. Alternative A, "the new south corridor," would require building a new rail line from near Williamsfield to the railyard south of Galesburg. The old tracks would be removed. It’s 30.2 miles and would require 17 new rail bridges and 17 new roadway bridges. The estimated cost of constructing it is $304 million.

Alternative "B,’ would join the existing line east of East Galesburg and route it to the railyard south of Galesburg. It would be much shorter but still necessitate 10 new rail bridges and 16 new roadway bridges. The estimated cost of constructing it is $267.3 million.

Alternative "C" would use more existing rails and require building a new line from east of East Galesburg north to connect with the BNSF line from Chicago. All the trains would go through town on the line that is elevated for some of its length but still crosses East Main Street at grade. This alternative would require 13 new rail bridges and 16 new roadway bridges. It would cost about $205 million.

Goddard says the prices seem high today but in the big picture, they’re not that bad. "They might even pay for themselves. The railroad would save a fortune in maintenance costs and travel time, which is big money to them. Residents would be inconvenienced much less and the danger inherent in grade crossings would be reduced dramatically."

City of Galesburg Community Development Director Roy Parkin is the lead person on this issue. He agrees that it’s not just a pipe dream. "Although it is a heavy price tag, I do feel that there is a possibility of getting it funded. Funding would most likely have to be staged or multi-year. Once the study is completed the information will be forwarded to Congressman Lane Evans. We hope he can work on getting the project put into the TEA-21 reauthorization that Congress will be working on later this year/next year. Timing of the project depends upon when funding becomes available. A railroad relocation project in Indiana took over 20 years to complete."

Of the alternatives, Parkin says that "At this point there is ‘preliminary’ agreement that the alternative that takes the train south of Knoxville and ties in near Williamsfield [Alternative "A"] is the best option at this point. The BNSF representatives have forwarded the draft report to their corporate office for review. We are awaiting their response. Both the City and BNSF had various concerns on the other two options. Some of the concerns included the routing of the lines, the significant cuts needed in elevations, the train movements needed, distance of the routes and timing of the routes."

The Knox County Farm Bureau has been passing out copies of the maps and a spokesperson there says that there has been some grumbling. All the alternatives turn farmland into railroad right-of-way and could inconvenience farmers whose fields may be cut in half. The Farm Bureau has taken no official position on the plans, yet, but may soon.

Parkin knows it won’t be without controversy. "There will be some farm land that will be taken. Keep in mind that the routes shown are really ‘corridors.’ The exact location has not been determined. This would be done in the design stage where they would look at ways to reduce the amount of tillable land taken, ways to avoid splitting up a farm, etc. I would hope that the rural and urban groups could get together and work out a solution."

"Benefits include elimination of time waiting at the railroad crossings, no delays of emergency vehicles, elimination of train horns blowing at each crossing and elimination of pedestrian and vehicular conflict with trains. Please note that not just Galesburg residents would benefit from this rerouting. County residents and other individuals visiting the community would be able to take advantage of the benefits."

As the concept advances, environmental impact, archaeological and geological impact studies have to be completed. There’s a lot of work to do before it can even be called a "plan."

Parkin outlines the process: "At this point we are waiting for a response from the BNSF corporate office. Hopefully they will come back with a response supporting the alternative selected on a preliminary basis. If this is the case, we will present the study to the City Council and County for additional comments. Once this has been done a copy will be sent to Congressman Evans; and we will ask him to pursue funding at the Federal level."