LeClaire last to jump aboard train merger deal

In railroad terms, LeClaire is the “caboose” as the last of the larger local cities considering settlements with Canadian Pacific to address the impacts of a proposed merger tripling train traffic in Eastern Iowa.

The local shopping and dining destination discussed a $750,000 settlement during the LeClaire City Council’s Committee-of-the-Whole meeting Monday. According to City Administrator Dennis Bockenstedt, the council will vote on the railroad’s proposal at their next meeting, Sept. 6.

“There’s about eight pages of voluntary mitigations,” Mr. Bockenstedt said, “and then (the railroad is) also currently working on an intersection study in the city.

“They verbalized that (settlement) offer several months ago and we were hoping to get an impact study by now so that we would know how far the settlement goes towards our intersection safety needs. Unfortunately, that study is not complete yet, but the railroad has said that they will complete it (in time).”

LeClaire Councilwoman Sara Gravert said in an email the city has been waiting since July 31 for the intersection study and she added that accepting the proposal “is really hard to do when we don’t have the study.”

Mr. Bockenstedt said the intersection study will only be the first step in a longer process to determine how best to use the settlement, if it’s approved by the council next month.

“Once we get the study, we can see what grants we can apply for – and we’ll seek public input and analysis to evaluate what’s going to be the best direction overall for the safety of the entire community,” Mr. Bockenstedt added.

“We will evaluate ‘Quiet Zones’ – and certainly those are for the enjoyment and benefit of those that live near or around the tracks — but safety is most important here,” he said.

“We have intersections without controls and lights — and we have a lot of pedestrians that cross through intersections (with trains), particularly in our downtown with our local businesses and riverfront access. So, making sure that we have adequate controls in place is paramount.”

Mr. Bockenstedt said the beauty of LeClaire’s deal is in the eye of the beholder.

“The numbers are out there as far as the increase in trains and the offers other cities received,” he said. “We hope to maximize the use of those dollars to minimize whatever impact is the outcome. Out of this settlement, we hope to greatly improve the safety of our intersections by adding things that are not there now.”

Other city’s deals

LeClaire is following Bettendorf, Muscatine, and Davenport, which already have agreed to settlements with Canadian Pacific regarding its planned merger with Kansas City Southern, which would create the first unified railway between Mexico and Canada.

The Bettendorf Council unanimously approved a $3 million settlement on July 5 to help offset the cost of improved safety and environmental measures along the tracks running through the city’s downtown riverfront area.

Half of the money will be used to develop Quiet Zones at the railroad crossings between 12th and 35th Streets downtown. The improved safety measures include installing flashing lights and gates, as well as medians to prevent vehicles from going around those gates, thus helping prevent engineers from blasting their train horns.

The council vote was much closer – 4-3 in favor — and the meeting was more contentious but the result was the same in Muscatine on Aug. 4.

Much of Muscatine’s downtown already features Quiet Zones, so the $3 million settlement there instead covers an estimated $1.6 overpass of the train tracks on Dick Drake Way on the southern tip of the city.

Muscatine also will consider a pedestrian and bike crossing at Oregon Street to help with access issues to Musser Park and the southern portion of the city’s riverfront.

Davenport’s meeting also featured public opposition – including from former mayor Bill Gluba – but the council voted unanimously Aug. 10 to accept a $10 million settlement to mitigate impacts of the planned merger.

The settlement includes $8 million for use at the city’s discretion – likely for work creating Quiet Zones from Marquette Street to Mound Street, and a pedestrian crossing to access amenities along the Mississippi River downtown.

Another $2 million is contingent on the city securing additional grant funding to build an overpass at South Concord Street and West River Drive to ensure access to the Water Pollution Control Plant — and avoid any possible extended delays from CP’s nearby switch yard.

Echoing what Bettendorf mayor Bob Gallagher told the QCBJ in early August, Davenport Mayor Mike Matson said he believed his city was getting the best possible deal.

“I believe the city council’s role and obligation is to ensure that our city does not find itself in a position where the merger moves forward and we have zero dollars invested by Canadian Pacific in our community,” Mayor Matson said in urging approval. “That outcome would be completely irresponsible.”

Mr. Gallagher – once the face of local resistance to the merger – said of his city’s settlement, “It’s not everything we had hoped for — and yet I think it’s way better than what the STB would have or could have ordered CP to perform as a condition of the approval process.”

Merger process continues

As a condition of each settlement, all of the local cities have agreed they will not oppose the merger during the public comment period of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued Aug. 5 by the Surface Transportation Board.

The settlements also are contingent upon STB approval of the merger, which could come this winter with the city’s receiving their money within 60 days of that decision.

The 45-day review of the Draft EIS includes four meetings around the country seeking public comment. Included is a Sept. 13 open house scheduled for 6-8 p.m. at the Davenport River Center.

Other meetings are Sept. 12 in Itasca, Illinois; Sept. 14 in Excelsior Springs, Missouri; and Sept. 15 in Vidor, Texas.

The STB also is hosting three online meetings seeking public response on Sept. 7, 8 and 19. Those interested are encouraged to pre-register on the board-sponsored project website.

The report released Aug. 5 projects “limited impact” from the merger — save for noise concerns at some locations.

The Draft EIS does predict Ripley Street in downtown Davenport as the railroad crossing with the longest increase in average delay from the merger. Considering 277 grade crossings from Chicago to Laredo, Texas — with an average annual daily traffic of 2,500 or more vehicles per day — the report estimates the average delay along the merged railway will increase by 0.7 seconds per vehicle.

However, delays are expected to skyrocket to 7.3 seconds per vehicle at Ripley.

An online copy of the EIS and other documents related to the merger is located on the STB website (stb.gov) or at this link.

On July 25, Illinois’ two U.S. senators joined a pair of their state’s other federal lawmakers in officially opposing the merger.

Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth – along with Chicagoland-area U.S. Representatives Raja Krishnamoorthi and Marie Newman — sent a letter to the STB urging the regulatory agency to reject allowing the two railroads to join because of the adverse economic and environmental impacts of increased train traffic to communities in the already traffic congested Chicagoland area.

In Iowa’s Mississippi River towns – stretching from Clinton to Muscatine in the Quad Cities area — the merger is expected to increase train traffic from an average of eight per day to as many as 23 (or roughly one per hour) by 2027.

The higher volume will result in longer delays, especially with the length of the trains also expected to grow larger than those now typically needing an average of 4-5 minutes to pass a local crossing.

Valued at roughly $31 billion, CPS promises that the proposed first single rail line connecting Canada and Mexico through the U.S. will move goods between the three countries quicker and more efficiently, and by extension, reduce 1.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions within five years.

The merger also provides a positive economic impact locally, the railroad said, by creating about 100 jobs in the Quad Cities.

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