JSEB Still Unrepentant About Trail

How is a trail better than this? Pioneer Industrial Railway’s “Hill Job” on March 15, 2004

Now that the new trail bridge across N. Knoxville Ave. is complete, it is no surprise the Journal Star Editorial Board is praising the project.

Our patience has been rewarded. The formal dedication last week of the Rock Island Greenway recreation trail was 17 years in the making, but what has resulted is something Peorians can be proud of, and at a relatively bargain price.

A bargain price? By what standard?

Indeed, the cost as of last week came to $8.1 million — though some bills continue to trickle in — with local taxpayers on the hook for less than $1.1 million of that, about 13 cents on the dollar. For that they purchased the last seven or so miles — the missing link, plus accompanying investments in safety fencing, trailhead facilities, signage, etc. — in a nearly 46-mile trail stretching from Morton to Toulon, with 13 of those paved miles meandering their way through the city of Peoria, including a magnificent bridge over Knoxville Avenue near Junction City.

Cost is $8.1 million so far, yet they say “some bills continue to trickle in.” Like perpetual upkeep and unplanned repairs, such as washouts.

There was a point when we thought we’d never see the day, between critics of converting the Kellar Branch railway into a trail and arcane federal railroad law making the public asset seem like anything but, as for all practical purposes it was under private control despite the taxpayer ownership.

Hence the headline of this post. The City of Peoria and Village of Peoria Heights purchased the Kellar Branch in 1984 for rail service, and contracted with the Peoria & Pekin Union Railway (P&PU) to operated it, not for the Cities to do what they pleased with it. They found out the hard way that federal regulations came into play.

After taking over operations in 1998, locally-based Pioneer Industrial Railway demonstrated that it could operate the line at a profit and bring back business, which it did. As the voices demanding conversion to a trail increased in decibel, truth was thrown out. Pioneer was demonized. Trail proponents actually believed that recreational trails, not rail transportation, would bring economic development.

In 2010, the logjam was finally broken, and then it became a funding and bureaucratic issue given the cooperation that was necessary between local, state and federal governments. The project came to symbolize the difficulty of accomplishing anything in Peoria, which seems to be shedding some of that reputation.

Let’s review this, shall we? There were those who didn’t understand that in order to close the Kellar Branch and remove it for recreational trail use, the owners and railroad operator (Pioneer) had to petition the Surface Transportation Board for a “Discontinuance of Service Exemption.” But Pioneer rightfully insisted that its contract was good until at least July 2004, and had no intention of ending service until then.

Talk of trail conversion in the early years (1997, when the Peoria & Pekin Union’s contract allowed for an “out”) included the reasonable assumption that rail service to existing customers had to be maintained. A proposal to extend the Union Pacific’s Pioneer Industrial Lead 1,800 feet across University Street to the Kellar Branch was the surest way to continue service to Carver Lumber and Gateway Milling. But it soon became clear that the loss of the neutral P&PU connection would result in higher freight rates and slower service as everything would have to be routed via Union Pacific, regardless of its origin or destination.

As a result, Pioneer publicly opposed the plan. Trail proponents closed their ears and demanded it be implemented anyway. Who cares about the railroad, the businesses they serve and the jobs risked with substantially higher transportation costs.

Indeed, we trust some of the more unforgiving will never set foot on the trail, though we see more traffic on it every day. Witnessing the result now — with finishing touches, such as water fountains, benches, bike racks, etc., continuing to be added — we can say, as an opinion page that was on board from the very beginning, that the wait was worth it, though we’d just as soon not have to go through it again.

Utopia rising.

For those who avail themselves of the trail, it can produce positive returns in physical health. As far as the environment is concerned, biking beats driving. Long-term, both can produce spin-off savings to taxpayers on other fronts. While the economic development gains of projects like these can be exaggerated, we do believe this trail will enhance the value of nearby properties, and that easy access will be coveted by enough people that local entrepreneurs will seek to capitalize on that.

So they finally admit that economic development gains with trails can be exaggerated? They must be referring to Running Central’s recent move from Peoria Heights to Peoria’s Warehouse District. Some of those “gains” can be lost as Running Central was in the Heights just three years.

Kellar Killer Cartoon

The saddest consequence of this project is that the potential for industrial development along the former Union Pacific spur (which the City of Peoria purchased in 2001) and west of Allen Road is lost. A connection to the Kellar Branch, not to replace it, but compliment it, would’ve provided economic development agencies an unmatched marketing tool for prospective industry: shovel-ready greenfield and neutral access to multiple railroads. Peoria now has little or no land to attract industry, something we need far more than more shopping centers and restaurants.

So what’s next?

The city has hired a consultant to develop a master bicycle strategy, and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission is advocating the study of a protected bike/pedestrian lane on the McClugage Bridge, which is in IDOT’s pipeline for maintenance and perhaps more in the coming years. To the degree an expanded trail system in central Illinois can take advantage of the area’s river views, that could be a draw. Ultimately, it would be great if a bicycle network could link Peoria and the bedroom communities surrounding it. Other towns may find the Knoxville pedestrian bridge so impressive that they try to replicate it. One place that comes to mind is Washington, with large residential areas — and the young families that live in them — divided by the Route 24 bypass.

Translation = we’re not done spending money. Oh, but future projects will also be worth it. 😛

We continue to believe that quality-of-life investments are important to communities that people desire to call home, because there’s a lot of competition out there. Fall behind and people with choices may exercise them elsewhere. We have a lot to offer in central Illinois, which is ripe for that discovery.

Quality-of-life begins with a job. Previous generations were content with their surroundings, and would find their own entertainment. Now, taxpayers must foot the bill for costly recreational facilities that will result in miniscule economic growth at best.

How this project is “worth it” I’ll never understand.

– David P. Jordan

Rail vs. Trail Realities Going Back To…The ’70s?

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A Central Illinois RR Co. train tiptoes through Peoria Heights on April 16, 2009

It is amazing what people will accept when they live in Reality City. I about fell out of my chair when I came across this in a June 24, 1973 Peoria Journal Star article entitled Bikeway Routes Revealed.

The Alta to Grand View Drive Bikeway would follow the Rock Island tracks, beginning at Alta, through Pioneer Park across Rt. 174, parallel to Rt. 88, across Rt. 88 at Northmoor Golf Course, through Peoria Heights along Bishop and Hammond Avenue to Grand View Drive, ending at the foot of Lorentz and connecting to a future riverfront drive. Railroad right-of-way along most of the length is 100 feet wide and little use is made of the present tracks.

You read that right, the proposed trail would follow the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad’s Kellar Branch because the right-of-way was 100 feet wide. Recall trail proponents’ him-and-hawing several years ago that it would be unsafe to run a recreational trail alongside this same rail line. But in 1973, joint-use was acceptable because everyone knew the tracks were going nowhere.

And then there is the assertion that “little use is made of the present tracks.” Sounds like trail proponents’ propaganda from the late 1990s and early 2000s as justification to close the Kellar Branch and BUILD THE TRAIL NOW! Back then, the Pioneer Industrial Railway ran up to three times a week and handled some 200-250 carloads annually to three Pioneer Park industries – Carver Lumber, Gateway Milling and Peoria Plastic.

But “little use” must have meant something else entirely in 1973. I don’t have figures for that year, but I do have them for 1978, thanks to the 1980 ILLINOIS RAIL PLAN. Traffic was summarized by commodity:

Grain & Grain Products – 4,439 carloads
Lumber, Building Materials – 417 carloads
Paper, Paper Products – 200 carloads
Plastics – 130 carloads

TOTAL – 5,186 carloads

So 5,186 carloads a year (probably more in 1973) meant “little use.” Those 4,439 carloads of grain and grain products were attributed solely to Pabst Brewing Co.’s Peoria Heights brewery and 200 carloads of Paper, Paper Products was mostly newsprint for the Peoria Journal Star. The rest was generated mostly by industries located in Pioneer Industrial Park, such as Advance Millwork Co., Peoria Plastic Co., Carver Lumber, Reserve Supply Coop, CILCO (Line Service Center), Dawson’s Home Center and Jordan Manufacturing Co. Smaller firms such as A & M Insulation and D. H. Overmyer had rail access but might not have used it. Also, the Peoria Observer transloaded newsprint from boxcars to trucks near Northmoor Road and Continental Can Co. probably received aluminum rollstock at its Peoria Heights can plant.

Unlike the recent rail vs. trail fight, the Peoria Journal Star was less inclined to espouse trail proponents’ propaganda in the 1970s. In fact, a captioned editorial photograph dated September 16, 1974 showing bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks stretching several blocks read this way:

This traffic back-up at the Rock Island crossing on Prospect Road near Pabst in Peoria Heights has been a rushhour regularity for years, but lately the waiting time has become more exasperating.

Longer trains, caused by increasing traffic to both Pabst and Pioneer Industrial Park, are to blame for the tie-up around 5:30 each afternoon. It would seem that the Rock Island and its customers on the spur line ought to be able to get together and change the transit time for this train to a little later in the evening.

A “little used” line would lack sufficient train activity to cause such traffic backups, right? Obviously not. Even the Peoria Journal Star could contradict itself with the truth now and then.

– David P. Jordan

Trail Will Bridge Over, Not Tunnel Under, Knoxville

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Construction of a recreational trail over the Kellar Branch (former Peoria, Peoria Heights & Western Railroad) right-of-way has been slow-going since rails were removed in late summer 2010.

Cessation of train service gives me little reason to visit those parts of Peoria and Peoria Heights that it once traversed. But I happened to be driving down Knoxville Ave. the morning of December 23 and noticed bridge construction on either side of the former railroad crossing.

Until recently, the Peoria Park District intended to construct a tunnel here. This plan would have avoided placing an extra set of traffic lights (and another annoying stop for motorists) near Junction City. But a note dated October 30, 2012 reveals PPD had decided on a bridge instead of a tunnel.

Contractors are building the approaches and supports (when weather cooperates) in anticipation of receiving fabricated sections from a bridge shop in New York State. Expect completion sometime in 2014.

Don’t get me wrong, I ‘m not a convert to bike trail mania. This whole rail-to-trail conversion is a costly, unnecessary project driven by a small number of developers and a loud minority of environmentalists. It will not enhance the City of Peoria’s quality of life any more than a new shopping center, restaurant or car dealership will. And those don’t require multi-million dollar trails and trail bridges.

Good news may be on the horizon. There are rumblings that the dormant railroad serving Pioneer Industrial Park may gain new life. Watch here for updates.

– David P. Jordan

1999: Build the Trail NOW! 2012: We Want Our Rail Line Back! (UPDATED)

Perhaps water quality has improved in the state of Wisconsin. Or perhaps hindsight is 20/20. These may be explanations for this opinion piece in The Capital Times newspaper, which serves Madison.

First some background. Wisconsin has a history of buying rail lines to preserve service to shippers. Mostly, this has been successful. But there was a sad exception when officials allowed the demands of a loud and tiny minority to drown out common sense. In 1999, the South Central Rail Transit Commission voted to abandon a then-unused rail line running from Madison to Monroe.

Now the mistake is obvious as there are several businesses that would use rail (see link for details). But the most enlightening aspect is regarding promises by bike trail advocates.

New Glarus native Kim Tschudy, who was a vociferous supporter of retaining the line in 1999, today insists that the tourism promised by the bikers has never materialized, despite the promises from DOT and bike groups that the trail would draw up to 250,000 users.

“In Belleville the grand story was ‘oh, my God, there will be a bunch of shops being built trailside,” he said. “Never happened. A restaurant called the Trailside one block from the trail came and went in a matter of months.”

Sound familiar? The saddest part is that Peoria was warned that such promises never materialize. And you know what else? Kim Tschudy himself traveled to Peoria to address the City Council about this very topic on February 20, 2007. And – you’re going to be shocked by this – they didn’t listen.

The Kellar Branch, had it been preserved for operation by one carrier, would have had two active users (Carver Lumber and O’Brien Steel), potential for a transloading site and hundreds of greenfield acreage along the connected Pioneer Industrial Lead west of Allen Road. Along with preservation of competitive rail connections (as the Kellar Branch allowed), these would have enabled a proactive effort to lure new industry to the city.

But now it is too late. Most of the Kellar Branch is abandoned and, Pioneer Railcorp, operator of the remaining segment that serves Pioneer Park has moved its locomotive off City-owned track (ironically as two grade crossings were repaired), believing there is no potential. Sadly, they’re probably correct. Peoria wants shopping centers, residential subdivisions and restaurants, not industry.

Maybe they’ll regret it in a decade.

UPDATE: The following is a comment from Al Muir. It makes a great addition to this post –

The story about rails-to-trails sounds very familiar no matter where you go.

Recently, on my way to Oskaloosa, Iowa,  I was seeking a rescued depot on the former Rock Island branch line that ran through West Chester, Iowa.  I found the depot on a farmer’s lot, nicely restored, no less.  The farmer owned some of the land upon which a rail-to-trail project had been accomplished.  The twenty or so mile Keota to Washington, Iowa  trail (call the KeWash) was supposed to be a big boon to the rural Iowa area, attract countless visitors and not only be self sufficient, but actually a profitable enterprise.  Yeah, right!

The farmer tells me he sees no more than twenty cyclists per year.  The trail authority went bankrupt, leaving the trail to become a responsibility of the county.  So now the taxpayers pay to blade and maintain the trail, provide liability insurance and  spray it for weeds.  A money maker?  No way.  An economic drag on the taxpayers?  You bet.  And the farmers are still inconvenienced by dealing with broken fields  that make their job more difficult.  The original agreements say that the ROW would revert to the local farmer whenever the railroad should abandon.  Yeah, right.  The agreement is not worth the paper upon which it is written.

And to top it all off, it appears to me that recent industrial development in the area could well be served with rail transportation.  So much for governmental planning!

– David P. Jordan

Railroad Drops Plans To Acquire Rail Line

The Keokuk Junction Railway, a subsidiary of Peoria, IL-based Pioneer Railcorp, has filed a Notice of Withdrawal with the Surface Transportation Board regarding its plans to acquire and operate Union Pacific’s dormant Elm Industrial Lead. Trail proponents have long sought to turn this line, which runs from Peoria west to Middle Grove, into a recreation trail.

It looks like they’ll get their way.

KJRY considered the line viable to market to prospective users only if it tied to their existing mainline at Canton (via an also-dormant BNSF branchline) instead of operating it as a separate line, which would require the restoration of the BNSF crossing and UP connection along Kickapoo Creek Road just south of Harmon Highway. Such would require the shortline to seek trackage rights on UP into Peoria, a scenario beset with complications. Therefore, a deal to acquire track between Dunfermline and Farmington from BNSF Railway was necessary to make the UP line viable, but one party to this proposed transaction has been slow to agree to terms.

The prospects for restoring at least part of this line to service excited railfans, since it is the sole Illinois remnant of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway, which was acquired by the Chicago & North Western Railway in 1960. Now that such plans have ended, a recreational trail will likely replace this venerable railroad that dates back to November 1881.

That KJRY has given up on this line makes one militant trail proponent appear ridiculous. Blogger, and former Journal Star employee, Elaine Hopkins commented this way on a September 24 Journal Star story :

Trails are a great recreational resource, and worth way more than they cost to build. But beware: I believe Keokuk Junction Railway Co. is another of Guy Brenkman’s companies like Pioneer Rail Corp. He buys up defunct lines and holds them so no trail can be built. Meanwhile they decay and become dangerous eyesores. Stop him before it’s too late.

Let me correct Ms. Hopkins – Pioneer has never acquired a defunct rail line in its 20-year history and has now deemed this line unviable, freeing it up for trail use. What do you say to that, Ms. Hopkins?

Truth be told, I don’t expect a Farmington-to-Peoria trail anytime soon. The issue will probably be drawn out for months if not years, not due to railroad interests, but rather opposition from landowners and residents of Hanna City, Trivoli and Farmington. There is also the issue of how much a recreational trail will cost. At 20 miles, at least $10-15 million will be needed for construction. I don’t want my tax monies to go to something with such little return on investment, and I know I’m not alone. If Peoria County and local communities were smart, they would have supported KJRY’s acquisition, planned for an industrial park or two and saved the taxpayer’s their money.

But that would make too much sense.

– David P. Jordan

Journal Star gets wind of UP branchline abandonment

NOTE: Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I’ve restored one of my early blog posts, dated September 23, 2008. I will keep it in front for a day or two. After that, click September 2008 at right to find it.

Three months after Union Pacific’s petition to abandon a nearly 25-mile branchline between Peoria and Middle Grove, the Journal Star reports it. And when you read their on-line article, you get the sense that staff has learned nothing from the earlier rail vs. trail debate involving the Kellar Branch, i. e. bias and misinformation.

Union Pacific filed for formal abandonment of this line in July. Subsequently, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources filed for “interim trail use” and then two railroads, Keokuk Junction Railway and V & S Railway, each gave a notice of intent to file an Offer of Financial Assistance (or “OFA” – a technical term for offering to purchase and operate the line).

The bias begins with the title, Railway line considered for new trail, then magnifies it with this:

Two other railroads also indicated interest in the property. V & S Railway Inc. has since backed out, but Keokuk Junction Railway Co. has not.

V & S Railway is affiliated with a track salvaging firm called A & K Railroad Materials. Interestingly, it also gave notices of intent to file OFA’s for two Kansas branchlines also sought for abandonment by UP. One can only speculate about their reasons for withdrawing their petition regarding the Peoria – Middle Grove line, but it is likely due to: (1) realizing that the line had no active customers, and (2), that the Keokuk Junction Railway, with which they did battle in the past, is involved.

What the JS writer doesn’t realize is that the Keokuk Junction Railway won’t “back down” because they are serious about acquiring the track in question.

The article also contains misinformation when it states:

The STB will consider the competing priorities for the land on Oct. 2.

Compare this to the Board’s August 21 Decision:

The requests for issuance of a notice of interim trail use and a public use condition are held in abeyance pending completion of the OFA process.

The Keokuk Junction Railway’s formal OFA has yet to be posted; the process hasn’t even started.

Facts and logic 1, Journal Star 0.

Unfortunately for trail proponents, some of the issues in this case are different than those involving the Kellar Branch. First, a railroad, not a municipality, owns the track in question. Thus, no government entity has a serious shot at influencing the outcome by filing for adverse abandonment. Second, the Keokuk Junction’s initial filing suggests Union Pacific is cooperating. That being the case, the line’s future will probably rest on the sale price and how much the shortline is willing to pay.

This old UP line could well end up being a recreational trail, but it’s important the news media gets the facts right and avoids bias when reporting on this process. One Journal Star writer proves she can do neither.

– David P. Jordan