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Proposed rail line moves east in Rock County
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MILTON - The path for a proposed rail line bypassing Chicago has switched from farmland on the western side of Rock County to farmland on the eastern side of the county.

In February, Great Lakes Basin founder Frank Patton announced that his company hoped to build a 275-mile rail line that would start near Orfordville and serve as a bypass around Chicago.

A new map shows the rail line connecting to a Wisconsin & Southern Railroad line near Milton and going south. The new rail line appears to start west of County KK, heads south across Wisconsin 59 and Wisconsin 11/14. North of Interstate 43, the line would go east and south again, skirting the east side of Clinton. From there it heads south into Boone County, Illinois.

What changed?

Patton said he toured the Brodhead area with members of Federal Surface Transportation Board.

"Basically, they said there may be better alternatives," Patton said. "But at no time did they say it was a deal-buster."

But then Patton was contacted by Applied Ecological Services, the Brodhead firm that does natural resource planning and ecological restoration.

Great Lakes hired Applied Ecological Services to do a "fatal flaw" analysis of the Brodhead route.

It didn't take long to realize that the Sugar River area is full of environmental challenges that would be difficult to overcome.

Both Applied Ecological Services and a Great Lakes Basin engineer suggested looking at other routes, and eastern Rock County came up.

The route cuts through a significant amount of farmland, but Patton said his company is willing to pay $20,000 an acre, significantly more than the usual asking price for farmland.

Businesses such as feed mills along the rail line would be given access to the railroad for free but would be required to build their own spurs and switches.

The goal of the rail line is to avoid the congestion around the Chicago freight rail hub. Trains take 30 or more hours to get across the city, and the hub is growing, Patton previously told The Gazette.

If the project becomes reality, it would mark the largest rail construction project in the United States in more than 100 years, and it would be privately funded.

The cost? Patton estimates about $6 billion, and he said he is "not worried at all" about raising the money.

Patton said the route around Chicago is something rail lines have wanted for years but haven't been able to plan for or fund.

The design includes "flyovers," which are railroad bridges where two railroads intersect so trains wouldn't have to wait when they meet.

It also includes grade separations, which would allow the railroad to go over highways or county roads were they meet-or vice versa.

The proposal has gone to the federal Surface Transportation Board for approval. As part of that process, the board's office of environmental analysis is holding a series of public meetings regarding the proposed railroad.

The public hearings will include an open house for about an hour followed by a presentation by the Office of Environmental Analysis.

The environmental impact statement will consider the "direct, indirect and cumulative impacts" of the proposed rail line. Areas considered will include transportation issues, safety, land use, water resources, air quality, noise, cultural and historic resources and aesthetics, according to the notice from the Surface Transportation Board.