A vote is expected Wednesday on a controversial railroad expansion that has been years in the planning and resulted in the acquisition of hundreds of homes in one of Chicago’s most struggling areas.
Backers of Norfolk Southern Railway’s $150 million plans to double the size of its intermodal freight yard in Englewood on Chicago’s South Side say it will be a boost to the neighborhood and the city, create jobs and reduce truck pollution.
But amid concerns about the impact of the project on the area and whether remaining local residents will gain anything from it, 20th Ward Ald. Jeanette Taylor used a parliamentary maneuver last month to delay a vote on a critical piece of the plan, transferring ownerships of city streets and alleys.
Taylor had previously indicated she would back the Norfolk Southern plan, but she said she balked because she wanted the railroad company to agree to specific commitments for jobs and construction contracts for Englewood residents. She had also pressed Norfolk Southern to undertake a study on the long-term health effects of diesel emissions from trucks and trains.
“It’s just been a disrespect to me and the community,” she said, citing “the displacement of 400 families in a Black community.”
Taylor said Wednesday that she plans to vote no.
In a letter sent Wednesday to the City Council’s Transportation Committee chair Ald. Howard Brookins and obtained by the Tribune, Norfolk Southern made no mention of an environmental study, but asserted that railroads are overseen by federal and not city regulators on such issues. It made no specific commitments on hiring, other than to promise that it will “once again exceed” city targets on contracting. These targets call for 24% of construction contracts to go to minority-owned firms, and 4% to companies owned by women.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who introduced the ordinance, has defended the project as a means to help keep industrial jobs after decades of decline and has lauded Norfolk Southern’s efforts to engage area residents.
“You gotta go into the community, and Norfolk Southern really has to take the lead responsibility for that — and they have been — to make sure that they’re listening to what the concerns of the residents are and coming up with solutions that address those concerns,” Lightfoot said.
All of this has played out amid the runup to Chicago’s municipal election, where Lightfoot is in a tough re-election bid and all 50 ward seats are on the ballot. Wednesday’s council meeting is the last scheduled before Election Day Feb. 28. Early voting is underway.
John Lippert is a freelance reporter.