Tom Weisner made impact on Chicago railroads and tollways

Many are praising Tom Weisner, the former mayor of Aurora who passed away recently at the age of 69 and who was remembered at a memorial service Monday for his leadership of Illinois’ second-largest city. But the obituaries written about him failed to adequately relate three instances in which his steadfast and principled conduct had an impact on the region and even the nation.

Having covered transportation for the Chicago Tribune, I witnessed Weisner’s years as a director on the Illinois State Toll Highway Board. I also reported extensively about Weisner’s efforts, along with those of Barrington Village President Karen Darch, as both co-chaired a coalition of suburbs who fought against the Canadian National Railway’s purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railroad. This coalition subsequently focused attention on the potential danger posed by the shipment of crude oil by trains

These efforts began in 2007 when CN announced it would pay $300 million to acquire the EJ&E, at that time a lightly used regional line that skirted the metropolitan area. It was a bold move for CN, which was then run by the late E. Hunter Harrison, whose reputation as a hard-nosed, bottom-line-focused CEO would continue to grow in later stints at Canadian Pacific and CSX railroads.

The deal, which CN said would “fill the last gap” in its trans-Chicago network, was designed to allow its freight trains to bypass Chicago’s highly congested rail network. It took a CN train longer to get through Chicago’s freight yards than it did to travel the 700 miles from Winnipeg, Harrison said. A brilliant business decision by Harrison and CN, many thought, and CN touted the plan as its “Chicago Advantage” over its competitors. 

But what about the railroad’s impact on dozens of towns from Waukegan to Joliet to Gary? What about the homeowners who were used to seeing only a few freight trains a week, now suddenly facing the prospect of scores of wall-shaking, noisy diesel-powered behemoths passing only yards from their backyards?  What about the dozens of grade crossings that would become blocked by mile-plus-long freight trains? And how quickly could firefighters and ambulances respond? 

Alarmed, the suburbs mobilized. Led by Weisner and Darch, an anti-CN coalition called TRAC (The Regional Answer to Canadian National) launched a battle against Harrison and CN before federal railroad regulators in Washington and in court. Weisner said CN was trying to “shove this project down our throat.” “In the final analysis, the CN will enhance their profits nicely and hand the bills for all necessary improvements and infrastructure not only to taxpayers of Aurora and the other localities, but to the taxpayers of the state and the nation,” Weisner said.

Harrison, of course, was winning raves from many in the railroad industry for his cost-cutting, hardball management style. At a stockholders meeting in Chicago, Harrison said if the railroad’s planned expansion was blocked, Chicago’s standing as rail capital of North America would be threatened, jobs would be lost and the area’s economy would be hurt. He derided opponents for having a not-in-my-backyard attitude toward the EJ&E bypass. “Maybe some of the citizens in the western suburbs will have to learn to deal with change,” the abrasive Harrison said.

Ultimately, CN won Surface Transportation Board approval for the acquisition, but not without agreeing to many conditions. CN also cut deals with individual suburbs with EJ&E crossings. One by one, CN effectively won over many affected communities, negotiating individually and confidentially. Some suburbs reached deals for quiet zones, cameras to monitor rail crossings and other safety measures. And federal regulators required CN to pay the majority of the cost for building two rail-highway overpasses, one at Route 30 in Lynwood and the other at Ogden Ave. in Aurora, two crossings where train movements would affect the most vehicle traffic. 

CN fought the funding mandate in federal court, but lost. Weisner called it “a substantial win,” adding that the ruling sends the message that railroads may not “walk away from the harms” they might cause.

Spurred by the 2013 fiery disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec that killed 47 and the 2011 ethanol train derailment near Rockford that killed one woman, Weisner and Darch led the local effort to  to press for improved rail tank car safety measures. 

A 2015 Tribune analysis showed that more highly volatile crude oil was passing through the Midwest, specifically the Chicago area, via railroad tank cars than anywhere else in the country. Hundreds of ethanol- and crude oil-carrying tank cars are regularly transported through the Chicago region on the CN and other lines. 

The TRAC coalition met with federal leaders in Chicago and in Washington, DC. Subsequently, the federal government authorized new specifications for tank cars and a schedule for retrofitting older cars to make them more fire-resistant. (A recent policy change by the Trump administration rescinded a mandate for railroads to install electronic braking systems, as opposed to traditional air brakes, citing cost as a factor.) 

Darch said she will remember Weisner as “a wonderful, selfless man who cared deeply about his family, his city, our region and the world,” adding his efforts to further transportation safety “will bear fruit for years to come.” “He will be sorely missed by those of us who had the pleasure of knowing and working with him over the years, and by those who never having known him, will benefit from his years of service,” she said.

Also recalling Weisner was former Waukegan mayor and state senator Bill Morris, who, with Weisner and Paula Wolff, were named to the Illinois Tollway board in 2009. They were appointed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn, who promised reform in the wake of his corrupt predecessor, Rod Blagojevich. 

Quinn had directed the Tollway board to go full-speed ahead with a massive $12 billion construction program. The results of that project can be seen today with the rebuilt and widened Jane Addams Tollway (I-90), the interchange between Interstate 57 and the Tri-State Tollway (I-294), and the rebuilt — and once-free but now-tolled — Elgin-O’Hare Expressway. Next will be the western bypass around O’Hare.

To pay the cost, however, the Tollway board faced a vote in 2011 to nearly double tolls. The outspoken Morris called the toll hike too excessive, and made his objections public at hearings. He was outvoted 7-1 when he called for scaling the program back. Although Weisner supported the increase for the benefit of DuPage and Kane counties, Morris said Weisner backed him up in demanding hearings in all the counties and seconding Morris’ motion to trim back the size of the increase so there could be public discussion by the board. 

“Tom was getting a lot of pressure from the other board members, the staff and the building trades unions not to second my motion to reduce the proposed toll increase,” Morris recalled. “None of them wanted a vote on that plan nor the debate, nor for me to have a platform to once again make my case, and yet he stood his ground and seconded my motion.  That took courage.” Quinn later dumped the maverick Morris from the Tollway board.

Of Weisner, Morris recalled: “He just a good, decent guy who was the kind of public servant who always tried to speak and act for those without power or prestige. He had a lot of public integrity.” 

— Richard Wronski

A public memorial service for Tom Weisner is scheduled for 11 a.m. Jan. 14 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd. in downtown Aurora. A private burial will take place at Marywood Cemetery.

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