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Railroad-caused traffic jam irritates mayor of Normal

Ralph Weisheit
WGLT file

The mayor of Normal said he's had it with lengthy traffic jams caused by freight trains.

Chris Koos said this has been an issue before and the Union Pacific Railroad has addressed it, but there has been backsliding.

Chris Koos
Cindy Le
WGLT file
Normal Mayor Chris Koos.

"This is unacceptable. This is damaging to a community. It's impacting our first responders. It's affecting people traveling to and from work or maybe picking kids up at a daycare," said Koos.

Two slow-moving trains blocked most north-south travel in Normal for more than an hour on Tuesday, said Koos, causing massive gridlock.

Part of the trouble, he said, is an increase in the length of freight trains. Freight trains were not 2-3 miles long when the state expanded the rail line more than a decade ago, and there are bottlenecks at a switching yard south of Normal. Koos said the interaction of passenger and freight trains also has caused some delays.

Koos said he's contacting mayors of other Illinois cities with freight lines to build a coalition to approach the railroads and find a more sustainable solution, though he acknowledged railroad companies may have an economic disincentive to reduce the length of trains.

“I think what we need to do is raise the awareness. And I'm not pointing the finger at the freight railroads and calling them the evil problem in our community. They talk to us about it. They understand. At times they fixed it, and then at times it gets back to a worse problem. So, it's about communication and about letting them know what people in my community and people in Champaign-Urbana or Macomb are dealing with this issue, and a prior inability to get it solved doesn't mean you shouldn't try,” said Koos.

Koos also would like to hear from people affected by train delays so he can make a stronger case to the railroad.

Vehicle use tax

At the town council's meeting Monday, council member Karyn Smith suggested abolishing the town vehicle use tax. It quickly attracted interest from other members, including Stan Nord, Kathleen Lorenz, and Scott Preston.

The tax is on vehicles purchased outside Bloomington-Normal by residents of the Twin Cities. Normal collects it for the City of Bloomington as part of an intergovernmental agreement. Normal get about $500,000 per year. It is in lieu of the local sales tax share that comes to a municipality from sales of vehicles in Bloomington-Normal, and is money that can go to road repairs or other general fund expenditures, depending on how a city or town decides to allocate the money.

Koos did not commit himself on the issue, though he acknowledged it can be an unpopular tax.

“Most people don't know they're gonna get it until they're notified in a piece of mail. And they don't understand it. From a public relations standpoint, it's always been very problematic,” he said, adding the town is in a financial position to forgo the money at the present time.

“With the addition of the Love’s truck stop and the economic activity in the community, we're going to have more motor fuel tax dollars coming into the community. We think we can offset that,” said Koos.

Koos said he will wait for the council discussion on the proposal before taking a position.

“We can afford it now. I think, for me, the question is can we afford it in 5-10 years? We don't want to get in a position where we eliminate a tax and decide we made a mistake and have to bring it back,” she said.

The motor fuel tax Koos noted as possible replacement revenue for the vehicle use tax is expected to fall as the state and nation convert to electric vehicles. But Koos said that shift is not something that should affect this debate.

“The state and the federal government are going to have to address that sooner or later as electric vehicles come online," he said. "The state does in a certain way already in that your annual license for an electric vehicle is quite a bit more than one for a gasoline-powered vehicle. But there will have to be a long-term solution. Vehicle Miles Traveled has always been part of the discussion, though those opposed say it is invasive.”

He said reducing the use tax could help people be less frustrated and angry and be a benefit to citizens.

Koos said he thinks the policy discussion by the council will happen before the April 4 municipal election, but perhaps not a vote on the proposal itself.

Economic development incentives

Koos said he's not sure recently expanded economic development incentives are a good idea for the town. The state has changed the maximum duration of development incentives from 15 years to 30 years and is letting cities and towns choose whether to do the same for property tax abatements. That could have negative effects on the tax base.

"The schools have to be not put into a position where it brings new people into the community, expands the population of the schools, and then they have to wait 30 years to benefit. I don't think that's a fair situation," said Koos.

Every business creation project is different, so Koos wouldn't automatically say no, but he has concerns. On the other hand, Koos said if he were mayor of an economically depressed town in southern Illinois that has no business growth, it would be very easy to say yes to longer incentive periods.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.