Frequently Asked Questions
The Surface Transportation Board's (Board) review of a rail line construction and operation proposal often leads to questions about the role of the applicant and the role and responsibility of the Board in the environmental review process. We have prepared these frequently asked questions and responses to address some of these questions.
What is the proposed project?
The proposed Great Lakes Basin rail line project is the construction and operation of an approximately 278-mile rail line generally from La Porte, Indiana, to Milton, Wisconsin. The rail line would allow freight carriers to travel around the congested Chicago terminal. The freight line would also add capacity for future growth.
Who is proposing this project?
Great Lakes Basin Transportation, Inc. (GLBT), a private corporation, is proposing to seek authority from the Board to construct and operate the rail line. The proposed rail line is not a federal government-proposed or sponsored project. The federal government, through the Board, decides whether to approve, deny, or approve with mitigating conditions GLBT's proposal.
What is the Surface Transportation Board?
The Board is the federal agency responsible for granting or denying authority to construct and operate a new rail line. The Board has its origins in the Interstate Commerce Commission (Commission), founded in 1887 to regulate freight railroads. The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act replaced the Commission with the Board, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation, on January 1, 1996. The Board became an independent federal agency when Congress passed the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2015.
How does a railroad initiate a rail construction project?
To initiate the project, a railroad typically files a pleading with the Board, which varies according to the specifics of the case. For new rail line construction and operation, a railroad may file either a formal application (49 U.S.C. § 10901) or a petition for exemption (49 U.S.C. § 10502). Applications require more detailed financial information but both applications and exemptions require environmental review. For larger construction projects, the railroad generally files an application rather than a petition for exemption.
What does the Board consider when reviewing a proposal?
In deciding whether to approve a proposal, the Board considers the project's transportation-related merits and its environmental impacts. The transportation-related merits review is governed by the Interstate Commerce Act (as amended by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act) and the environmental review is governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The Board must approve a proposal to construct and operate a rail line unless the Board finds that such activity is inconsistent with the "public convenience and necessity." The Board considers factors such as public demand or need for the proposed rail, the financial sufficiency of the applicant to construct and operate the rail line, public interest and need, and potential impacts on existing services. The interests of shippers are accorded substantial importance in assessing the public interest. Safety and environmental impacts are also considered and weighed along with transportation concerns in evaluating the public interest.
Does the Board approve many proposals for new rail lines?
The Board typically conducts environmental reviews for several rail line proposals each year. Not all of these rail lines are built. New rail line construction depends on factors such as customer demand and economic conditions. Freight railroads are responsible for the cost of maintaining, building, and improving their individual rail systems. Freight railroads can double-track existing rail systems and conduct other rail line improvements without getting construction and operation authority from the Board.
Can the Board dismiss GLBT's application?
The Board has no authority to prohibit an applicant from submitting an application for a construction project. Every application must be reviewed and considered in accordance with the Board's established regulations. As part of its review, the Board will consider the transportation-related merits of GLBT's proposal, along with the environmental record, in determining whether to authorize the proposed construction and operation of the rail line.
What is the environmental review?
The Board's environmental review is conducted in compliance with the regulations of the President's Council on Environmental Quality (40 C.F.R. Part 1500) and the Board's regulations for implementing NEPA (49 C.F.R. Part 1105). NEPA requires federal agencies to examine the potential environmental impacts of their proposed actions, and to inform decision makers and the public of those potential impacts. The Board complies with NEPA by preparing environmental documentation appropriate to the magnitude and context of potential impacts.
Who conducts the environmental review?
The Office of Environmental Analysis (OEA), an office within the Board, is responsible for analyzing the environmental impacts of a proposed project and for preparing the appropriate documentation, as required by NEPA. OEA will prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed project. This EIS will assist the Board in reaching its final decision on whether to approve the construction and operation of a new rail line.
OEA uses third-party contractors to aid in preparing environmental documentation necessary to comply with the requirements of NEPA, the National Historic Preservation Act, and related laws, executive orders, and regulations in Board proceedings. The contractors function as an extension of OEA's staff. They work under OEA's direction to collect and verify environmental information, conduct unbiased environmental analysis, develop appropriate methods and criteria for analyzing impacts, develop proposed mitigation, and prepare environmental documentation. OEA is responsible for the scope and content of the NEPA document. ICF International has been selected as the third-party contractor for the preparation of this EIS.
What are the cooperating agencies?
The Board (represented by OEA) consults with cooperating agencies on the environmental review. The Council on Environmental Quality defines a cooperating agency as any other federal agency that has legal jurisdiction or special expertise in a particular project. When appropriate, the lead agency seeks the cooperation of state agencies of similar qualifications. The Board may invite agencies to be cooperating agencies and agencies may make a request to the Board to be designated as a cooperating agency. The Board has not yet identified the cooperating agencies for this EIS.
When does the Board's environmental review begin?
The regulations governing the environmental review process require an early and open process for determining the scope of issues to be addressed and for identifying the significant issues related to a proposed action. This requirement ensures that environmental factors are considered at an early stage in the planning process. Therefore, once OEA receives a proposal from an applicant, OEA moves forward with the environmental review process.
What is the 6-month waiver of the prefiling notice?
GLBT applied for a 6-month waiver of the prefiling notice. If an EIS is required or contemplated, the applicant must provide OEA with written notice of its forthcoming proposal at least 6 months prior to filing its application (49 C.F.R. § 1105.10(a)(1)). The applicant can request a waiver of the 6-month prefiling notice (49 C.F.R. § 1105.10(c)) by showing that the time required to complete an EIS would be longer than the time needed to complete the Board's transportation-related merits review. OEA acknowledged this and issued the 6-month waiver. The waiver has no effect on the requirements of the environmental review.
Could the Board grant powers of eminent domain to GLBT?
There are no federal eminent domain laws. If the Board approves the application, GLBT would have to comply with the laws of each state to acquire rights-of-way. The Board does not grant eminent domain to railroad applicants, but railroad applicants may need construction authority before the eminent domain laws of the states apply.
What alternatives are being considered?
While GLBT has proposed a specific alignment, the EIS will analyze a range of reasonable and feasible alternative routes for the proposed rail line, as well as the no-action alternative. OEA will select these alternatives based on input from the public, tribes, organizations, and agencies as well as from GLBT. The alternatives selected for analysis will be evaluated based on environmental, technical, and engineering considerations. OEA will describe these alternatives in the Final Scope of Study, which will be published after the close of the scoping comment period.
What topics will the EIS analyze?
The EIS will analyze potential direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of the proposed rail line construction and operation for selected reasonable and feasible alternatives and the no-action alternative. OEA will evaluate the following impact areas: transportation systems, safety, land use, recreation, biological resources, water resources (including wetlands and other waters of the United States), navigation, geology and soils, air quality and climate, noise and vibration, energy resources, socioeconomics as they relate to physical changes in the environment, cultural and historical resources, aesthetics, and environmental justice. Comments received during scoping or on the Draft EIS may direct the analysis of impacts on other resources.
How can the public participate in the environmental review?
The public was invited to participate in the scoping process. OEA will update the public once a range of reasonable alternatives has been defined and will invite comment from the public on those alternatives prior to issuance of the Final Scope of Study. OEA will issue a Final Scope of Study for the environmental impact statement that considers all substantive scoping comments. After the environmental analysis, OEA will issue the Draft EIS for public review and comment. During the Draft EIS comment period, OEA will conduct public meetings in the project area. All comments received on the Draft EIS will be considered in preparing the Final EIS.
How can I find my comment on the Board's website or the project website?
All incoming correspondence, including comments, sent to OEA during the NEPA process, is posted on the Board's website here.
Comments can be found by clicking the Full Text Search link at the top of the page, entering the name of the person or group in the text box at the next page, and clicking the Search button. All correspondence received is posted as soon as possible.
All scoping comments sent to OEA are also posted on the Board-sponsored project website here. Specific comments can be found by clicking on the applicable heading, and searching in the alphabetized lists. All scoping comments received are posted as soon as possible.
How can I find updates on the project or ask a question?
This Board-sponsored website also includes project updates, additional information about the environmental review process, maps, and other project information.
The Board has also set up a toll-free number, 1-844-318-9872, to use for asking questions.