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Elwood, CenterPoint at odds on intermodal park

Eleven years after CenterPoint Properties opened its BNSF intermodal and business park in Elwood, the relationship between the village and the company is getting more complicated.

Some of the complications are due in part to the park’s success and the massive amount of truck traffic generated by the intermodal park in Elwood and a second adjacent intermodal park that opened in Joliet in 2010. But there are other issues as well.

Elwood sued the Oak Brook-based development company in February over a pact the two entities had for the facility.

More recently, Max Basso, the village’s director of engineering and public works, and Elwood’s planning and zoning commission both denied the company’s request for a building permit for an expansion of a rail-served building in its distribution park.

Also up for debate is the possible closure of the Union Pacific railroad crossing on Walter Strawn Drive, a main road that serves both the Elwood and Joliet intermodals.

For the company, those actions — and the village’s opposition to a proposed Illiana Expressway interchange on Route 53 — make it appear that “sleepy” Elwood doesn’t want to be part of the global logistics hub, said Eric Gilbert, a CenterPoint senior vice president.

“This is the nation’s largest inland port,” he said.

Zoning issue

But village officials say CenterPoint simply has to abide by the same zoning code everyone else does and it can expand its building.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s CenterPoint or somebody applying for a garage variance,” interim Village Manager Nick Narducci said. “We have to follow the same procedure.”

Village officials believe that a rail spur extension that would get more frequent use would no longer qualify it as an accessory structure to the building and would no longer comply with zoning regulations. CenterPoint can ask for a change in zoning or it could ask the village to amend its zoning ordinance, Narducci said.

“We have told them that already many times,” he said.

Intermodals are places where cargo containers loaded with goods are moved onto and off of trucks. But there also are trains that travel directly to a warehouse on a rail spur, and that is a rail-served building, Gilbert said. In those cases, cargo containers are unloaded for storage in the warehouse.

CenterPoint built one rail-served building in the business park last year (its fourth in the park) and it wants to expand it and extend the rail spur. The village board will vote on the building permit matter at its Nov. 20 meeting.

“The (village) board could approve it,” Narducci said.

Walter Strawn crossing

Elwood officials said the possible closure of the Union Pacific railroad crossing over Walter Strawn Drive has been suggested by the Illinois Commerce Commission, not the village.

“There was an incident where an Amtrak train had to stop on the tracks because there was a semi truck straddling the tracks waiting for a funeral procession to go by (on Route 53),” Narducci said.

As a result of that incident, the ICC has asked the village, Union Pacific, the Illinois Department of Transportation and Illinois High Speed Rail officials to consider closing the crossing. The ICC has also asked trains traveling over Walter Strawn Drive to slow from 79 mph to 40 mph.

Village officials are talking to park tenants to figure out some solution. But with 25 to 30 funerals a day at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery to the south on Route 53, and increasing business at the intermodals, things don’t look good for a quick resolution, Narducci and Basso said.

And the trucks just keep coming. Walter Strawn Drive was designed for 700 trucks but it’s now handling 8,000 trucks a day, Basso said. And adding an interchange on Route 53 off the Illiana — a proposed toll road that would stretch from Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind. to I-55 in Wilmington — would make the traffic much worse, he said.

Lawsuit pending

The relationship between Elwood and CenterPoint was good when the company annexed former Joliet Arsenal land for the massive development in 2000. CenterPoint agreed to spend $110 million improving the site with roads and buildings in exchange for getting some of that revenue back in a tax-increment financing district deal, which involves new property tax money being diverted back to the company until 2023.

But Elwood officials say the company also promised there would be many more jobs and collateral development at the site, including manufacturing, hotels, restaurants and retail, none of which has come to pass. And it sued CenterPoint to force the company to disclose how it spent the $110 million.

Gilbert said the Great Recession of 2008 hurt the company’s ability to try to attract that kind of investment. The lawsuit is still pending in Cook County Circuit Court. Gilbert said current village leaders are a “big contrast” to officials who were in office a decade ago and signed the deal.

Narducci did not want to comment on the lawsuit. As for the change in relations since the park opened and now, Narducci would only say, “We weren’t here 10 years ago.”

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