After 15-year odyssey, Norfolk Southern gets final OK for massive rail yard expansion in Englewood

Last month, Ald. Jeanette Taylor delayed the project, which has drawn scrutiny over residential displacement, truck traffic and pollution. Wednesday, she admonished Norfolk Southern — but voted for the expansion.

SHARE After 15-year odyssey, Norfolk Southern gets final OK for massive rail yard expansion in Englewood
The truck entrance to the Norfolk Southern rail yard, at 63rd Street and Prairie Avenue.

The truck entrance to the Norfolk Southern rail yard, at 63rd Street and Prairie Avenue.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The City Council agreed Wednesday to vacate streets and alleys to pave the way for a $150 million expansion of Norfolk Southern Railway’s intermodal yard in Englewood after the local alderperson lifted the legislative brick.

Last month, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) extended what has been a 15-year odyssey for the rail giant by using a parliamentary maneuver to delay the project. It has been mired in controversy over the residential displacement it required and the truck traffic and pollution it caused for those residents who remain.

On Wednesday, Taylor did an about-face. She voted in favor of the agreement — paving the way for her colleagues to do the same — though you’d never know it from how she admonished the railroad.

“Norfolk Southern, who got rich off of the backs of slaves,” resisted “giving this community the little things that they’re asking for,” Taylor said, referring to her demand for an ironclad agreement of jobs and contracts for Englewood residents.

A redevelopment agreement, hammered out in 2014, does the “bare minimum in the Black and Brown community,” she said, and she did not sign off on it.

“I’m almost ashamed and embarrassed that somebody would sign off on some crap and did not do any follow-through. They did not make sure people got jobs in the community. They did not make sure they were gonna do hiring fair. They did not make sure that the Black folks from the community get the contracts. What does that say about us? … I am tired of sitting in a space where I’m ignored and not listened to just because of the color of my skin,” Taylor said.

After venting her anger, Taylor lifted the legislative version of the railroad gate.

“Norfolk Southern and the city have agreed to the terms that the community are asking. And that’s all I was asking for,” Taylor said.

“I want to thank the Black Caucus and members of the Latino Caucus for standing with me. Because sometimes, it’s easier to take the check and look away.”

Norfolk Southern called Wednesday’s vote an “important moment” for an expansion critical to Chicago’s “role as the heart of our nation’s supply chain.”

“Construction can now move forward and will bring additional opportunities for local, diverse contractors and their workers. Once completed, the facility’s expanded capacity will bring good-paying jobs created by Norfolk Southern, as well as those with contractors and other Chicago businesses that support the yard’s ongoing operations,” the statement said.

A new way to vote?

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Ald. Matt Martin (47th) introduced a resolution calling for Council hearings on using ranked-choice voting in Chicago’s municipal elections.

At least 50 cities —including Evanston, as well as New York, San Francisco, Oakland and Minneapolis — already ask voters to rank candidates in order of preferences, using second choices to avoid the cost of runoff elections for mayor, clerk, treasurer and up to 50 Council seats.

“It costs a lot of money to do runoffs. If you have a ranked-choice voting system, you wouldn’t have a need for that. People could be really excited — not just about their first-choice candidate, but perhaps a second- or third-choice candidate who maybe, while not being their absolute preferred candidate, is one that they would be happy to see. They would no longer have to engage in strategic voting around, ‘Who do I like who also has a related chance of winning?’” Martin said.

“You look to see if any of the multiple candidates got 50% [plus one]. If they did, great. Game over. If they didn’t, then you go through reallocating the votes of the worst-place finisher [to] their second-place choice in a series of cycles until you get someone who did get a majority.”

Nine candidates are running for mayor. The crowded field virtually guarantees no one will get the 50%-plus-one needed to avoid a runoff.

Martin calls that Exhibit A in the argument for ranked-choice elections.

“That’s something people would really appreciate when you have wide-open races like this. I’ve been hearing anecdotally from residents that they would like the opportunity to express their support for more than one candidate,” he said.

Martin is the driving force behind another, still pending ordinance that calls for public funding of Chicago elections at an estimated cost of $66.8 million over four years.

Reform advocates have claimed the return on investment would be “huge,” preventing a “handful of big-money donors” from “drowning out the voices of ordinary Chicagoans.”

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