CHICAGO — Fixing everything that needs repairs around Chicago is no easy task.
But, when it comes to the city’s infrastructure, Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st Ward) says it’s often a game of “whack-a-mole.”
WGN News spoke with Brookins after a picture of a crumbling train pillar was posted online, causing a stir on social media. As chair of the city’s transportation committee, Brookins says Chicago has constantly kicked the can down the road when it comes to tackling issues concerning streets and railways.
“The infrastructure is in disrepair and needs maintenance and in some cases needs to be totally replaced,” Brookins said.
A Reddit user snapped the widely-circulated picture near the Peterson Avenue bridge – which is extremely old. The Northside-area bridge and the nearby bridge on Ridge Avenue are currently in the process of being replaced. Construction workers will also build a new train station in between them.
The project kicked off last November and will cost about $22 million. Construction on the Peterson Ridge Station is expected to wrap up sometime in 2023.
A larger Metra project is also in the design stages. It will see 12 bridges between Addison and Fullerton refurbished or replaced entirely, with construction set to start next summer and run for about five years. The bridges, in some cases, are over a century old.
Director of Communications for Metra, Michael Gillis, says they’re still safe – for now – but the time has come to start ripping them out and replacing them.
“They’re safe to operate over but how much longer is that going to be true?” Gillis asked. “These bridges were built in 1880 to 1900. They’ve served the city well but they’re past their useful life.”
Construction will cost about $263 million, with most of the funding coming from Springfield. The UP North Line, however, has a lot of residents living nearby and not everyone is thrilled about the plan in place.
While all seemingly agree the current bridges need to go, many are unhappy about the rest of the project.
Workers will complete bridge repairs in a phased manner and aim to keep two train tracks in operation to facilitate smooth service. The construction will see a new track built to the west, with everything shifting in that direction.
In short, the trains will eventually be running 20-feet closer to homes on the west side of the train line. That’s the part that concerns residents like Dipak Patel, whose home is off Diversey. He faces the track and says construction is set to rip up the walkway he uses to enter his home – so he’s not even sure how he’ll get inside.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” Patel said.
His neighbor, James Robertshaw, says he chose to live next to the rail line, not on top of it.
Both were in attendance at a fiery meeting last month that many residents felt didn’t offer any answers. Metra held the meeting at Burley Elementary School and those arriving say they expected more from an open house.
Sarah Jackson also attended the meeting. She says she has lived next to the North Line for 12 years. Jackson adds that when she moved in, she knew her home backed up to Union Pacific property. Still, she says UP hasn’t maintained that land for those 12 years – she has.
Jackson says she was told the revamp would replace her garden with a cinder-block wall, stacked between 9 and 13 feet tall, with one of her neighbors drawing up renderings of how that might look.
“I didn’t buy my property knowing that I was going to have a 9-foot wall,” Jackson said. “But on top of that, very similar to a prison wall, they would be putting a chain-link fence on the top of that as well, essentially blocking all sunlight to my home.”
She told WGN News that in addition to the space being an eyesore, she’s extremely concerned about increased vibrations on her foundation from the train, the uprooting of vegetation and the increased worry of whether a train being 20-feet closer could mean life or death in a case of derailment.
“My fear is anyone with balconies, if they have small children like I do, could simply lean over and touch the train,” Jackson said. “They say don’t get close to the train but they’re bringing the train very close to our homes, making it very unsafe.”
Metra says ridership on the line is between 35-48% lower than pre-COVID, so some residents say a disruption to service – rather than shifting the tracks – is the better option. The train company recently sent a team to homes along the trail, speaking directly with residents and trying to get more feedback on how they feel going forward.
But some residents feel Metra simply aren’t listening to their concerns.
“It’s not an ‘I don’t want this in my backyard,'” Jackson said. “We understand that Metra needs to do the project but they’re not listening to us as neighbors.”