LAKEVIEW — A group of Lakeview neighbors want Metra to reassess its $262.3 million overhaul of the Union Pacific North Line that will take up land residents have been allowed to use for years, move trains closer to their homes and destroy vegetation.
Metra will replace 11 bridges between Fullerton Avenue and Cornelia Street while modernizing the railroad and its retaining walls. The bridges are 120 years old and have reached the end of their useful lifespan, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.
The work, expected to run in multiple phases from 2023 to 2027, is part of a larger project to modernize the entire UP North line. Metra has already replaced 11 bridges from Grace Street to Balmoral Avenue and started reconstructing the line’s Ravenswood Station, 4800 N. Ravenswood Ave.
Other project elements include lowering Roscoe and Cornelia streets to maintain current clearance under the CTA Brown Line, refurbishing and painting the Lincoln/Addison bridge and utility work, Gillis said.
The project will also move the railroad tracks 20 feet west onto Union Pacific-owned property next to several backyards, taking over the space neighbors have long used for gardening.
“And what’s most frustrating about this to me is this is all taxpayer funded, and they’re choosing the most destructive plan to achieve their end goal,” said Christie Calmeyn, who lives directly west of the tracks.
Metra will answer questions and collect feedback on the project during an open house 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at Burley Elementary School, 1630 W. Barry Ave.
The tracks are shifting west because the bridges are being replaced in multiple stages so there won’t be any service disruptions along the UP North line, Gillis said.
There are two separate track lines for trains going in opposite directions, but a third track line will be built to the west before replacing the existing tracks, Gillis said. Once the third track is added and one of the existing tracks has been modernized, the third, older track line, will be demolished.
“This would allow Metra to maintain two-track operations during the planned five-year construction period,” Gillis said. “The option is preferred as it minimizes impacts, would not require the permanent acquisition of properties, minimizes costs and is the most feasible in terms of engineering, construction and duration of work.”
The work would leave 1 foot of space between neighbors’ property lines and the retention wall and 13 feet of space between property lines and the railroad’s nearest track centerline, Metra officials said.
“The big picture is closer is bad,” said Craig Gunderson, who lives west of the railroad.
Gunderson was told where his and the UP North property lines were when he moved in, but said he didn’t mind the proximity because the area was still “very open and allows for a lot of light.”
“We’ve always understood it’s not our property to develop, even though we have access to it and we’re allowed to enjoy it,” Gunderson said. “We’ve maintained it, and, in a lot of cases, people have built their own fences to keep their dogs in their yards.”
The concrete retention wall would be 9 to 13 feet tall and have a fence atop it, Gillis said. In many places, the wall would replace the existing retaining walls, which are deteriorating. The final design, height and exact locations of the walls are under consideration, Gillis said.
“At this week’s public open house, the project team will be seeking feedback from the community about their preference for the finish options or patterns of the proposed retaining walls and fencing,” Gillis said.
Neighbors want Metra to explore alternatives to replacing the bridges that don’t involve shifting the tracks west.
“We absolutely understand that the bridges need to be replaced, but moving a train that close to my home and erecting the wall is not necessary to achieve that goal,” Gunderson said.
One alternative neighbors have suggested is a method known as rolling in the bridge, which involves building each of the 11 bridges next to the existing ones and rolling them into place during track outages, according to Metra.
But that strategy would further affect rail service because temporary earth retention and short temporary bridges known as jump spans would need to be constructed at each location, Gillis said.
Rolling in the bridges also would increase construction costs and the duration of the project due to additional construction stages that would be required, Gillis said.
“This option was eliminated as it would require multi-day train service outages and delays at each bridge location and would require more construction work on adjacent properties,” Gillis said. “This option is less feasible than others from an engineering and constructability perspective.”
Brenda Barrie, another neighbor who lives west of the railroad, said she was most concerned about losing the trees and vegetation on the west side of the tracks and having trains’ fumes even closer to her home.
“Those diesel fumes go past our homes and linger in the air, and it’s really scary to me, but I always felt better because I had so many feet of trees between me and the tracks,” Barrie said. “I’m hoping we can kick up enough noise to show [Metra] that they can treat us as neighbors and be more considerate of us as the community that they’re coming through.”
The group of neighbors wants Metra to take their concerns into consideration and rethink how the bridges will be replaced to minimize impact on their homes.
“They could do a lot more for us than they’re offering,” Calmeyn said. “The fact that they’re not even willing to give us an extra foot or two to put up some arborvitae and some plants is just absurd.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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