New railroad and traffic infrastructure improvements planned for South Loop
December 7, 2018

The Canadian National Railway will reconstruct overpasses at Michigan and Wabash Avenues as well as State, Dearborn, and Clark Streets.

By Rick Romano

Two South Loop transportation infrastructure projects—one to update a longstanding Canadian National rail line, the other to accommodate increased traffic near the Wintrust Arena—will kick off in 2019.

Business and government entities, with input from community organizations, are planning and guiding both projects.

On track for reconstruction

The Canadian National Railway (CN) will complete preliminary utility work and then, in early 2019, will start reconstructing overpasses at Michigan and Wabash Avenues as well as State, Dearborn, and Clark Streets.

Railroad spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis said the bridges in the South Loop that serve freight and passenger trains on the St. Charles Air Line are near the end of their service life. The railroad regularly inspects them to ensure they meet rigorous Federal safety standards.

“CN will reduce the number of tracks in part of this area,” from four to one, “and realign the track,” Abecassis said. “This realignment will allow for a straighter track configuration, improving fluidity and safety. New bridge configurations will allow for street curb straightening and the potential for on-street parking.”

Workers will rebuild the bridges without the current pillars, also potentially easing pedestrian crossings.

The railroad did not respond to a request for the project’s cost.

Abecassis credited Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) for communicating information about the project to South Loop residents and business owners.

Dowell said she held two community meetings about the project, and noted the railroad has been open to community concerns.

“I was surprised to learn that the rail line was over 100 years old,” Dowell said. “The investment needs to happen. There will be improvements in the lighting underneath the bridges, and the neighborhood will be more friendly to traffic as well as to pedestrians.”

Dowell said that changing the look and feel of the trains as well as the bridges will make the growing South Loop neighborhoods more appealing. In addition to the bridges, she said the railroad will reduce train noise and vibration in densely populated areas by moving an idling station further from residential buildings.

“You have to make sure that this rail line and the residents and businesses in the area can co-exist,” she said.

Dowell remains committed to communicating with the community and the railroad about the project’s effect on the ward during the construction phase.

“We are working on staging locations, how streets will be closed, and having some of the heavier duty work done at times like weekends and other times that won’t affect a lot of the area,” Dowell said. “I think it would be a great idea for them [the railroad] to provide a regular update during construction. My office could distribute that.”

Representatives of two community organizations said they appreciate the coordinated effort.

“My personal feeling is that the railroad is an infrastructure that has been there well before the explosion of population in the area,” said Brian Murphy, vice present of the Greater South Loop Association and a ten-year South Loop resident. “It’s one of those things that it is what it is. You would like not to deal with construction, but that wouldn’t be practical. From what I understand, the railroad has been cooperative in allowing equipment such as scaffolding on their property whenever maintenance is needed on a building.”

Dennis McClendon, a longtime member of South Loop Neighbors, said some residents in buildings close to the rail line are not happy with the trains rolling nearby, and he pointed to Canadian National’s intention to minimize construction noise and move the idling station as a positive step.

“I was kind of surprised that Canadian National was planning to reconstruct,” he said, noting that a community planning document from a decade or so ago said the railroad may cease operations there at some time in the future.

“It wasn’t a formal comment or recommendation,” McClendon said. “It was a notation.”

Ald. Dowell said she has not heard of ending rail service in all the years she has been active in the community.

McClendon also mentioned the advantage of building the new bridges with “generally maintenance-free” Cor-Ten steel, which rusts naturally and does not require painting.

Let there be lights

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) has proposed new traffic signals at the intersection of 21st Street and Indiana Avenue, just north of the Wintrust Arena.

“There had been some accidents in the area, and traffic has increased,” said Cynthia McCafferty, a Wintrust spokesperson. “We have a lot of activity going on there with DePaul basketball, home games for the Chicago Sky, various concerts, and boxing matches. We are working through Ald. Dowell and the Chicago Department of Transportation. It’s a whole process.”

Mike Claffey, Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) public affairs director, said MPEA has committed spending $625,000 for the project, including installing traffic lights at what is now a four-way stop and removing adjacent landscaped medians to accommodate standard left turn lanes.

“Typically, a new signal requires 18 months from funding to completion,” he said. “CDOT expects to start construction in the third quarter of 2019 and to have the signal operational by the end of the year.”

Dowell said the signals should help alleviate traffic congestion, an issue that she noted remains an entire South Loop initiative.

Murphy said traffic congestion has not dulled South Loop residents’ enthusiasm for their community, citing himself and his wife as examples.

“When we bought ten year ago, there was a lull in the economy,” Murphy said. “The neighborhood’s development over the years has brought more traffic, but my wife and I like the location being so close to the Loop and the lake.”

For CN, log on to www.cn.ca/. To contact CDOT, call (312) 744-3600. To contact Dowell, call (773) 373-9273. For GSLA, go to https://greatersouthloop.org/. For the MPEA, log on to www.mpea.com/. Log on to www.southloopneighbors.org for the SLN.