Harlem Avenue BNSF grade crossing (Bob Uphues/Editor)

When the Illinois Department of Transportation rolled out its $34.6 billion Proposed Multimodal Multi-Year Improvement Program for 2023-28 earlier this month, it included $59 million in Rebuild Illinois funding for a long-talked-about Harlem Avenue/BNSF grade-separation project.

But before you either start jumping for joy or screaming with fury, Tom Murtha, the senior planner for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who is leading that agency’s feasibility study for the busy rail crossing, says a grade-separation project – if it ever happens at all – is years from happening.

“We still have to go through a lot of planning-level work, then on to preliminary engineering before any kind of real commitment to the project,” said Murtha, who added he viewed the $59 million appropriation as more of a “measure of support” from IDOT about the idea, but that any such project “is very far down the pike.”

He said the IDOT appropriation amount for a Harlem-BNSF grade-separation project was not based on any of the planning work CMAP has done so far.

“I don’t think it’s a done deal that we’re going to get to a project that the communities will support,” Murtha said.

A BNSF grade-separation project has been talked about for Harlem Avenue for decades, but in 2019 CMAP began putting out feelers to Berwyn and Riverside officials about the agency doing a grade-separation feasibility study.

In 2021, that effort inched ahead when CMAP conducted an online survey, with more than 500 people – 90 percent of them residents of either Riverside or Berwyn –completing it. CMAP published an executive summary of the survey results in June.

The survey asked for feedback on more than the Harlem Avenue crossing, with the study area stretching from Delaplaine Road in Riverside to Ridgeland Avenue in Berwyn. There are seven at-grade crossings in that area.

Those responding to the survey offered feedback on pedestrian/bicycle safety, travel delays due to extended gate closures and environmental issues such as flooding. They also suggested solutions including eliminating conflicts between vehicles and trains at one or more locations, including either elevating the tracks at Harlem Avenue or creating a roadway underpass.

The full executive summary can be found online at engage.cmap.illinois.gov by clicking the “Projects” tab and selecting the “Berwyn-Riverside Railroad Grade Crossing Study” link.

“We are making progress,” said Murtha, who last appeared before the Riverside Village Board in August 2021 to announce the online survey. “We’ll circle back with the community soon.”