By Bob Uphues
The traffic disruptions on Harlem Avenue caused by the frequency of trains, crossing gate malfunctions and accidents flowing through Riverside and neighboring suburbs along the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad are familiar to anyone who lives around here or travels through here frequently.
As far back as the 1940s, there have been studies conducted – never implemented -- to possibly separate vehicular and train traffic by means of a Harlem Avenue overpass or underpass.
Now, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) will embark on a new study, to see if a grade separation is possible or even desirable or whether other options could be considered after getting the go ahead from officials in Berwyn and Riverside.
Thomas Murtha, a senior planner for CMAP, told Riverside village trustees at their meeting on Dec. 5 that such a study would be the first step in a process that could take a decade to complete, but that it would involve Riverside officials and include resident and business owner input as well.
"We don't even know at this point what a solution is going to look like," Murtha said. "Those decisions would probably be in the range of four to five years away."
CMAP has engaged a consultant, Jacobs Engineering Group, to conduct the study to furnish the purpose and needs for whatever solutions are identified. The village of Riverside would not be obligated to pay for any part of that feasibility study, said Murtha, but planners wanted to make sure they had the OK from all of the municipalities directly affected before moving ahead.
"The sort of improvements we'd be looking at would include everything from traffic-flow improvements on the affected road and adjacent roads to improvements to nearby crossings," Murtha said, adding that Berwyn had expressed interest in looking at the BNSF grade crossing at East Avenue as it related to fire and police response.
Improvements could also range from raising or lowering the grade of the roadway to raising or lowering the grade of the railroad, according to Murtha. Whatever improvements are identified would also accommodate pedestrian traffic.
Murtha said the Harlem/BNSF area was the subject of two previous studies, one in the 1940s and the other in the 1990s. The more recent of the two contemplated a Harlem Avenue underpass that was discarded as not feasible.
But, Harlem Avenue was selected as a high-priority location for a new study because of the frequency of delays, the amount of truck traffic, crash history and impact to other transit systems, like buses.
CMAP looked at 150 possible locations and determined something might be done at about one-third of those.
Harlem Avenue, he said, "is one of the ones that rose to the top."
While Riverside trustees unanimously agreed that a feasibility study would be a worthwhile exercise, some were less enthusiastic than others about its prospects.
"I'm on the fence," said Trustee Edward Hannon. "From what I'm hearing from you, the trigger for this selection is based on vehicle traffic. And, sitting here, the only concern I have that justifies this project is pedestrian safety."
Hannon said that train delays are part of the price of living in Riverside and that people who live in the village understand that when buying their homes.
"I'm not sure [grade separation] has a positive impact on the village," Hannon said.
Trustee Elizabeth Peters wondered if there was some way CMAP could quantify benefits of such solutions, based on already completed projects elsewhere, while Trustee Cristin Evans supported looking at the feasibility of a grade separation, since the crossing is dangerous right now for both vehicles and pedestrians.
"It's not pedestrian-friendly at all," Evans said. "Any kind of pedestrian-friendly upgrade would be worth it for the community."
Village President Ben Sells said he wasn't sure how realistic a Harlem Avenue underpass or overpass would be, given what it would mean for businesses that line the street near the railroad tracks.
In the case of a railroad overpass, asked Sells, what would that mean for Riverside's downtown train station and the Berwyn train station at Harlem Avenue?
"It's just hard for me to imagine how there could be a beneficial answer to any of those questions for us," Sells said.
Murtha said that those very questions would be examined in the feasibility study. The eventual solution, he said could be to avoid grade separation. He referenced the intersection at 47th Street and East Avenue, which separates LaGrange, Brookfield and McCook as an example.
Grade separation originally had been contemplated there and discarded in favor of traffic signals.
"That's what we try to figure out with this feasibility study," Murtha said.
Trustee Doug Pollock said he encouraged any study to consider its impact on potential private development in the area immediately adjacent to the intersection, so that any grade crossing improvement would fit into a broader vision for that area.
"If you're just going to separate the grade to make vehicles and trains move faster, it's probably not going to be to our benefit," Pollock said. "I've always looked at that intersection and imagined a grade separation crossing with a train station platform that goes over the top of Harlem Avenue into Riverside, that has mixed-use buildings … a true [transit-oriented] development."