Oak Park board wants further study on Harlem bridge project
Oak Park village trustees were not happy with some of the engineering realities presented in a draft reported presented to them this week about what will be required in replacing the rail bridge over Harlem Avenue. | Bill Dwyer~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 29, 2013 10:01AM
OAK PARK — The hard engineering realities of replacing the train bridge over Harlem Avenue collided with some dearly held values of the Oak Park village board this week.
Among the tough truths trustees learned:
- Since the bridge can’t be raised, the pavement will have to be lowered — by up to two feet.
- Lowering Harlem in that area will mean rebuilding sidewalks. Storefronts also will be affected.
- A new bridge still won’t provide as wide an underpass on Harlem as local officials had hoped.
David Shannon, an engineer with H.W. Lochner, discussed the draft engineering report on Monday, March 18, with Oak Park village trustees.
He told them that a new viaduct must, by law, have a 14-foot-9-inch clearance.
That will require the pavement to be dropped at least 18 inches and perhaps as much as two feet.
Following municipal review and a public hearing, a final report will be forwarded to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the planning process for the Federal Highway Commission.
The project is expected to cost about $19.4 million.
Shannon called the proposed rebuilt Harlem Avenue viaduct “probably the most complex bridge our office has ever seen.”
He started his presentation by voicing the hope he would be finished in about 15 minutes, but village president David Pope soon interrupted, noting that Shannon’s presentation was the first such report the village board had seen since starting the process in 2007.
Pope also balked at the idea that the main priority was faster traffic flow on Harlem Avenue.
“This is not just about the efficient movement of traffic on Harlem Avenue,” said Pope. He called the area at Harlem and the Green Line tracks a “marriage between the communities of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park.”
It soon became clear the board plans to take a much closer look at the report and its numerous ramifications.
Oak Park joined with River Forest and Forest Park in 2007 to commission a Phase One engineering study of the Harlem Avenue viaduct.
It is a block south of Lake Street, between North and South Boulevards.
The goal of the villages was to replace the 102-year old viaduct with a modern single-span bridge; the current bridge has a row of pillars supporting the middle and dividing the north and south traffic lanes on Harlem
The villages hoped a new bridge would allow adding one or more traffic lanes to Harlem, as well as other improvements.
Oak Park’s share of the $1.03 million cost of the engineering study was about $100,000.
The five-year-long engineering study is nearly complete. The draft report states that the bridge reconstruction and improvements are needed because the bridge is “functionally obsolete” and prevents improvements to Harlem Avenue that had been called for in a 1996 Illinois Department of Transportation Strategic Regional Arterial report.
That report also calls for increasing the four traffic lanes to five.
Shannon acknowledged reconstructing the bridge and viaduct structures would require “improvements rippling out from the bridge.” He said IDOT understood that and would make those improvements.
Pope said village officials’ desire that the finished product be pedestrian-friendly was well established.
“I think there was an expectation that, whatever the outcome of the (planning) process, it would consider the impact on walkability and livability,” he recalled.
River Forest President John Rigas said except for a brief presentation by then-village engineer Greg Kramer in 2009, his board has heard nothing about the progress over the past four years.
“We constantly asked, what’s going on with this,” he said. “We’d ask the question every time we wrote the check and were told ‘It’s in progress.’”
In a memo to the board Monday, Village Planner Craig Failor said it would be “difficult at best to enhance the pedestrian experience at Harlem Avenue,” due to space constraints.
“The intersection at South Boulevard will not be pedestrian friendly,” Shannon said flatly.
Failor also noted that the “most dramatic” changes under the draft study will take place at the southeast corner of Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard. The curb there will recede 20 feet. That will reduce the footprint of village-owned property that is crucial to a proposed residential/retail development that’s been on the table since 2006.
Trustee Ray Johnson was the most vocal in his concern over the draft plan.
“We have seen IDOT take plans that had a lot of impact (on localities) and do what they want,” he said.
“I don’t like what I’m hearing or seeing,” Johnson added. “My concern is this bridge is driving a lot of negative impacts to Oak Park.”
Pope said he expected Pavlicek would be able schedule a board study session on the engineering report “sometime in the early part of summer.”