Metra eyes long-delayed bridge work on Union Pacific North Line – Chicago Tribune

Metra is preparing to replace nearly a dozen aging rail bridges along a stretch of Chicago’s North Side, marking the long-delayed next phase of a bridge project that began more than a decade ago.

Metra officials say their preferred plan for the project on the busy Union Pacific North Line would mean minimal changes to commuter train schedules. But property owners who live near the project raised concerns that the construction plan will harm them and their homes.

The $262 million project involves replacing 11 bridges, nearby track and retaining walls along the Union Pacific North Line between Fullerton Avenue in Lincoln Park and Cornelia Avenue in Roscoe Village. The bridges are around 120 years old, and are beyond their useful life span, Metra has said.

The project is still being designed, but Metra’s preferred option involves shifting the tracks about 20 feet to the west within the existing railroad property, in a series of moves that will allow service to continue on two tracks during construction.

Metra eyes long-delayed bridge work on Union Pacific North Line – Chicago Tribune

Underpasses would get new lighting and improvements, and Roscoe Street and Cornelia Avenue would be lowered to keep the current clearance between the streets and the new, larger bridges, which would be slightly raised in most other places. A bridge at Lincoln Avenue and Addison Street would be refurbished and painted, but not replaced.

Construction is expected to begin in summer 2023 and last five years.

The work is part of a broader effort to replace 22 bridges along the line and rebuild the Ravenswood station. It was initially set to begin in 2010 at a cost of $185 million at the time, and last eight years.

The first part of the work was delayed about a year after Metra tried to reduce service to a single track during construction, wreaking havoc for commuters and leading to complaints about late and crowded trains, the Tribune previously reported. The agency eventually revised plans so it could keep two tracks in service and avoid major schedule changes, raising the expected cost.

Years later, parts of the project were again delayed by budget issues, partly linked to state funding concerns at the time and partly to the expense of installing a federally-mandated train safety system, the Tribune has reported. Work on the first 11 bridges farther north along the line has been completed, and the Ravenswood Station construction is expected to be finished this year, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

Metra eyes long-delayed bridge work on Union Pacific North Line – Chicago Tribune

Metra learned its lesson from the earlier attempt to reduce service to a single track for the first 11 bridges, Gillis said. The agency considered reducing service to a single track this time around, as well as other construction options, but deemed they would lead to delays and higher construction costs.

If it moves forward as planned, the new round of construction work is not expected to interrupt service during weekday rush periods. Slow zones might be needed at times, Metra said, and trains could be funneled onto a single track outside of rush hour.

Metra recently tweaked scheduled on the Union Pacific North Line, including eliminating four midday trains, though Gillis said their elimination was largely tied to a different construction project. The number of trains the agency is now running on the line is comparable to 2019 levels.

The construction comes as Metra looks to continue reclaiming riders. One day this week, Metra provided 14,500 passenger trips on the Union Pacific North Line, about 42% of pre-COVID-19 levels. Gillis said Metra hopes more riders will have returned by the time construction starts.

“We hope (nearby homeowners) understand that the bridges need to be replaced, and we need to do it in a way that the line is still operational,” Gillis said.

That was one point of contention for homeowners who packed a recent public meeting, asking questions and grilling project leaders during a heated discussion. Some said Metra’s focus should not be on disrupting service for commuters in the short term at the expense of the long-term effects on their property.

Sharl Ludwig was among a group of homeowners who live along the west side of the train line who are upset with the construction plan. She said her property backs onto the tracks, and she worried about the effects of increased vibrations on her century-old home and fumes from diesel engines that would be running closer to her house.

Ludwig also worried that putting up a new retaining wall will block her route out of her backyard in an emergency, she said.

“It’s going to change a lot of people’s lives, and most of them not for the good,” she said.

Joe Hesse, who lives on the east side of the tracks, said he feels bad for people on the other side of the tracks who will have trains running closer to their properties. He also worries about noise, traffic and street closures throughout the area for years during construction.

He and his neighbors have planted a garden along a swath of the railroad embankment in an effort to clean up and beautify the area, and he imagines at least some of it will be destroyed during construction. Still, he understands the need for the project.

“They have to redo the bridges,” he said. “They’re falling apart.”

Metra eyes long-delayed bridge work on Union Pacific North Line – Chicago Tribune

Union Pacific owns the train tracks, but Metra is on the hook for the project because the stretch of tracks is not used by freight trains, Gillis said.

For decades there were three sets of tracks on the line, but the third set was removed around 1980 by the owners at the time. Metra does not intend to add a third set of rails but will maintain space for them after the project.

Metra is also undertaking bridge work elsewhere in Chicago, Gillis said. In one instance, bridges farther north on the Union Pacific North Line near Peterson and Ridge avenues will be replaced as part of construction of a new station.

Other bridges being rebuilt this year include one on the Milwaukee North Line on Chicago’s Northwest Side and on the Rock Island line on the South Side. Repair work is taking place on Metra Electric bridges.

The Union Pacific North Line has a particularly large number of bridges through Chicago compared with other Metra lines, Gillis said.

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