Cracking the Harlem/BNSF code

Opinion: Editorials

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Talk of a Harlem Avenue underpass or overpass have been topics of conversation and study for so many years that it's hard to get too excited about a recent announcement that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is about to take another crack at it.

While we didn't realize it, we were not surprised to learn that planners have been talking about some sort of solution addressing the congested traffic caused by the busy Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad for almost a century.

The latest attempt at finding a solution was back in the 1990s and in 2008, Congressman Dan Lipinski assured the Landmark's editorial board in an interview prior to that year's election that a Harlem Avenue underpass would be a reality within a decade.

"In 10 years you're going to see Harlem Avenue done," Lipinski said at the time.

We don't have to tell you that was a pipedream, because you're still sitting at Harlem and Burlington in a traffic jam, waiting for the crossing gates to go up.

CMAP's Thomas Murtha was before the Riverside Village Board last week, seeking elected officials concurrence to get the ball rolling on a new feasibility study for a solution at Harlem and the BNSF tracks.

Essentially, the reaction of the village board was, "Sure, what the hell. Spin your wheels, but we're not expecting much."

The study will update the existing conditions and explore various options, from full-on grade separation to less radical changes that will move traffic and pedestrians through the intersection more efficiently.

The problem with the solution that would move traffic and pedestrians more quickly – a Harlem Avenue underpass or overpass -- is that it's difficult to imagine them without isolating businesses that line Harlem Avenue on both sides of the street.

A railroad overpass, on the other hand, would certainly impact access to the existing train platforms in Berwyn. It's not clear how far an incline would need to begin to accommodate such an overpass, and whether it also might affect Riverside's downtown train station.

Such a structure, however, would result in a wall running east and west through parts of Riverside and Berwyn. As for a rail underpass, it apparently isn't possible due to an MWRD deep tunnel sewer that runs through the area.

That's not an attractive prospect.

Of course, the status quo is always an option, or perhaps "status quo-plus," which would be a less invasive, signal-centric solution with improvements to pedestrian safety.

Our guess is that there's going to be no ideal solution for such a fully developed, busy area. The thing is, if you've bought a home in Riverside or Berwyn you knew about this issue before you pulled the trigger.

Train delays are a way of life on Harlem Avenue, and you just come to expect and prepare for them. An overpass or underpass? Now, those are solutions sure to come with unexpected consequences.

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