NO CROSSING: Congressman Danny Davis will hold a townhall meeting on Aug. 27 to discuss resident concerns, particularly around what they say is an inadequate barrier off the access road. | Submitted photo

Last June, River Forest residents noticed workers cutting down 17 trees along the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Then they saw workers installing a gravel road up to the train line, where trucks started rolling up and down daily and trespassers began climbing and strolling along the rail bed.

These indicators were the first residents had of the Union Pacific (UP) and Metra Third Rail Expansion project, a more than $100 million initiative that aims to install additional train tracks, in an effort to leave the 110 Metra and UP trains that power through River Forest daily with shorter idling time and fewer delays. Locally, the project installs 1.8 miles of new train line from UP’s Vale Interlocking facility in River Forest — just east of the Desplaines River — to 25th Avenue in Melrose Park. Neighbors claim the project has been pushed forward without any concern for those who live nearby, and allege that UP lied to Congressional leaders about noise levels in order to use taxpayer dollars to complete the project. 

“People care about this issue. They don’t want to see someone lose their life on the track level or noise pollution,” said Megan Keskitalo, a River Forest resident. 

“I think it’s important to organize around this because if you’re looking at it in isolation, on a village-by-village level, it can seem like a small problem, a micro-issue. But when you look at the numbers of issues, it becomes a bigger issue. So having a central voice beyond that makes a little more impact.”

Keskitalo is just one of the 36 River Forest property owners stretching their fight beyond the village’s borders, reaching out to Melrose Park, Maywood and Bellwood officials — along with those in state and local elected office — to lobby for a safer rail environment from the Omaha, Nebraska-based transportation company. Gary Mack, spokesman for the village of Melrose Park and Mayor Ron Serpico, said the municipality will do “what they can to mitigate the safety and noise impact of the project.” But he added that, because most of the property surrounding the third-rail project in Melrose Park is industrial, “very few residents are impacted.” 

“The issue for River Forest is much more poignant than it is for Melrose Park because the mayor said really very few residents are impacted by the third rail project. … It’s not nearly as big a concern, but it is a concern and [Serpico] does want to lend support to River Forest,” Mack said.   

Residents have formed a nonprofit, the River Forest Rail and Traffic Pollution Protection Group, in an effort to get UP to remove an unplanned access road they built in River Forest, place a permanent barrier at the site and install a tall, soundproof fence along the tracks. More than 250 residents have already signed a petition articulating these concerns to UP, and Village President Cathy Adduci, along with the village’s attorney, have also sent the train company a letter, urging them to comply with neighbors’ demands. Residents have also had two meetings with UP representatives where they have voiced their concerns, but they said the train company is not open to debate. 

“Safety is Union Pacific’s top priority, and we are proud of our safety record,” a UP spokeswoman said in statement to Wednesday Journal. 

“We work to be a good neighbor, and if there are concerns, we are open to continued dialogue with the village to address the root cause. Again, I want to stress the project is a benefit for Chicago — the nation’s largest rail hub.”  

Neighbors take issue with a gravel access road Union Pacific installed at the construction site at the intersection of Edgewood and Central avenues, saying the pathway was not proposed in the train firm’s initial construction plan. A year ago, when neighbors first met with Union Pacific representatives, they allege that the company told them it was a temporary construction measure. Now, Union Pacific said, the access road will remain permanently on the site. 

“This is definitely a trespassing hotspot, with foliage from the forest preserve on one side that allows people to go up there without being impeded by the local residents or business owners in some of the other spots along the line,” Keskitalo said, noting that in 2010 a man was fatally struck by a train on Union Pacific’s stretch of rail in River Forest. In March, she added, a drunk driver fled the scene of a crash by running up the unsecured access road. Keskitalo said neighbors see people walking on the tracks every day and even hear shots fired. Neighbors would like to see the access road removed from the site.

“The road gives Union Pacific access to its own property,” a UP spokeswoman said in a statement, adding that before the road was installed, UP had to cross land not owned by the company “to access our right of way.” 

In UP’s original construction plan, proposed to Congress, called the “Documented Categorical Exclusion,” the train firm promised to follow standard safety measures, which residents said included installing a fence along the construction corridor. The River Forest Rail and Traffic Pollution Protection Group is requesting that UP install an 8-foot solid noise barrier at the site, to deal with noise concerns and restrict access to the site. 

A UP spokeswoman said a sound wall is not part of UP’s project, adding that “noise has not increased in River Forest and is not anticipated to do so once the project is complete.”   

Residents have planted two sound sensors in the village to measure noise levels along UP’s tracks — one at a multi-unit condo building at the corner of Edgewood and Central avenues, another at a single-family home south of the tracks on Hawthorne Avenue, near the Vale Interlocking. These sensors measured 78 decibels of noise from trains passing through, a level the federal Transportation Administration associates with “an unacceptable living environment” and requires mitigation from noise exposures, Keskitalo said. The levels along the third-rail project rise to 90 decibels, according to neighbors’ sensors, which are also in violation of federal standards. UP denied the project was out of compliance with regulations. 

Keskitalo believes UP “fudged the numbers” of trains’ noise levels on its original construction application to secure more than $100 million in grants from the Illinois Department of Transportation. 

She wasn’t sure what the consequence for violating federal standards would be, but said that noise levels can prevent sleep, disrupt child growth and cause damage to hearing — particularly for River Forest residents who are closest to the tracks. 

“I don’t know if that’s a big investment for them. It’s certainly a big investment for us. But it’s something that they won’t even entertain,” Keskitalo said. “I hope that they can hear the concerns that we have around quality of life and preventing fatalities around the rail.” 

In the next couple of weeks, Keskitalo said officials from Metra will inspect the site and make safety recommendations — a move she hopes will be influential, considering that Metra leases the tracks from UP. She said the nonprofit is also filing a complaint with the Illinois Commerce Commission, Illinois Department of Transportation and Governor J.B. Pritzker. 

Johann Buis, a commissioner with the River Forest Traffic and Safety Commission, said that, because UP was using public money to build the third-rail, he believes the transportation company should have held public meetings about the construction project. “The community out in Geneva had been given the benefit of a public information meeting when they started this project, and so we question why that courtesy was not extended to us,” he said, adding that village officials should have held a public hearing — even if the plans were too late to change — once they were notified of the project. He called UP’s failure to even turn its construction barriers the correct way on the access road, indicative of the overall lack of consideration he believes the train company has displayed on the entire project. 

 “They are using our money; we have a right to be treated with some kind of forethought and respect,” Buis said. “A year after conversations started, they still did not turn the damn barrier. It’s almost like, ‘You guys can make as much noise as you want, we don’t care about you.’ That is at the heart of it.” 

Village President Cathy Adduci urged residents to lobby their state legislature and congressional leaders to hold UP responsible for its track conditions. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis has planned a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. on Aug. 27 at River Forest Village Hall, 400 Park Ave., where he plans to address the topic. 

“I can’t believe that any congressional person or any political person would stand to accept the fact that UP may have lied to Congress to get this approved,” Adduci said. 

River Forest learned about the project about two years ago, she said, after it had already been approved at the federal level. And when they learned of the project, village officials weren’t given much information, which is why they did not hold a public hearing. 

“How many railroad projects do you do in a lifetime? For me, it’s one,” Adduci said. “Again, we had limited ability to affect the whole project. … We should have had a public hearing but I’m not quite sure if a hearing would have made a difference.” 

Since the first hearing, Adduci said the village has issued “tens of thousands of dollars” in fines regarding the appearance of the railroad. UP denied receiving any violations related to the third-rail project. 

But because federal laws govern most railroad operations — pre-empting local laws — River Forest has been unable to fine the firm for trains blowing their horn at 1 a.m., idling for long periods of time, speeding, and other nuisance issues, since they represent activities of interstate commerce.  

 “We can’t interfere with interstate commerce, so we have a limited ability to affect their operation,” Adduci said. “When it comes to garbage from the railroad and, I believe, safety from the railroad property, I think we have a little bit of leeway there. It all depends on what lawyer you talk to.”  

In addition to levying fines, Adduci said, the village has also held meetings with UP representatives, who give the residents “standard speak” regarding corporate operations, telling them that if trespassers are entering UP property that River Forest police should be responding. 

“You want us to spend our money to protect your railroad?” Adduci said, laughing. “He’s just giving us the standard speak of the corporation, but this is not a standard situation. There’s no place in UP’s stretch of railroad where you find residents as close as you do in River Forest. … You can say, ‘Well the railroad was there before the houses.’ Yes, you can argue that. You can also argue there wasn’t a third rail. There were only two rails. You gotta do something for these residents.” 

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