In a standing-room-only town hall meeting Aug. 27 led by Cong. Danny Davis (D-7th), River Forest residents and village officials had a chance to talk to Union Pacific and Metra representatives about the ongoing conflict over the Union Pacific (UP) and Metra Third Rail Expansion project. This more than $100 million initiative’s goal is to prevent bottlenecks and idling trains through the installation of additional train tracks. Locally, the project involves 1.8 miles of new train line. River Forest residents claim that the project is creating dangerous safety and noise problems and are demanding UP fix these issues.

Although Davis began the meeting by saying this sort of town hall is the “hallmark of democracy” and was hopeful that everyone would be heard and a solution reached, UP and Metra officials did not budge, and residents left the meeting disappointed and angry.

River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci said, “This issue is very important to us because it affects 50 to 60 residences along the rail.” She added that it’s an issue of public health and public safety. These are not, she said, “insignificant issues.”

Liisa Stark, the railroad’s assistant vice president for public affairs, said at the meeting that UP had already listened to the public’s concern and made concessions regarding the project. Initially the plan included a four-foot fence separating the tracks, but when the village requested a higher fence UP agreed to put in an eight-foot fence. The problem with the eight-foot fence, say River Forest residents and administrators, is that it will provide no sound protection, a statement that Stark does not contest. She insists that “scientific studies” show that “no noise mitigation” was needed. Additionally, she said, the new rail is being added to facilitate the trains already running on the track and that no additional passenger trains will be added.

She said that if the Village of River Forest was willing to pay, UP would install a noise barrier fence.

Residents and administrators, however, disagree that they should be responsible for this fence. They believe that although there are no plans for additional trains, the fact that existing ones will be 16 feet closer to their residences will add to noise concerns. And in terms of federally allowable noise levels, the sound from the tracks is in the “severe impact” category based on guidelines from the FTA Transit Noise and Impact Assessment.

According to the Documented Categorical Exclusion report prepared by Metra in 2016 to assess the noise impact of the project, “The projected overall build noise levels do not change from the existing overall noise levels… Consequently, there are no noise impacts associated with the proposed improvement.” 

However, the reported existing overall noise levels were, according to the FTA Transit Noise and Impact Assessment, in the Severe Impact category. This begs the question of whether or not UP is responsible solely for any additional noise or for bringing already existing noise to an acceptable level. Residents insist it should be the latter.

Megan Keskitalo, one of the founding members of the River Forest Traffic Pollution Protection Group,  organized around this very issue, says that UP’s “interpretation of the noise data wasn’t done according to the [FTA] manual, with respect to absolute noise limits and standards that require project noise to actually be quieter than existing noise to account for environments already greatly impacted by noise from a single source, like a highway or a railway.”

The noise issue is the biggest concern of residents and village officials, although not the only one. They are also worried about safety and aesthetics, reporting that UP cut down fully grown trees in order to work on this project. Stark responded that UP had agreed to contribute $10,000, which would be matched by the village, in order to replant the foliage destroyed during work on the line. Safety concerns include an unmaintained access road, initially promised to be temporary but now planned to be permanent, which is often littered with debris. Lack of fencing and track security is another issue, which has allegedly led to suspicious and/or dangerous activity on and around the tracks. Neighbors have observed families biking up the access road to the tracks, people walking on the tracks, and people climbing the switch signal.

Davis ended the meeting by asking, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” He said this is a big issue, but if everyone works together step by step to find a solution, he believes it can be done.

He said he understands two major points about this issue. First, that the noise levels may have already been too high, and “there may already have been noncompliance to some degree before the project started.” Second, this project, as designed, may not take care of all the problems. “There are no simple solutions,” he said, “but there is a way out.” He said that if he, the village of River Forest, and State Senator Kimberly Lightfoot work together, they can piece together a project and find the money. 

“We can find a way to build the [noise] barrier,” he said.

But resident John Grant was outraged by this plan. He said that Davis, in mentioning who should pay for the project, mentioned everyone but UP. “You’re a Democrat,” he told Davis, “and Democrats are supposed to be fighting for the common person.”

Keskitalo said that the River Forest activist group will continue to work “with village government, particularly Cathy Adduci and [Village Administrator] Eric Palm, and Lightford to encourage Union Pacific to provide a modest package of safety and sound abatement features and to encourage them to be the good neighbors they say they are.” 

“Given that Union Pacific has recently posted its strongest second quarter profit ever, we feel that meeting our needs is well within the scope of their budget,” she added.

UP did not respond for further questions.

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