ELWOOD – The village’s decision to enforce semitrailer traffic restrictions at railroad tracks near Walter Strawn Drive and Route 53 has hit a nerve with several business groups, trucking associations and Union Pacific.
Opponents argue the reroute is causing major headaches for truckers who now have to go miles out of the way, while village officials maintain the decision to limit traffic for the sake of public safety is working.
In a letter complaining of the changes sent to the village May 30, several groups take issue with Elwood’s prohibition of certain turns near the crossing, calling the village’s actions “surprising and problematic.”
The letter includes signatures from Wes Lujan, spokesman for UP; John Grueling with the Will County Center for Economic Development; Douglas Whitley with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce; and Eric Gilbert with CenterPoint Properties, among others.
Under the ordinance passed by the village last month, trucks are no longer allowed to make certain turns to get to Joliet’s Union Pacific intermodal facility, which lies just north of the BNSF intermodal in Elwood.
Village officials said the restrictions were put in place amid public safety concerns at the Walter Strawn Drive railroad crossing, where semitrailers in 2013 crashed the gates 47 times. There also was a near collision in 2012 involving an Amtrak passenger train and semitrailer because of backed-up traffic at the crossing. Matt Hart, executive director with the Illinois Trucking Association, is one of about a dozen representatives who signed the letter. He said he’s received countless phone calls and emails from trucking companies complaining about the traffic reroute.
Hart argued the reroute “does nothing” for public safety but rather pushes traffic onto other local roads. Alternatives include Interstate 55 near the Des Plaines River, which is currently plagued with bridge construction and heavy traffic congestion.
“They’ve just moved truck traffic to other parts of the area. It’s troubling to us that they’ve now forced more trucks into the construction zone, and into Wilmington, and onto other Will County roads that may not be designed to handle the truck traffic,” he said.
Left turns from Baseline Road onto Walter Strawn Drive and right turns from Walter Strawn onto Baseline are now prohibited. Elwood also is prohibiting semitrailers from using Center Point Drive as a thoroughfare.
Those restrictions are adding “miles” and “a lot of time” to some truckers’ routes, said Don Schaefer, executive vice president for Midwest Truckers Association, because they can no longer use Walter Strawn Drive to reach their destination.
Growing truck traffic
Citing safety concerns at the crossing, the Illinois Commerce Commission, which governs the state’s railway system, recently decided to reopen a 2001 case to review the traffic allowed there. Truck traffic volume over the crossing has significantly exceeded initial projections. Traffic has increased from 7,000 vehicles a day in 2003, with 26 percent being trucks, to 12,000 vehicles in 2013, with 67 percent being semitrailers. ICC spokeswoman Beth Bosch said the agency has not issued any orders on traffic control in Elwood yet, noting the case is still open.
With an ICC hearing scheduled for June 18, Hart believes the village’s actions were premature.
In a response letter dated Tuesday from Village President William Offerman, village officials maintain they communicated with all local businesses within the Elwood International Port Authority in advance of the changes taking place.
“None of them voiced any significant concerns or asked that the village refrain from making the changes,” the letter from Elwood states.
Traffic, safety concerns
In the original letter sent to the village, opponents said the changes are causing “significant traffic and safety problems.” Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes said he strongly disagrees with the statement.
“I’ve physically been out there myself. Yeah, when we first erected the barriers, we had a lot of traffic congestion. But this week, traffic is flowing as normal as any other business day. There have been no accidents out there related to this,” he said.
Opponents of the reroute ask in their letter that the village meet with them “as soon as possible” to discuss how the changes affect businesses and industries, and look into alternatives that both “protect public safety and permits the free flow of commerce in the region.”
Safety should trump all other concerns, said Offerman, who described the reroute the “least intrusive” way to reduce the chances of an accident happening at the crossing.
“It’s always been a matter of when something happens, not if,” he said. “The village is doing what it can to prevent that.”