CHICAGO – A rail safety specialist with the state testified Wednesday that a controversial railway crossing in Elwood is too dangerous to keep open until a long-term solution is found.
Brian Vercruysse, with the Illinois Commerce Commission’s railroad division, was among a handful of witnesses who testified at an ICC hearing in Chicago. The hearing was centered on safety concerns at the intersection of Walter Strawn Drive and Route 53 in Elwood.
The ICC earlier this year reopened a 2001 case brought forward by Elwood, Vercruysse said, believing conflicts between funeral processions heading to the nearby Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and semitrailers cannot be resolved with available railway engineering solutions.
“There isn’t an appropriate design fix,” he said. “We don’t want to allow for human error and ... create a tragedy.”
Crossing gates were broken nearly 50 times last year, and village officials have tried to steer semitrailer traffic away from the area.
Part of the problem at the crossing stems from the increase in truck traffic volume, which has significantly exceeded initial projections from when the crossing project was first discussed in 2001. Traffic has increased from the estimated 7,000 vehicles a day in 2003, with 26 percent being trucks, to 12,000 vehicles in 2013, with 67 percent being semitrailers, according to an Elwood study.
Attempts to improve crossing safety include Union Pacific lengthening the delay between the red light and when the crossing bars come down to give semitrailers time to clear the intersection. Signs prohibiting right turns on red also were erected, and Will County sheriff’s deputies hired by Union Pacific were stationed there during peak funeral procession hours to marshal traffic.
Vercruysse, however, said potential risks outweigh the benefit of keeping the crossing open.
The ICC, which governs the state’s railway system, heard evidence on whether the state should temporarily close the crossing or make the road one-way. Officials from Union Pacific, the Illinois Department of Transportation, Elwood and the ICC all have urged previously the administrative law judge to temporarily close the crossing. How long the closure would last is undetermined.
If the crossing is closed, state transportation officials could finish a two-year Phase I study on the feasibility of building an overpass to separate traffic from the crossing.
But Michael Scotti, attorney for CenterPoint Properties, the developer of two nearby intermodals, argued the ICC has not considered the dangers of diverting semitrailers to other local roads with railroad crossings. No studies have been completed to determine what effect this could have on the rest of the region, Scotti said.
Scotti argued that Vercruysse said just last year during a Rail Safety Coordination Meeting in Elwood that an impact analysis is needed before the crossing could be closed to address safety and mobility in the region.
“Has anyone [conducted such a study]?” Scotti said.
“No,” Vercruysse said.
But Vercruysse said the situation at Walter Strawn Drive is pressing because of its unique nature, with the dozens of funeral processions taking Route 53 to the nearby national cemetery.
The hearing was scheduled to continue Thursday.