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Local News

Controversial Elwood railroad crossing to be shut down

A semitrailer turns onto Walter Strong Drive off of Route 53 in Elwood in August 2014.
A semitrailer turns onto Walter Strong Drive off of Route 53 in Elwood in August 2014.

CHICAGO – A controversial railroad crossing in Elwood will shut down in two weeks, the Illinois Commerce Commission ruled Wednesday.

Barriers will be erected, blocking off Walter Strawn Drive, on Jan. 28 as part of the ICC board’s decision.

The decision came despite opposition from CenterPoint Properties, the developer of two intermodal industrial parks near the crossing. Its attorney argued the move severely limits access and jeopardizes safety along other highways and local roads by diverting thousands of trucks elsewhere in the region.

The railroad crossing has been a point of contention for the past year, pitting Elwood village officials against CenterPoint in a series of hearings on how to best address safety concerns there.

Crossing gates were broken almost 50 times in 2013, and Elwood officials have tried for some time to steer semitrailer traffic away from the area.

Closure supporters believe the situation is unique, with a high volume of funeral processions using Route 53 to reach the nearby Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Semitrailer drivers often use Walter Strawn Drive to enter and exit the intermodals.

Increased truck traffic in the last decade prompted village officials to reopen a 2001 ICC case to address public safety concerns.

‘Victory for public safety’

Officials from Union Pacific, the Illinois Department of Transportation, Elwood and the ICC staff have all urged the ICC board to shut down the crossing, but CenterPoint remained opposed.

Trucks will now have to use the Arsenal Road interchange on I-55.

Last summer, Elwood officials erected concrete barriers near the crossing to divert semitrailer traffic elsewhere. But CenterPoint filed suit, contending the barriers violated federal law and that Elwood was illegally interfering with interstate commerce. The village later took them down.

After the meeting, Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes called the decision a “victory for public safety.”

“What we’ve been reporting for the entire time is that public safety has to take priority No. 1,” Hayes said. “Certainly, this ruling shows that the state of Illinois is definitely concerned for the safety of the residents of Elwood, the safety of the commuters in the area and the safety of the truckers that drive through the area.”

But Michael Scotti, attorney for CenterPoint, argued there needs to be an impact study.

“What we don’t want to happen is, by shutting this crossing, you create a bigger safety issue at other locations,” Scotti said.

In the coming weeks, IDOT will add signage alerting drivers of the closure. The state agency also will complete an engineering and environmental study for a grade separation. The ICC ruling also requires IDOT to schedule quarterly meetings to develop long-term solutions.

Questions remain

Still, questions have arisen recently regarding IDOT’s opinion on the closure. While the state agency all along has favored the closure, a letter was filed in the case just before the holidays by an IDOT attorney offering a different opinion.

The letter from an IDOT engineer called for an impact study prior to the closure and the consideration of alternatives.

Scotti said the letter shows there’s serious concern for the safety of other local roads with the diversion of traffic. He wants another ICC hearing on the IDOT letter.

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