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Local News

Commuter colossus

Joliet civil engineer puts the pieces together for transportation center

Construction of the Joliet Transportation Center continues as a Metra train moves along the Rock Island District track near Joliet's Union Station on Tuesday.
Construction of the Joliet Transportation Center continues as a Metra train moves along the Rock Island District track near Joliet's Union Station on Tuesday.

JOLIET – Lisa Dorothy is methodically piecing together what might be one of the largest and most complicated jigsaw puzzles in the world.

Dorothy, the city’s civil engineer, oversees the several projects and thousands of details that make up the Joliet transportation center project, a commuter colossus that will improve rail service and unify bus service into the downtown.

“It’s not as straightforward as most people think,” Dorothy said, sitting amid the reams of maps, drawings and sketches of rail lines, loading platforms, parking lots, detention ponds and bus routes that cover her desk. “With the way everything interlocks and connects, it’s really complicated.”

Take the new train station, for instance, which will be located just east of Union Station on Michigan Street. Its second floor will provide passenger access to the Rock Island District line. A tunnel from its first floor will access the passenger platform in between two of the Heritage Corridor lines.

But before Dorothy can build the station, she first has to build the platforms, a permanent one on the Rock Island and a temporary one on the Heritage Corridor.

Once the platforms are finished later this summer, she can start on the two access tunnels. The south tunnel will connect to the new station, the north will be near Van Buren and Michigan streets. Work on the tunnels is expected to begin in September.

This is where things get real tricky.

Placing tunnels into the embankment under the tracks first involves driving retaining walls into the ground around the tunnel sites. Work can’t be done while there is train traffic, so the railroads involved – Burlington Northern Sante Fe, Union Pacific, Amtrak and Metra – will have to close rail traffic at certain times. The current plan is to shut down rail traffic on all four lines for four eight-hour periods.

Once the walls are in place, it’s time to put in the tunnels; huge concrete squares that are 11 feet tall by 14 feet wide on their interiors. This time the railroads will shut down for 48 hours, enough time to remove parts of two lines, excavate the holes for the tunnels, backfill, compact and replace the rails.

“Having things occupy the same time-space continuum is tricky,” Dorothy said. “It’s like a terrible game of Tetris.”

It’s also expensive, as the Joliet City Council learned last month when it approved a $1.4 million bid for construction of the two tunnels, even though it was 50.6 percent above the initial engineering estimate.

“What we’re really paying for here is that there is such a limited time that the trains can be out of service,” City Manager Jim Hock said.

The city will face a similar time crunch in 2015, when it builds the permanent platform above the two tunnels, Dorothy said. No work can be performed when a train is on any of the four lines, so construction time will be limited on a daily basis.

The final pieces of the puzzle include renovation of Union Station, the addition of a slew of security cameras and lighting, and construction of the St. Louis Street bus station and a detention area. Work on the bus station and detention area has been delayed by an eminent domain issue.

Complicating all of the city’s plans are simultaneous projects on the rail lines. Amtrak is strengthening bridges and other infrastructure on the Heritage Corridor in preparation for high-speed rail, and Metra is reconfiguring its second line on the Rock Island around the new Joliet platform.

“Everyone just wants to know when is it going to be done and how much is it going to cost,” Dorothy said.

But with all of the variables, her timetables and cost estimates change on an almost daily basis.

Perhaps because her world is so governed by numbers, Dorothy likes to use analogies when talking about the project.

“This is a bit like brain surgery, heart surgery, a kidney transplant, a double-knee replacement, a hip replacement, a hernia repair and a facelift on a 100-year-old patient with cancer and high cholesterol while his extended family tries to live and work out of the waiting room,” she said.

“Or, herding cats, as the case may be.”

Here’s a look at the status and cost of various parts of the $41.25 million Joliet Transportation Center project:
• Ottawa Street replacement parking lot: Completed in 2012, cost $1.2 million
• Marion Street parking lot: Completed in 2013, cost $1.8 million
• Rock Island District passenger platform: Work progressing, cost $6.7 million
• Heritage Corridor District temporary platform: Work progressing, cost $1.2 million
• Heritage Corridor tunnels: Anticipated to start in September, cost $1.4 million
• Heritage Corridor District permanent platform: To start in 2015, cost $8.2 million
• New Michigan Street train station: To start in 2015, cost $4.4 million
• St. Louis Street bus station/detention area: On hold pending eminent domain proceedings
• Union Station improvements: To be determined, about $1.5 million has been set aside

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