Featured image: Congressman Danny Davis will hold a town hall meeting on Aug. 27 to discuss resident concerns, particularly around what they say is an inadequate barrier off the access road. | Submitted photo
Last June, River Forest residents noticed workers cutting down 17 trees along the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Then they saw workers installing a gravel road up to the train line, where trucks started rolling up and down daily and trespassers began climbing and strolling along the rail bed.
These indicators were the first residents had of the Union Pacific (UP) and Metra Third Rail Expansion project, a more than $100 million initiative that aims to install additional train tracks, in an effort to leave the 110 Metra and UP trains that power through River Forest daily with shorter idling time and fewer delays.
Locally, the project installs 1.8 miles of new train line from UP’s Vale Interlocking facility in River Forest — just east of the Desplaines River — to 25th Avenue in Melrose Park. Neighbors claim the project has been pushed forward without any concern for those who live nearby, and allege that UP lied to Congressional leaders about noise levels in order to use taxpayer dollars to complete the project.
“People care about this issue. They don’t want to see someone lose their life on the track level or noise pollution,” said Megan Keskitalo, a River Forest resident.
“I think it’s important to organize around this because if you’re looking at it in isolation, on a village-by-village level, it can seem like a small problem, a micro-issue. But when you look at the numbers of issues, it becomes a bigger issue. So having a central voice beyond that makes a little more impact.”
Keskitalo is just one of the 36 River Forest property owners stretching their fight beyond the village’s borders, reaching out to Melrose Park, Maywood and Bellwood officials — along with those in state and local elected office — to lobby for a safer rail environment from the Omaha, Nebraska-based transportation company. Gary Mack, spokesman for the village of Melrose Park and Mayor Ron Serpico, said the municipality will do “what they can to mitigate the safety and noise impact of the project.” But he added that, because most of the property surrounding the third-rail project in Melrose Park is industrial, “very few residents are impacted.”
“The issue for River Forest is much more poignant than it is for Melrose Park because the mayor said really very few residents are impacted by the third rail project. … It’s not nearly as big a concern, but it is a concern and [Serpico] does want to lend support to River Forest,” Mack said.
Residents have formed a nonprofit, the River Forest Rail and Traffic Pollution Protection Group, in an effort to get UP to remove an unplanned access road they built in River Forest, place a permanent barrier at the site and install a tall, soundproof fence along the tracks. More than 250 residents have already signed a petition articulating these concerns to UP, and Village President Cathy Adduci, along with the village’s attorney, have also sent the train company a letter, urging them to comply with neighbors’ demands. Residents have also had two meetings with UP representatives where they have voiced their concerns, but they said the train company is not open to debate.
“Safety is Union Pacific’s top priority, and we are proud of our safety record,” a UP spokeswoman said in statement to Wednesday Journal.
“We work to be a good neighbor, and if there are concerns, we are open to continued dialogue with the village to address the root cause. Again, I want to stress the project is a benefit for Chicago — the nation’s largest rail hub.”
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