It was only two years ago on the Fourth of July that the Union Pacific Railroad bridge over Shermer Road in Northbrook collapsed under the weight of a derailed train killing Burton and Zorine Lindner. Union Pacific blamed the accident on extremely high temperatures over the course of several days that they said caused the rails to expand and kink. The good news, if there is any, was that the railroad laid down a temporary track on a stone berm and got trains back running in only two days.
There are a lot of bridges in our country that are in bad shape. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2013 infrastructure report card, about 25 per cent of bridges in the United States were “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete”, including over 16 percent of the bridges in Illinois. Perhaps the bridge that smashed down on the Lindners was alright. Maybe it simply could not stand up to the extraordinary weight of dozens of railroad cars piling on to it.
But we should all be concerned about the condition of the bridges we ride on and pass under every day. It was with that thought in mind that I contacted the Village of Lemont for information about the structure carrying the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad over Stephen Street in our downtown.
I was concerned about that bridge for a number of reasons. Have you seen it lately? You might want to take a look for yourself. If appearances matter, it is in sad shape. The concrete abutments have survived long years of heavy use. The retaining walls and wing walls are constructed of massive limestone blocks, many of them cracking, crumbling and bulging out after suffering decades of wear and erosion. The steel deck girders and trusses are filthy and rusty and appear not to have been painted for a very long time. From below you can see the gaps in the wooden planks carrying the tracks overhead. The road beneath has gone largely untraveled and has been allowed to deteriorate ever since it was replaced as the main northern entrance into Lemont over 30 years ago.
A lifelong Lemonter with a strong knowledge of local history was asked about the age of the bridge and responded that it probably went back to the turn of the century, the 19th century that is, adding that it was a scary sight whenever a freight train approached the 100 plus year old bridge.
Considering the degraded appearance of the bridge, I was also concerned that blasting being done by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) could have a negative impact on its structural integrity. People downtown have reported that some buildings shake whenever the explosions occur. I was further disturbed when I saw that a section of the embankment and wing wall of the southeast quadrant of the bridge had been removed in order to allow for an access road to be built to facilitate the MWRD operations.
The recently passed village budget calls for about half a million dollars of “streetscaping” on Stephen Street, with a roundabout and observation area to be built overlooking the Sanitary and Ship Canal, just north of the bridge. This development will be totally dependent on access from under the bridge. This too concerned me.
But my original and primary purpose for wanting the information was because this bridge serves as the gateway to the village’s planned rental sports complex as envisioned by Mayor Brian Reaves and our board of trustees. It is just beyond this decrepit old bridge on now polluted land rented from the MWRD that these leaders plan to risk $40 million dollars of village revenue, betting it all on a scheme they continually assure us is a “can’t miss opportunity”. Unlike our mayor and board, many see it as a gamble that they should be able to vote on, a right denied to citizens by our local government, even though 1,700 of them signed petitions asking for the chance. But perhaps even more distressing than this financial gamble is that it is under this battered old tunnel of a bridge that our officials will encourage hundreds if not thousands of children and parents to travel every day in order for the village to earn enough money to cover its debt.
These then were my concerns when I requested more information about this bridge from the Village of Lemont. I was especially interested in any inspection data I might receive, reports that would put my mind at ease about any potential dangers regarding travel under the bridge.
But what did I receive? Sadly, all I got was one page from some 10 year old plans for an improvement of Stephen Street with only the vaguest sketch indicating the bridge passing over. There was no inspection information, nothing to show that the bridge is in top notch, A-One condition. There was nothing there to restore my confidence in this plan of our mayor and board.
The BNSF Railroad has more than 13,000 bridges in its inventory, and may find it difficult to keep track of them all. But our village with its professional staff, engineers and attorneys should be familiar with the condition of our local infrastructure. The mayor has previously proclaimed that all due diligence has been performed regarding the sports complex. It was his original intention to “fast-track” the project and to break ground for it over a year ago. Yet the village cannot even today provide an inspection report guaranteeing public safety at the only point of access to the complex.
I can only hope that this is an oversight, that somewhere locked away in a desk drawer at the village hall is a recent inspection report. Or that an inspection has been scheduled to be conducted immediately. And once the results of an inspection are produced, I can only hope that it shows that this bridge meets all current standards for function and safety. If there is no passing inspection for the bridge, then maybe investing tens of millions of dollars in the planned sportsplex is too big a financial risk for our town. Maybe an even greater risk would be to allow innocent patrons of the sportsplex to travel under it. And maybe the fate of the Lindners should serve as a caution to us all.