Englewood flyover relieves traffic congestion

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin and other federal, state and local officials mark the opening of the Englewood flyover.
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin and other federal, state and local officials mark the opening of the Englewood flyover.

By Beth Lawrence

Chicago commuters in Englewood should be noticing that their morning commutes have been a little less exasperating this month.

That is because the city has opened the Englewood flyover, a new railroad bridge replacing a troublesome crossing between the Metra Rock Island tracks and a set of Norfolk Southern tracks at 63rd and State streets. Both tracks run at ground-level.

The flyover allows trains to pass without impeding traffic by going over the road and allowing other trains to pass under a bridge.

At a dedication ceremony Thursday with federal, state and local officials, Martin Oberman, chairman of the Metra board of directors, said the $142-million project is the first step in eliminating rail bottlenecks around Chicago.

The flyover is used by 78 weekday Metra trains, and 60 freight and Amtrak trains per day, according to Metra officials.

The construction project was the first under the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program, also called CREATE. CREATE is a partnership of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and the nation’s freight railroads.

The flyover was paid for with a combination of federal, state and private funds. Of the total, $126 million came from money set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for high-speed rail lines; $4.9 million came from other federal funds. Slightly more than $8 million was contributed by the State of Illinois and $3 million was kicked in by the railroad industry, according to Metra officials.

The flyover lays the groundwork for two more CREATE projects. One along 75th Street will redirect Metra’s Southwest trains to the Rock Island line south of Englewood. Additionally, a Grand Crossing project will reroute six daily Amtrak trains to Norfolk Southern tracks east of Englewood.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin noted the need for increased efficiency on the rails in Chicago, a major hub known for slow rail lines that can take as long to traverse as rails from the West Coast to the city.

Durbin also praised the project for putting “people to work.”

However, Congressman Bobby Rush spoke of his resentment about the lack of employment opportunities for African Americans and women on the project. “We’re sick and tired of the dust and the dirt and the delays and not getting the dough,” Rush said.

Rush was a vocal opponent of the original plan Metra put forward. Rush and U.S. Reps. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Danny Davis said the contract did not provide enough jobs for Englewood residents. Rush led a protest march in May 2012 and demanded that Metra to restart the bidding process.

After Thursday’s ceremony, Rush said he is actually “delighted with the progress that has been made.” He said, “It was a difficult undertaking to get the attention of Metra and demand they spend tax dollars fairly and equitably. But we have a long way to go.”

In response to Rush’s criticism, Metra had argued that the contract was awarded fairly to the low bidder, IHC Construction Cos., under federal rules.

In July 2012, Rush and Davis announced that they had reached a “memorandum of understanding” with the Elgin-based company to increase African-American participation.

However, the following April, Metra CEO Alex Clifford alleged that Larry Huggins, Metra’s chairman at the time, had held up the process and interfered when Clifford would not terminate the IHC contract.

Clifford accused Huggins of coming up with a plan to pay $50,000 to the Black Chamber of Commerce, a group chosen by Rush to monitor the understanding. Rush said he simply suggested the group receive the monitoring fee because it had a strong reputation.

Both Clifford and Huggins left their positions at Metra in 2013.