Wheaton to get new downtown overpass – for pedestrians

The City of Wheaton has long looked into the possibility of an overpass in or near the downtown so that traffic could avoid the frequent trains on the Union Pacific (formerly Chicago & Northwestern) tracks. It looks like Wheaton is going to pursue an overpass in the next year, but only for pedestrians:

In 2010, Metra officials had announced plans for the proposed pedestrian overpass, as part of more than $3 million worth of improvements that Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad had drawn up for the Wheaton depot. The work also was to include moving the Wheaton station’s platforms entirely west of West Street.The project had been set to be completed in 2011 but hit a snag, Metra officials said, after complications related to gaining a needed easement from a private landowner on the south side of the tracks. Without that easement, the work could not proceed, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis…

The pedestrian overpass would be the first of its kind at Wheaton’s Metra station. The College Avenue station, a mile or so east, has a pedestrian tunnel, but Wheaton Metra commuters have no easily available bypass to get from one side of the tracks to the other.

Gillis said the pedestrian overpass would be constructed between 530 and 550 feet west of the West Street rail crossing.

It appears this was first announced in the Metra “On the Bi-Level” newsletter for the UP West line March 2009. I’ll be curious to see how this overpass looks and how it fits in with the surrounding area.

This will be helpful at the downtown commuter train station. However, it doesn’t help with a vehicular traffic and congestion issue in Wheaton: getting over the railroad tracks when going north-south. The bridge on Manchester Road is helpful but it requires going out of the way and it not right along the Gary Avenue/Main Street/Naperville Road corridor.

My take on why such a vehicular overpass has not been built is that it would change the historic downtown too much. Proposals made in the past would have required severely altering the Main Street/Front Street intersection, home to some of downtown Wheaton’s oldest buildings. Better options may have included extending Naperville Road across the tracks but this runs into the Courthouse area, the library, and a residential neighborhood and the Gary Avenue corridor is more residential. In the end, Wheaton may just have to live with trains stopping traffic: those same trains gave the community a reason for existing as Wheaton was initially founded around the then Galena & Chicago Union railroad tracks in the 1850s.

Transit-oriented development in the Boston area

Transit-oriented development has been popular for years now and here is an update on this development strategy in the Boston area:

“We see a huge demand around Greater Boston. We’re working in communities from Winchester to Lawrence that are all working to develop vibrant urban villages around public transportation,” Leroux said. “An overwhelming number of people want to live in these types of places, and communities that don’t create them are less competitive for residents and jobs.”

Filling the need in Somerville, where the residential landscape consists mainly of three-decker homes, is Maxwell’s Green, which will feature 184 rental units with amenities to rival many downtown Boston luxury apartment buildings.

Near completion and ready for occupancy this September, the $52.5 million development sits on 5.5 acres and is located minutes from the Red Line stop at Davis Square and adjacent to the much- anticipated MBTA Green Line Extension’s Lowell Street station…

SouthField, one of the largest transit-oriented developments in Greater Boston, is on track for South Weymouth at the former naval air station.

The first phase of the project is already complete, with residents occupying both apartments and townhouses. The total cost of the project, including the homes already built, is targeted at about $2.5 billion, which includes 2,800 homes and 2 million square feet of commercial space.

The “urban village” concept has been around now for several decades. They are thought to be particularly attractive for young professionals who want to live in the suburbs or further away from the city core (partly because of cheaper prices), don’t yet want to buy a home (condos being easier to maintain), want mass transit access, and also want to be in more lively areas with some cultural and dining options.

These types of development are very popular in the Chicago suburbs are well, particularly along the railroad lines that radiate out from Chicago’s center. Many suburbs have sought to build multi-use developments (condos plus offices or small retail establishments) near their commuter train stations. While this means that the residents can access mass transit, it also provides more pedestrians and hopefully customers for the downtown. A number of suburbs have pursued these developments as part of a downtown revitalization strategy.

I would be interested to see how studies about how much these developments reduce traffic and congestion. Particularly in a suburban setting, a couple might be able to go down to one car (or none?) if both use mass transit a lot. However, while mass transit access to the city center might be great, there is often a lack of mass transit options across between suburbs.

I also wonder how much transit-oriented development succeeds because it is seen as trendy.

Rahm Emanuel says Chicago is “the most American city”

In announcing that a prestigious conference will be held next year in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an interesting statement about the city:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced today that Chicago will host the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates this spring…

The event is expected to attract high profile leaders from around the globe. All former Nobel Peace Laureates will be invited to attend. It will be co-chaired by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome. Emanuel will serve as an honorary co-chair.

This event “has been held in Paris, it’s been held in Berlin, it’s been held in Rome,” Emanuel said. “And they picked, in my view the most American city in America, Chicago.”

Chicago was chosen “due to its rich heritage and international profile,” organizers said Thursday.

What exactly makes Chicago “the most American city”? Several reasons come to mind:

1. Chicago came to prominence during the late 1800s as Americans were expanding to the West Coast, the railroad became really important, and America became a larger player on the world stage. In these changes, Chicago helped lead the way as a major port connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and becoming the railroad hub of the nation. Chicago was the boomtown of this era, growing from just over 112,000 people in 1860 to nearly 1.7 million in 1900.

1a. In comparison, the older cities of the Northeast, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia are too dependent on the colonial era.

1b. However, one could make the case that Los Angeles (or maybe even Houston) is the quintessential American city of the 20th century with a rise of the suburbs, highways, culture industries, and a population shift to Sunbelt and West Coast. At the same time these things were happening, Chicago was also changing: its suburbs have continued to grow (and also experienced growth in high-tech/white collar jobs) even as the city has experienced the Rust Belt problems of white flight and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

2. Chicago embodies some of the best and worse of America. It’s skyline is beautiful and it features miles of parks along Lake Michigan. The downtown and Michigan Avenue area is relatively clean and full of tourists. Chicago is a prominent world city because of its finance industry. On the flipside, Chicago is well known for its segregation (bringing MLK to the city in 1966), corrupt politics, and crime/gangsters.

3. Chicago is middle America, not the more educated or stylish East or West Coast. It embodies American values of hard work and grittiness alongside success and entrepreneurship.

A side note: it will be a busy spring in Chicago with the G-8 and NATO meeting in Chicago not too long after this Nobel gathering.

A new bridge in Wheaton highlights problems with the railroad tracks, north-south routes

The Wesley Street bridge in Wheaton recently reopened after being completely rebuilt. Here is how it was changed:

The project involved several components including demolishing the existing bridge and reconstructing the approach roads, according to a press release..

A stoplight has been added where Manchester Road, Bridge Street and Wesley Street intersect, and a change in traffic pattern will allow drivers to turn left onto Bridge Street. This turn was previously prohibited due to the structural deficiencies with the old bridge, the release said.

The new structure also does not have weight restrictions, opening it up to emergency vehicles, school buses and trucks.

This is the only news story online I could find that actually had a picture of the bridge (though it is not a great angle to show off the new road bridge). Particularly compared to the old bridge, the new one has some nice styling and is a nice addition to the landscape.

But the reopening of the bridge also highlights two long-running issues in Wheaton:

1. This is the only bridge/underpass near the downtown and when the bridge is out, drivers would have had to go west to County Farm Road and or to the east side of Glen Ellyn to avoid an at-grade crossing. For decades, the City of Wheaton has looked at possible plans to avoid the railroad tracks downtown. Unfortunately, any major construction would have altered the existing buildings near Main and Front Street, the heart of the historic downtown. (Wheaton has approved plans for a pedestrian underpass at Chase Street but this requires losing an at-grade crossing plus it is east of the downtown.)

2. One possible bridge/underpass solution touched on another issue: the lack of north-south routes through Wheaton. This is partly a legacy of the hub and spoke model of the Chicago area where railroad lines (and Wheaton was built on the first one) radiate out from the center of Chicago but the connections between these lines are rare. Several decades ago, the city considered linking up Naperville Road, which dead ends just south of the railroad tracks to Main Street so that there would be a single major road through downtown Wheaton. Again, this would have required a lot of work so plans never moved forward. Another option was to push Gary Road further south but this also would have required a lot of work. While this bridge is helpful in navigating around the railroad tracks, it still requires driving around the downtown and isn’t part of a north-south path through the city.

The important step taken toward American interstates on May 7, 1930

I am a few days behind in celebrating anniversaries in American transportation history but this post from The Infrastructurist highlights an important highway commission that was founded on May 7, 1930:

This past Saturday marked a little-known anniversary in the long-running contest between American highway and train establishments. On May 7, 1930, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to form the United States Motorways Commission, a twelve-person group — two Senators, two Congressmen, and eight presidential appointees — whose job was to consider a proposal for a national road network strikingly similar to the Interstate Highway System that emerged decades later.

The concept of a truly national road system was, at this point in American history, truly novel. The particular idea to be considered by the motorways commission sprang from the mercurial mind of an engineer named Lester Barlow. The Union Highway, as Barlow first called his system, would be a four-track expressway stretching from Boston to San Francisco. It would have fast lanes and slow lanes, access ramps to eliminate grade crossings, a partition between traffic flows to prevent U-turns, special sections devoted to gas stations and food stands — in short, all the definitive markers of expressways as we know them…

All seemed to be going well after the Senate voted to create the motorways commission on May 7, 1930. Then suddenly the legislation ran into problems. The House of Representatives trapped its version of the bill in a committee, and New York lawmakers did the same. Attempts to revive the plan in subsequent sessions, both federal and local, failed again and again, until the idea faded away.

Tilson later revealed to Barlow the real reason for legislative inaction on the proposal for a national highway system: it had been blocked by the mighty railroad lobby, which feared the loss of passengers and freight to road travel. This reason was confirmed to Barlow at a gathering of New Haven Railroad officials in the fall of 1930. As Barlow later recalled, John J. Pelley, then president of the New Haven, told those in attendance that a poor highway system was in the railroad’s best interest, and that it should do whatever it “practically” could to prevent the development of expressways in America.

This is an important story as it sounds like this commission laid the framework for the Federal Interstate system that began in the mid 1950s. As sociologists, historians, and others would tell you, this Federal shift toward highway construction had a profound impact on suburban development after World War II.

It would be interesting to hear more about the gap between this commission and the Federal Interstate Act of 1956. Of course, there was a Depression and a massive war. But during this time period, a number of government agencies started planning and building roads. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was built in this gap and the states of Ohio and Indiana started constructing connections to this Turnpike. In the Chicago region, a number of highways were under construction by the mid 1950s as the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago recognized the need for such roads. Beyond historical circumstances, was it primarily the railroad lobby that held up Federal support of interstate construction prior to 1956? If so, what was the state of the railroad industry in 1956 and was the Federal government actually behind the times in funding the Interstate system?

The importance of the railroad to Will County’s projected growth

When Will County officials look at a map of Metra commuter rail lines in the Chicago region, they see limited services for a growing region. Indeed, communities like Joliet and Plainfield are quickly growing. Will County officials came together Monday to praise a new study that will look into improving train options for this area:

Several communities have pegged developments to improved service on the Heritage Corridor. But those suburbs have been frustrated in recent years by the slow pace of adding Metra trains.

Local officials said Monday they were pinning their hopes on the Heritage Corridor to help residents get downtown now and in the future.

“I truly believe the need is there more than ever, and the consensus is we are going to see Will County in the next 20 years jump to (more than) 1 million people to become the second-most populated behind Cook,” said Will County Executive Larry Walsh.

The study will help establish the line as part of the proposed high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and St. Louis, Hannig said.

Several pieces of information are interesting:

1. Many might think that the railroad ceased to be important for suburbs around the time that interstates were built (late 1950s in the Chicago area). But these railroad lines still play an important role: they are a commuting option but also give suburbs a flow of people in and out of the downtown as well as a center for which development can be anchored. Along other Metra lines, numerous communities have built condos and mixed-use developments.

2. Will County will have more than 1 million residents in 20 years? This would require growth rates like the county has experienced since the 1950s: in every decade except the 1980s, the county has experienced at least 30% growth. I wonder what DuPage County, the current 2nd most populous county in the region, thinks of this projection.

3. There is some Metra service to Chicago but the options are limited. The article suggests that this limited service leads to limited use: this line is “Metra’s least-used line, with an average weekday ridership of 2,600 passengers.” (A little comparison with these numbers: I believe both Naperville train stations easily exceed this each weekday.) So if the rail service is improved, will this necessarily lead to more riders as the political leaders suggest? Why can’t the officials look at some commuting data to figure out how many Will County residents work in Chicago versus in other suburbs?

A small town responds with a monument after the highway bypassed them

This is a common tale in American municipal development: the railroad or the road or the highway that once ran through the community has decided on a new path, now bypassing the community and leaving it without the traffic that once supported businesses in town. This recently happened to the small town of Hooper, Nebraska. Hooper residents came together to build a sign/monument along the new highway bypass (U.S. 275):

The foundation made the final pick: a tapered, 24-foot tower that would spell “Hooper” in 18-inch-high letters down two of its three sides. This way, the sign would rise above the fertile flatness.

Fund-raising letters went out in the fall of 2009. Quickly, the foundation surpassed its $18,000 goal, thanks to several thousand dollars from the old Commercial Club and to the many, many checks written out for amounts closer to $25…

Finally, right about harvest season, a brick-and-concrete base was built upon a concrete foundation. Then the three precast concrete sides were raised and secured to form the tapered tower, on top of which was placed a cap adorned with a large concrete ball.

Some finishing touches were still needed. The police chief, Matt Schott, used his excavator to dig a shallow trench for a retaining wall, after which a landscaping firm came in to plant some shrubs and make the ground look like an inviting garden, planted in a cornfield.

The project’s completion prompted no fanfare. The foundation’s members doubted that many people would gather beside a highway to celebrate a concrete tower. Besides, the sign was its own celebration.

Now, as the endless horizon along U.S. 275 surrenders to the wintry dusk, the beams of two spotlights sprout from the ground to illuminate the name of a place you might otherwise miss.

An interesting choice – not just a road sign saying Hooper is down the road if you take a turn but rather more of a monument. While it appears from this article that this was a meaningful exercise for Hooper residents, does it have any impact on the outside world? This project seems important for the community itself, an opportunity to come together, erect a symbol, and essentially suggest to the world that though the highway may not go through town, Hooper is here to stay.

This is not an isolated incident as many communities have tried to deal with this issue. A number of suburbs struggle with this: how do you get people to come into your downtown if all they want to do is drive along highways or major roads to get through your community as quickly as possible? One tactic is to try to erect markers or monuments at key intersections or along major roads that point people toward the downtown.

At the same time, how many communities today would actually want a major road, one with a 40 MPH speed limit, running right through the center of the community? For a small town, it might be the only source of traffic but for many suburbs, this would not be desirable.

h/t The Infrastructurist