HEGEWISCH — Far South Side residents and commuters are breathing a sigh of relief as 45-minute delays at Torrence Avenue just south of 130th Street are no more, thanks in part to a massive truss bridge that is believed to be the largest one ever built offsite and rolled into place.
Traffic snafus were frequent as 32,000 cars and trucks and 24 freight trains made their way through daily, thanks to a street-level crossing of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Frustrated drivers included some of Ford Motor Company’s 4,000 assembly plant employees commuting to and from work; many trains were on their way to pick up finished Ford Explorer SUVs from the plant’s shipping yard.
But trains would often come to a dead stop, blocking all through traffic on Torrence Avenue and causing nearly 200 hours of vehicle delays every day, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.
“At times, me and the [former] plant manager would be standing outside of our cars on 130th in a half-hour, 45-minute wait while a train was sitting there,” plant manager Larry Moskwa said. "We’d stand there and talk.”
Those delays are now a thing of the past, thanks to a recently completed, $170 million construction project that sunk the whole intersection below grade.
Now Torrence Avenue south of 130th Street dips below street level, underneath a pair of bridges built to accommodate the Norfolk Southern trains.
A massive but elegant new truss bridge, the color of cornflowers, stretches above the freight trains, rebuilt and realigned to carry South Shore Line commuter trains over the same intersection. At 400 feet long, 67 feet high and 4.3 million pounds, the truss bridge was built offsite and rolled into place.
Brainard Avenue was also sunk below grade and now connects to 130th Street, in an attempt to ease highway traffic coming off the Bishop Ford Expy. A pair of new pedestrian bridges and a mixed-use walking and cycling path along 130th Street are expected to be finished within the next few months.
The city deemed the project crucial not only because of the angst traffic jams here caused commuters. The intersection was labeled a “911 Critical Crossing,” meaning it fell along a key route used by police, fire and ambulance services responding to emergency calls on neighboring residential blocks.
It was also a major headache for Ford’s operations here.
“Many times we would have the plant not start up for half an hour because we couldn’t get people into the plant,” Moskwa said.
Those delays translated into lost wages for hourly workers unable to clock-in on time, and lost productivity for the plant, which produced 366,000 cars in 2014, a Ford representative said.
Plus, each finished car must be driven from the assembly plant through the offending intersection before it can be loaded into those waiting trains and delivery trucks. Trucks also deliver most of the parts Ford receives from its suppliers.
"You’re looking at the neighborhood of 1,000 trucks a day,” Moskwa said. "Many of them have to come that direction."
The grade separation project was part of a city and state incentive package meant to shore up Ford’s commitment to this location, a company rep said. Ford has maintained an assembly plant in Hegewisch since 1924.
Funding for the project came from a cluster of local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago, as well as Metra, Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and other rail freight companies. The CREATE fund, as it’s known, is meant to improve critical rail infrastructure in the region, especially at sites the fund calls freight rail “chokepoints.”
Moskwa is already happy about the changes.
"It’s kind of early to talk about results, but clearly it’s going to be a fantastic improvement,” he said, ticking through the benefits. “It’s much easier to get the vehicles to the required shipping lots. There are multiple lanes at the intersections now to allow for smooth vehicle flow. Now there’s a traffic light there."
These changes come in the nick of time, too. The city estimates that 60,000 cars and trucks will cross here daily by 2030.
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