LAKE FOREST — A pedestrian underpass and possible Amtrak stop at Lake Forest’s west train station are a small step closer to reality, but key questions remain unanswered.
The Lake Forest City Council unanimously approved a contract for a preliminary engineering study May 15 at City Hall for building a pedestrian underpass at the depot, which will in part determine the impact on rail traffic during construction.
The cost of the $281,421 study will be fronted by the city and reimbursed by the Illinois Department of Transportation under a previous agreement, according to Robert Ells, Lake Forest’s superintendent of engineering.
The underpass, also called a train bridge because trains will pass over pedestrians walking underneath the tracks, would eliminate the grade crossing where passengers walk over the tracks to get from one side to the other, according to a memorandum from Ells to City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. and the council.
Completion of the underpass will also increase the likelihood Amtrak service between Chicago and Milwaukee will add a stop in Lake Forest, according to Mayor Robert Lansing. The train stops in Glenview, Sturtevant, Wis., and the Milwaukee airport on its route between Chicago and downtown Milwaukee, according to the Amtrak website.
“We need this for safety at the station,” said Lansing. “Lake Forest has long been on record wanting an Amtrak Hiawatha stop between Chicago and Milwaukee. The underpass will add a zone of comfort for adding that stop.”
When Lake Forest first approved an engineering study for an underpass in 2012, Metra required the project be done without interruption in Metra, Amtrak or Canadian Pacific freight service, according to Ells presentation at the meeting.
The final cost of the initial proposal, which included boring a tunnel under the tracks, would have been more than $13.4 million, Ells said. The city then began talks with Metra to construct a bridge over an underpass, which will require some interruptions in service. The final cost will be approximately $10 million, creating significant savings.
During some periods of construction, Ells said trains could only use one track causing delays. The closures will occur on weekends when rail traffic is reduced. The number of weekends this will last is currently undetermined.
“The study will tell us whether it will be two, three or four weekends,” said Ells. “That’s what Metra wants to know before they sign off.”
Kiely said Metra has agreed in principal to the project but wants to know the precise effect on rail traffic of the project before it signs a memorandum of understanding with Lake Forest consenting to the project.
“Metra wants this,” said Kiely. “Don Orseno, (Metra’s executive director and CEO), stood here and assured this city council. They very much want to see this.”
Before Metra signs the agreement with Lake Forest, Kiely said it must be able to tell the other users of its tracks — Amtrak and the Canadian Pacific — what kind of delays to expect during construction.
Once the project is ready to go, Kiely said it will be funded by a grant. The city cannot apply until both this engineering study and a more detailed second phase are complete. The initial portion is expected to be done in May of next year, according to the memorandum.
“The project will be paid for with federal grant funds,” said Kiely. He is not certain of the precise conditions. “We will have to see what the ebb and flow of from Washington is on rail safety.”
For the past several years, those grants have required the applicant to pay for 20 percent while the federal government funded 80 percent, according to Kiely.