Fence will separate neighbors from tracks

Local rail advocate says progress is
being made in
Lombard, Villa Park

As a child, Lombard Village President Bill Mueller remembers a third railroad line near the Prairie Path that was electric and "live" 24 hours a day, forcing residents to travel to designated intersections.

"If you tried to go over that thing without using a crossing, you'd get electrocuted," he said. "Now we don't have that built-in deterrent anymore, and kids think it's OK to take a shortcut over the tracks. So we have to do more for safety."

The Village Board continued its quest to address the problem during a meeting Oct. 19, when trustees approved a proposal for erecting fencing along the south side of the Union Pacific tracks near four residential cul-de-sacs and community parks and facilities.

A 6-foot physical barrier, which staff members said is heavy-duty and aesthetically pleasing, will be constructed to separate dead ends on Chase, Highland, Ahrens and Westmore avenues from the tracks. Village officials expect the work to be completed by December or January.

The village will award a contract to a bidder Thursday, Nov. 2. From that point, delivery of fencing materials is expected to take 45 days, Mueller said. After that, it's a matter of hoping that weather conditions comply.

Village Manager Bill Lichter said the project will cost between $70,000 and $75,000, and the money will come out of Lombard's general fund. Staffers plan to talk to state Rep. Bob Biggins, R-41st District, of Elmhurst about getting reimbursed, but Lichter said the village will proceed regardless.

The move is a step forward to combat danger zones near areas that are "child magnets," said Ray Zukowski, a vocal railroad safety advocate who has worked with officials in Lombard and Villa Park to address problem spots.

His own daughter, 14-year-old Kristen Bowen, was killed when she tried to cross the tracks at Ahrens Avenue in February.

Zukowski pointed to high-risk areas in close proximity such as schools, Lombard Commons Park, Westmore Woods Park, a pond with toddler swings and the Iowa Community Center with dances, sporting events and a pool.

"And then you have these trains speeding by at 70 mph where children are tempted to hang out at," he said. "That area has claimed too many lives, so this is a huge victory for us."

Mueller also said the fence needs to go up as soon as possible. When he was in the area recently, he spotted more than 30 kids playing near a low-rise area on the Villa Park side, which made him nervous.

Village officials have had to work within constraints on how geographically extensive the safety measure can be due to boundary lines with Villa Park. Mueller and Zukowski have been instrumental in pushing for intergovernmental cooperation between the two municipalities to address the issue.

Mueller said he spoke with Villa Park Village President Joyce Stupegia last week to inform her of Lombard's progress.

"They're continuing to move forward although they don't have a timetable," he said. "Whatever they eventually do, it'd likely extend as far east as Addison Road."

Despite funding obstacles Villa Park officials are faced with, Zukowski is confident his nonprofit organization, Targeting Education Awareness & Railroad Safety, will assist in securing money for the project through grants and donations from the local business community. Zukowski hopes to see fencing there by the spring.

In the meantime, Lombard staff members will hammer out details of their own construction. After trustees and public works representatives voiced concern over congregation in the 2- to 3-foot corridors between residential and the railroad safety fencing, staffers will have to decide how to block off the area while still allowing for access for maintenance like mowing.

To address the other side of the prevention-education coin, Mueller started talking to fire and police personnel last week to gather information on safety education programs already in place. Firefighters visit preschool and kindergarten classes five to seven times a year for safety lectures, which cover tips for railroad navigation.

"You need to incorporate teaching this for kids at an early age, which has to be followed up with parent reinforcement at home," Mueller said. "We've taken this seriously from Day 1."

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