Wilmette keeps grade-level head about rail crossings
Guard rails are lowered at the railroad crossing at Central Avenue and Green Bay Road on Friday, July 20, 2012, in Wilmette. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times
WHAT: Grade-level train crossings
WHY: Depression-era referendum
Updated: September 3, 2012 6:05AM
When Metra trains roll through Wilmette, relegating motorists and pedestrians alike to the mercy of flashing lights and railroad crossing gates, people marking time until the gates rise might be interested in why the village boasts grade-level crossings, but no overpasses.
The answer lies at least partly in the poor economy of years gone by, and the caution of Depression-era Wilmette voters.
Wilmette officials wanted to raise the tracks near the turn of the twentieth century, current Wilmette board President Chris Canning said, but the idea never gained traction.
Planners looked at elevating the tracks as a way of helping transform the downtown, according to information supplied by Wilmette Historical Museum director Kathy Hussey-Arntson. There was even a conceptual drawing of how a railroad viaduct might look like.
That push continued into the Roaring Twenties, Canning suggested: “The village was growing and we were flush with cash, so we again looked at how to make sure the tracks got elevated.
“And then the crash happened.”
The Depression put track elevation on the back burner, until the federal Public Works Administration provided a new funding possibility. Museum records show that railroad companies also became willing to contribute money; in 1937 Winnetka took advantage of the possibility, as did Evanston.
The sticking point for Wilmette residents was apparently a requirement that Wilmette donate funds to the project by issuing a bond.
“I don’t remember off-hand how the costs would have been split up, but the cost would have been shared between the federal government, the railroad and the village,” Hussey-Arntson said.
The issue went to a referendum, and it was defeated, Canning said.
He said that he still references the event when he talks today to people who wonder why the tracks haven’t been lowered or raised: “I tell them the cost was $2 (million) or $3 million back in the 1930s.”
According to Museum records, the idea resurfaced again after World War II, but other more pressing municipal issues kept it from ever again being a serious consideration.
Commentary the Museum prepared for a Village Hall display on the railroad tracks states: “in hindsight, these possibilities might seem like missed opportunities.”
Wilmette has survived nicely without railroad bridges, Canning said.
“We are very well served by mass transit. Many people would love to be on a rail line as we are,” he said.
In fact, the village’s downtown master plan is predicated on the idea that Wilmette can leverage transit-oriented development, he said.
“The railroad is a fact of life, just like the fact that we live next to a lake.”