About every 15 minutes, trains block a busy corridor in the near west suburbs — a problem so frustrating that state officials created a special board to oversee construction of a tunnel or bridge.
That was nearly 12 years ago. The agency has yet to move any dirt but spent more than $1.3 million on consultants, cars and rent while turning to taxpayers for more money to finish studying the project, the Tribune has found.
The obscure West Cook Railroad Relocation and Development Authority has covered salaries for an executive director, two project managers, a project liaison, a financial adviser, attorneys and accountants.
One consultant was given a $400-a-month car, and tens of thousands of dollars were spent on rent.
Two board members designated as secretary and treasurer were paid $6,000 a year, despite a three-year stretch during which they met for less than four hours total.
All of it was basically to push for one major construction project on the border of Bellwood and Melrose Park. So far, the authority has overseen preliminary studies on what to build — a tunnel — and how to build it. But even the preliminary work is not done.
The mayors of Bellwood and Melrose Park declined to answer questions about much of the authority's spending even though they have a hand in appointing the board and their towns have provided the money for administrative salaries and overhead.
Others who have been closely involved with the project declined to comment, couldn't be reached or have died.
The intersection of 25th Avenue and the Union Pacific line has been a traffic and development headache for decades. More than 90 trains chug across the busy road daily, often at a crawl as they pull in and out of the vast Proviso rail yards.
One recent morning, a 20-minute blockage was quickly followed by a stalled freight train that put a chokehold on traffic for at least another 45 minutes, even blocking two police cars with emergency lights flashing.
"This is the worst railroad (crossing) ever," utility worker Jim Burkart declared as he waited for the train to move. "This is almost … a daily thing."
Lawmakers created a small government in 1999 to do something about it.
The authority first consisted of Bellwood and Melrose Park officials appointed by the governor on recommendations from the mayors. Later, Maywood officials were added, along with a mandate to fix problem crossings in that town, but the authority has yet to study them.
The concept stemmed from an ultimately successful board that built an underpass at Grand Avenue in Franklin Park. State Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano, R-Elmwood Park, pushed to create both boards and said the Grand Avenue board hired only lawyers, engineers and construction firms, not multiple consultants and advisers.
"We didn't have any overhead," Saviano said of the Grand Avenue authority.
Overhead spending started immediately for the West Cook authority.
Since 2000, the authority has reported spending about $1.3 million in contributions from Melrose Park and Bellwood on administrative expenses, while using about $1.3 million in state grants for feasibility and engineering studies.
Spending started early with layers of administrators but has tapered off in recent years as officials pleaded with the state for more money to wrap up an initial engineering plan.
In a decade, obscure tunnel board bled $1.3 million on overhead, but where's the underpass?
Formed to fix train crossing, board ran out of taxpayer money, went back for more
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