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ICC judge tells Elwood to hand over documents

Village and CenterPoint at odds over how to make crossing safer

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 11:07 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Lathan Goumas - lgoumas@shawmedia.com)
While off-duty, Will County Sheriff deputies Ed Goewey and Jim Reilly wait for funeral processions traveling down Route 53 in Elwood on Friday. Union Pacific has hired off-duty deputies to help alleviate traffic congestion at Walter Strong Drive during funeral processions.
Caption
(Lathan Goumas - lgoumas@shawmedia.com)
A semitrailer turns onto Walter Strong Drive off of Route 53 in Elwood on Friday.
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(Lathan Goumas - lgoumas@shawmedia.com)
Semitrailers wait for a train to cross Walter Strawn Drive at the intersection of Route 53 in Elwood on Friday.
Caption
(Lathan Goumas - lgoumas@shawmedia.com)
While off-duty, Will County Sheriff deputy Jim Reilly directs a funeral procession Friday through the Walter Strawn Drive intersection on Route 53 in Elwood. Union Pacific has hired off-duty deputies to help alleviate traffic congestion during funeral processions.

CHICAGO – An Illinois Commerce Commission administrative law judge has ordered the village of Elwood to hand over requested documents in the ongoing case over safety at the Walter Strawn Drive railroad crossing.

During an ICC status hearing Wednesday in Chicago, Administrative Law Judge Latrice Kirkland-Montague called CenterPoint Properties’ requests for documents “not too burdensome or onerous,” and ordered Elwood to comply with the request by Sept. 15, when a discovery status hearing is scheduled to take place.

Wednesday’s ICC hearing was one of several held recently that relates to the ongoing issues at the intersection of Route 53 and Walter Strawn Drive. Earlier this year, the ICC – which governs the state’s railway system – reopened a 2001 case brought forward by Elwood amid safety concerns. The crossing gates were broken nearly 50 times in 2013.

CenterPoint first requested documents, traffic study data and witness names from Elwood back in June, but village officials have refused to respond to those requests, said Michael Scotti, attorney for CenterPoint.

Both sides accused each other Wednesday of delaying the case.

David Schmidt, an attorney for Elwood, argued CenterPoint’s requests were part of a delay tactic to hold up the evidentiary hearing that was originally scheduled for Wednesday. The request for documents, he said, has taken attention away from the case itself and the solutions needed to increase public safety at the Walter Strawn Drive railroad crossing.

“There are 10,000 pages of documents that have been submitted to the parties of this case concerning the situation at this crossing,” Schmidt said. “... We’ve provided our list of witnesses. We’ve enumerated and referenced documents that have previously been submitted. All traffic count studies, to the best of my knowledge, have already been turned over.”

Schmidt said he plans to provide expert witness reports by the Sept. 15 hearing.

Scotti agreed to withdraw his initial request for witness video depositions – a request that attorneys for both Elwood and Union Pacific called unnecessary at this point.

After the hearing, Scotti said the request for information is not a delay tactic on CenterPoint’s part but simply “part of the process” so surprise witnesses can be avoided when possible at the evidentiary hearing.

Attorneys for both Elwood and Union Pacific also updated Kirkland-Montague about safety improvements recently made at the crossing.

Union Pacific engineers are working this week to lengthen the delay between the red light and the crossing bars coming down to give trucks more time to clear the crossing. The delay will increase from three seconds now to nine seconds with the hope that semitrailers will have time to clear the intersection.

UP attorney Mack Shumate Jr. said railway engineers should have the crossing gate times adjusted by the end of the week. In the meantime, traffic at the crossing should improve, Scotti said, with construction now completed along Interstate 55 over the Des Plaines River Bridge.

The two sides disagreed over whether increased police presence at the crossing has made the intersection safer.

Since late July, two Will County sheriff’s deputies have been stationed at Route 53 and Walter Strawn Drive from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. The squad cars also escort funeral processions traveling to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.

Shumate said Wednesday that Union Pacific is currently footing the bill – which works out to be about “$500 a day” for the off-duty deputies. CenterPoint was previously working out a contract with the Will County Sheriff’s Office.

Despite police presence at the crossing, Shumate told the judge he heard from UP that the gates were crashed through Tuesday. Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes said after the hearing he also received an additional report of a semitrailer “striking” the gates Wednesday.

Hayes said a police detail earlier this month showed the marked squad cars are not effective. Hayes said Elwood officers issued 12 tickets over two days while the sheriff’s vehicles were there – six for direct violations of the traffic signal.

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