ELWOOD – It’s not uncommon for someone to walk into Elwood Village Hall and ask for directions to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery after being cut out of a funeral procession by a semitrailer.
“They say, ‘I got cut off. I couldn’t follow them. Can you give me directions?’ ” said Max Bosso, the village’s director of engineering and public works. “We tell them how to get there but a lot of times they end up missing the burials of their brothers, their cousins.”
The ever-increasing heavy truck traffic in the area is one problem. Then there is the growing number of funeral processions to the national veterans cemetery.
It all comes to a head at a railroad crossing over Walter Strawn Drive, which is close to the main cemetery entrance on state Route 53.
In 2013, the railroad gates at the crossing were crashed 47 times – more times than at any other crossing in Illinois – because trucks drove through them. In some cases, trucks waiting for funeral processions were stuck on the tracks and drove through the gates to avoid trains, Bosso said.
Neither Route 53 nor Walter Strawn Drive were designed to handle the volume of truck traffic coming out of CenterPoint Intermodal Center-Elwood, Bosso said. Local officials try to direct truck traffic onto Arsenal and Baseline roads to Interstate 55. Nevertheless, the trucks often wind up at Route 53 and Walter Strawn Drive.
Village officials hope something can be done to improve safety at the railroad crossing. In 2012, a semitrailer was stuck on the crossing because of backed up traffic and was nearly hit by an oncoming Amtrak train.
The railroad crossing was designed to handle only about 700 trucks a day, Bosso said. But about 8,000 trucks cross the tracks daily now.
The truck traffic and funeral processions often clash.
Brian Dames, director of the Fred C. Dames Funeral Home in Joliet, said a semitrailer breaks up about one in every four or five funeral processions he leads on Route 53 to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.
“It’s not unusual. From my personal experience, when we approach that particular intersection, the semis will do anything they can to get over in the right-hand lane, where all the funeral processions are, because they have to turn right onto Walter Strawn Drive,” Dames said. “A lot of processions do get cut off.”
The situation at the intersection is unique, Dames said, with 25 to 30 processions a day to the national cemetery, and up to 37 on Mondays and Fridays.
Ongoing safety concerns at the railroad crossing has led the Illinois Commerce Commission, which governs the state’s railway system, to reopen a 2001 case brought by the village of Elwood, which wants to reduce truck traffic.
An ICC public hearing is tentatively set for April 15. Representatives from the Illinois Department of Transportation, Union Pacific railroad and Elwood will discuss immediate and long-term solutions.
Some suggestions include realigning Walter Strawn Road west of the Union Pacific railroad, prohibiting certain turns on red and adding lanes in some areas to ease the flow of traffic. Lengthening the delay between the red light and the crossing bars coming down could also give trucks more time to clear the crossing, Bosso said.
The commission has suggested closing the crossing or reducing train speeds from 79 mph to 40 mph.
Union Pacific officials are opposed to reducing speeds. Studies show such a reduction does not necessarily improve safety, said Wes Lujan, director of public affairs for the railroad company.
This summer, the village of Elwood plans to resurface the entire 1.8-mile Walter Strawn Drive because of damage caused by truck traffic, Bosso said.
“The greater the weight and the greater the number, that reduces the life of the pavement,” Bosso said. “Let’s say you have pavement with only cars. That lasts X amount of years. If you have overweight semis, that’s basically cut in half.”