By Ben Joravsky
About 18 months ago the snowblowers alongside the railroad tracks in Jefferson Park started blasting, and except for a brief time-out over the summer they’ve been blasting ever since. It’s enough noise to keep some residents of this northwest-side neighborhood up at night and on edge all day.
But what might be even more obnoxious than the sounds from the tracks is the silence of city and railroad officials. “They clearly couldn’t care less,” says Victoria Mack, a Jefferson Park resident. “It seems the more we complain the less they care.”
Jefferson Park’s a relatively quiet community of bungalows and two-flats out along the Kennedy Expressway on the way to O’Hare. But the tranquillity ended on November 20, 1996, when Mack and her neighbors were awakened by a loud whining sound, sort of like a giant vacuum cleaner. It was coming from the Metra tracks near the corner of Avondale and Wilson.
“I dashed out of my house to see my neighbor running out in her bathrobe,” says Mack. “We didn’t know what it was or why it was so loud on an early morning.”
After some snooping about, they realized that the sound came from a hot air blower, one of 22 Union Pacific installed along its tracks to keep them clear of snow and ice. “We thought it couldn’t always be this loud–it must be a malfunction,” says Mack. “But railroad workers told us, ‘No, this is how it will be until spring.'”
For a few days they toughed it out. “We want to be good neighbors. We want to get along with the railroad,” says Mack. “We know the tracks were here first. This is the city, so what’s a little noise? And in the total scheme of things this is not that big a deal. But it is a big deal if you have to live near it. I wear foam earplugs when I go to sleep, but I can’t use my living room or dining room when that noise is going.”
The neighbors were determined not to accept the noise without a fight. “It’s very annoying–especially when the weather’s warmer and you have the windows open,” says Rex McDowell, president of the Wilson Avenue Community Association. “That’s what’s ironic. Why would you have the blowers going when it’s so warm you can’t possibly have any snow? There has to be a better way for the railroad to operate.”
So the neighbors began calling Union Pacific, which owns and maintains the tracks. “It was almost impossible to get a response from the railroad,” says Mack. “We were bounced from one official to another. Every official said, ‘I don’t have anything to do with that and I don’t know who you should talk to.'”
Even their alderman, Patrick Levar, was virtually worthless. “I know it sounds strange, but Levar wouldn’t return our calls,” says Mack. “We’d always get a secretary or an aide. They were very nice, but we couldn’t get any help. Finally, one day his secretary gave me a name and a phone number of a person to call from the railroad. I asked if Levar could call on our behalf, but she said, ‘Oh no, he couldn’t do that.'”
The name Levar’s secretary gave Mack was that of Thomas Zapler, an official in Union Pacific’s department of governmental affairs. Zapler responded to their calls and letters with a letter to Mack. “The blowers have been tested and meet all EPA standards concerning noise pollution,” said Zapler’s letter of December 20, 1996. “I am sorry that we cannot respond to your request in a more positive manner.”
In the meantime, residents had approached the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. But officials there told them the state EPA had no jurisdiction in the matter since railroads are overseen by federal agencies. So they turned to the Federal Railroad Administration, where they were bounced from one bureaucrat to the next without receiving any assistance. They sought help from the city’s Department of Environment. But repeated calls yielded no response.
Finally summer came, the snowblowers were turned off, and everyone forgot about the nuisance–until last fall. “That’s when people started asking each other, ‘Oh, man, are they going to turn that damn blower on again?'” says Mack. They did. In October.
In November the residents finally got through to Levar and to Mike McHugh, an official with the city’s Department of Environment. “Levar told us to call the police,” says Mack. “Can you believe that? After all those months, that’s the best he could do. We called the police, and they said there’s nothing they could do unless someone was trying to vandalize the blowers.”
McHugh was a little more helpful. On November 18 he dispatched an audiologist named Tatyana Prudinsky to take a noise reading. “Prudinsky did a test in our house with the window open and closed,” says Mack. “She discovered that the noise exceeded the legal limit when our window was open.”
Prudinsky reported back to McHugh, who called the railroad, which sent out a construction crew to put a fence along the tracks. “You should see this fence–what a joke,” says McDowell. “It’s some flimsy sticks of wood. Who’s kidding who? The noise was as loud as ever.”
The residents called McHugh, who dispatched Prudinsky again. She took another reading and established that the fence was worthless. “The noise was as loud with the fence as it was without it,” says Mack. “We were back to square one.”
Back and forth the two sides went, exchanging letters and calls. “I finally got Zapler on the phone, and every suggestion I put up he shot down,” says Mack. “I suggested a more solid fence. He said they couldn’t put up a more solid barrier, because that would cause the snow to form drifts. How about heat or cables, activated by a trigger device? Zapler said they had tried that elsewhere and it didn’t work. Well, at the very least why not cut back the season when the snowblower’s blowing? I mean, I never understood why it had to go all through April. According to the national agency that keeps weather statistics, there were only 23 days of measurable freezing precipitation during all that time the blower was blowing. And of those 23 days, 11 were in January. So why keep it going through April?
“Zapler told me that by running the blower continuously they got lower electrical rates from Com Ed. What kind of wacky rate structure do we have where they get a cheaper rate by running that thing around the clock? Why would Com Ed be encouraging the railroads to use electricity so wastefully while telling everyone else to cut our usage? Zapler told me to call Commonwealth Edison and ask them.”
(A Com Ed spokesman laughed at the suggestion that customers would get a break for using electricity nonstop. But he said, “We don’t give out customer information.”)
So that’s where things stand, and where they will likely stand forever. A Union Pacific press spokesman had no comment other than to say, “I don’t know anything about this matter. The person you should talk to is Tom Zapler, and you can’t talk to him now because he’s on vacation.”
Isn’t there someone other than Zapler in your entire company who knows anything about this matter?
As for city officials, they say they’ve done all they can possibly do, even if the noise violates the law. “Mass transit operators are exempt from the noise ordinance,” explains Ken Davis, a publicist for the city’s Department of Environment. “The city doesn’t have the legal standing to compel the railroad to do more than it’s already done.”
Besides, Davis continues, with all due respect to Mack and her neighbors, why would the city take her side over the railroad’s?
“Metra says that 37,459 riders go back and forth each day on that track–that’s nine million passengers a year,” says Davis. “You recall that in this last storm there were problems on several lines because switches got stuck. But the switches on this line didn’t get botched up. So maybe the railroad knows what it’s doing there. It takes nine million riders off the Kennedy Expressway, which contributes to air quality not to mention quality of life. And there is at least some evidence that the railroad has attempted to mitigate the problem by putting up the fence.
“As far as I know, it’s just [Mack] complaining. I assume her window must be the closest to the track. At this point a logical person would say she should do some sound mitigation. It may be that triple-track storm windows would do the trick.”
Mack says she’s not the only resident complaining, that storm windows would do no good in warm weather, and that she’s not about to give up. “I’m looking for an attorney to sue the railroad,” she says. “But it’s very disheartening, because every attorney I talk to talks about getting a financial settlement from the railroad. They say, ‘We’ll get the railroad to throw a couple of hundred thousand at you. Then you can dump your house and get out.’ But I don’t want to take the railroad’s money and get out. I want to stay, that’s my objective. I want to stay in a house without having the railroad running a vacuum cleaner outside my house all day and night. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Victoria Mack photo by Randy Tunnell.