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Northbound Lake Shore Drive reopens; city will do spot-checks of similar bridges

Crews work to repair bridge support beams on northbound Lake Shore Drive near Randolph Street, Tuesday morning, Feb. 12, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Crews work to repair bridge support beams on northbound Lake Shore Drive near Randolph Street, Tuesday morning, Feb. 12, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

City inspectors will conduct “spot checks” at similarly engineered bridges in hopes of avoiding what occurred Monday on Lake Shore Drive, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday.

The cracked bridge support that closed the northbound lanes for more than a day was a “wake-up call,” Emanuel said.

He thanked the heads-up electrician on his way to make light repairs who spotted the cracked beams supporting Lake Shore Drive over the ramp from Randolph Street. The road, closed Monday morning after those cracks were spotted, was reopened early Tuesday afternoon, according to a statement from the Chicago Department of Transportation.

“They were down there. They found another place. So, they’ve done a temporary fix there,” the mayor told an unrelated news conference at City Hall after stopping by the scene of the emergency repairs.

“My understanding [is] this was last inspected in June 2017. It was gonna be due, based on what’s considered the best practices, in June of 2019. They will at some point give you what was the cause behind this. But there are other inspections that are going on because of this of similar structures that exist in the city.”

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld held a news conference near the bridge Tuesday afternoon to discuss the repairs, which included adding four steel support towers under the highway, then using those to help jack up the roadbed, eliminating the dip created by the cracked beam.

Scheinfeld said the cracked beam may have been “particularly vulnerable to extreme weather fluctuations,” adding that while further testing will take place, “this is not a structure that otherwise needs to be replaced.”

“We would not be re-opening this roadway unless we felt it was safe for the public to use again,” Scheinfeld said.

Eventually, a permanent repair will be made, attaching two steel plates to existing girders to “re-establish and strengthen the connection point.”

Others, however, say the issue goes deeper than the up-and-down weather of the past few weeks.

“To chalk this up to cold weather would be a dangerous oversimplification of the myriad reasons that this occurred,” said Ed Maher, spokesman for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, which has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

“No matter what anyone says, this did not happen simply because of the weather,” Maher said, adding that the issue ultimately comes down to a lack of adequate maintenance.

In Illinois, 2,303 bridges can be classified as “structurally deficient” — meaning at least one part needs repair — an analysis by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association found last year. Many of those bridges remain “in peril,” Maher said, due to a lack of commitment by the state to fund comprehensive repairs and improvements.

If the break had happened on another part of Lake Shore Drive — like the middle, as opposed to the side — Maher said the impact could’ve been much worse.

“Had that happened in a lane of live traffic in the center of the road, you can imagine that wouldn’t just be blown tires, that would’ve been a pile up,” he said.

Emanuel called the cracked bridge support beam a “wake-up call” to the city and a clarion call for the Illinois General Assembly to raise the state’s gasoline tax to bankroll sorely needed mass transit and road improvements.

“I have advocated for what is required, which is a raise in the gas tax to invest in … our roads, our bridges and our mass transit system. Twenty-four states have done it — [including] a lot of states in the Midwest in the last four years — because they can’t rely on Washington and they know it’s essential for the health and well-being of the economy,” the mayor said.

Emanuel said it’s no accident Ford Motor Co. decided last week to invest $900 million and add 500 jobs to a South Side plant after the city improved the roads and bridges around that facility.

“If you invest, yes, you can prevent what we just saw on Lake Shore Drive. But if you make smart investments, you’ll get, in this case, 1,700 direct manufacturing jobs at the Ford plant and all of the other manufacturing suppliers that come to support the Ford plant,” he said.

“The bridge is a wake-up call. Ford? You get more if you invest more. That’s how I look at it.”

Repairs to Lake Shore Drive

Traffic is diverted off northbound Lake Shore Drive as crews work to repair bridge support beams near Randolph Street, Tuesday morning, Feb. 12, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Emanuel was asked whether the cracked support beam on Lake Shore Drive was a “one-off, freak occurrence” or a transportation emergency commuters should expect to start happening with alarming frequency.

“Do I look like an engineer to you? … I don’t know. They’re gonna do a study. They’re gonna give you the cause. But, prior to this, I have been clear about the need for a transportation bill,” he said.

“There are things that we can do about the Red Line extension south from 95th to 130th. There’s things that we can do on mass transit on another corridor connecting all the lines. … We have modernized the existing system. There are things now that we need to do to take it a step further.”

Two months ago, Emanuel joined forces with suburban mayors to call for a 20-to-30-cents-a-gallon increase in the state’s gasoline tax to bankroll a sorely-needed capital plan.

On Tuesday, Emanuel defended that opening gambit, which would more than double the state’s current gas tax of 19-cents-a-gallon.

“We’re stuck in something from the 1990’s. We’re ultimately very low,” he said.

“I came in on a number. The legislators will figure out what’s needed. Why don’t we start with what’s needed and work our way back, rather than, ‘This is what the mayor said.'”

Contributing: Luke Wilusz