By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It was another reason for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the folks at the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to celebrate. A new sleek, ultra-expensive pedestrian bridge was going up on 43rd Street. Press releases about the groundbreaking were sent out. Speeches were made. Sound bites were given.
When it comes to building bridges in the Black community, the city appears to be on a roll. It’s the second bridge to go up in an ambitious plan to build five bridges in the next five years over South Lake Shore Drive.
But away from the high-profile projects and television cameras is the Marquette Drive underpass in South Shore that for years has turned into a river after every heavy downpour.
With water as deep as two feet, the underpass has become a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos and a health risk for pedestrians willing to walk through the filthy, polluted waters.
For four years, it’s been this way and nothing has been done about it despite complaints. Meanwhile, more bridges are going up while construction barriers now block both east and west entrances of the Marquette Drive underpass. Neither entrance can be used. The underpass has been shut down and will stay that way for another summer. Right now, no one knows exactly when the underpass will be repaired and reopened.
To South Siders and predominantly Black South Shore and East Woodlawn residents, it looks like another case of the haves versus the have-nots. Lately, the south bound Lake Shore Drive—long considered an eyesore compared to the more affluent and well-endowed north end of Lake Shore Drive—has had the city stepping up its efforts to level the playing field. After years of being regarded as Chicago’s second-class shoreline, South Lake Shore Drive is finally getting some attention from City Hall after years of complaints.
However, the fight to get City Hall to protect the Marquette Drive underpass from Mother Nature’s wrath has been a battle that has led nowhere. It’s a recurring problem that lakefront North Siders don’t have with their facilities.
Meanwhile, the mayor and CDOT continue to build impressive bridges and make infrastructure improvements in other areas of the city.
On Monday, transportation officials broke ground on an impressive $29 million pedestrian and bicycle bridge at 41st and Lake Shore Drive. When completed, the bridge will have a graceful S-curve, whose 1,470 feet long pathway will link Bronzeville to Burnham Park. The project is expected to be completed by 2018.
In 2019, four more new bridges along South Lake Shore Drive will be built. Last year, a 20-foot wide, $23 million suspension bridge on 35th and Lake Shore Drive opened in Bronzeville. These multi-million projects were funded heavily by federal and state dollars.
As these projects continue to gain momentum, questions remain as to why CDOT can build bridges, and yet, cannot repair a flooded underpass for four years.
There are plans to build two new underpasses at Jeffrey Avenue and Marquette Drive as part of a goal to merge the South Shore and Jackson Park golf courses to create a $30 million golf course. While city officials are quick to make that goal a reality, the issue of the Marquette Drive underpass has proven to be a case of neglect.
Opened in 2004, the Marquette Drive underpass is one of four tunnels built along South Lake Shore Drive, at a cost of $162 million. There are underpasses at 57th, 59th and 63rd Streets. Some are widely arched concrete tunnels with lush landscaping at their entrances.
Community leaders, including Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), fought for the 63rd and 57th Street underpasses after seeing facilities on North Lake Shore Drive.
Some of the underpasses have successfully weathered torrential rains, but a pool of water sat at the west entrance of the 59th Street underpass during a visit by a Crusader reporter. The Marquette Drive underpass is in the worst shape. Bottles and trash float in the water.
Located at the intersection of Marquette Drive and Lake Shore Drive, the underpass was designed to allow pedestrians access to the east and west sides of Jackson Park Harbor through a tunnel underneath one of Chicago’s busiest roads.
As it has sat underwater for years during the spring and summer months, pedestrians are forced to find alternative ways to get to the other side. Some of these routes include crossing Lake Shore Drive, a dangerous gamble for pedestrians, who, without a crosswalk, must brave heavy traffic where speeding vehicles are the norm and reckless driving is a concern-especially on weekends.
The safer route is a longer trip. To get to the other side of Jackson Park Harbor, pedestrians must walk south across Marquette Drive, cross Lake Shore Drive, then cross the other side of Marquette Drive. It’s a trek that makes the riskier route more tempting.
One man, who didn’t want to give his name, was fishing yards away from the east side entrance of the Marquette Drive underpass. He said he has complained many times about the flooded tunnel to CDOT.
“They won’t do anything,” he said. “I called many times, but nothing happens.”
Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, has complained several times about the problem.
“We’ve had this problem for about four years. I don’t know what’s the holdup.”
For answers to this story, the Crusader contacted Rebekah Scheinfeld, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. Scheinfeld is not talking. She deferred an email question to spokesperson Mike Claffey, who, in an email, said CDOT plans to “install a pump in the catch basin that will pump the water out of the underpass. I don’t have a start date for the project, but we are working to get the work underway as soon as possible.”
When asked via email why the correction has taken four years, Claffey said he would get back to the Crusader, but had not by press time.
Three sources told the Crusader that a pump was not installed when the Illinois Department of Transportation built the bridge back in 2004.
While Claffey couldn’t give a start date, one official, who will remain anonymous, left a voicemail message with the Crusader stating, “The pump is scheduled to be put in the next two months. But, your publicity—although bad publicity—might speed up the process.”
UPDATE: One day after the Crusader emailed the mayor’s office about the flooded underpass, a group of workers came out on Thursday, June 8 and drained the rain water out of the underpass with an external pump. The Crusader will publish more details in a follow up story in next week’s print edition.