This week the Evanston City Council received a staff memo discussing whether the City should pay up to $400,000 to paint 17 viaducts in Evanston.

And it turns out that cost estimate doesn’t include lead abatement or sandblasting.

As most residents and visitors are aware the viaducts are an eyesore.

The memo indicated that:

  • The Metra viaducts are owned by Union Pacific.
  • Union Pacific won’t make cosmetic repairs, like painting, and only does repairs when a structure is “severely deficient.” Presumably the deteriorating conditions of these viaducts is only cosmetic, and not structural.
  • Union Pacific has granted a “right-of-entry” to other communities to improve the appearance.

For now, let’s set aside the point of whether or not Union Pacific, a wealthy business enterprise, should pay to cosmetically maintain its assets that run through our town.

Beautification of our viaducts

The question before the Council is whether the City should spend $400,000 or more to improve the appearance of the viaducts.

If the City is considering painting the viaducts, I think it would be in our best interest to have a conversation about whether there are other measures the City could take to beautify the viaducts, express our City and tap into the talents of our business, non-profit, and arts community.

Every time I drive under a viaduct in this town I wonder why the City, business districts, arts community, and neighborhoods have not joined forces to beautify these rusty overpasses.

With all the business districts we have in town and with the artistic talent that exists here, it seems that these viaducts could become an entry way to different parts of Evanston and a reminder to all of the life that exists in this community.

I’m not much of a designer but I mocked up an image below to illustrate the point. I can only imagine how beautiful these could be if the arts community rallied around such an idea and collaborated with the City, Northwestern, the business and non-profit community, and neighborhood associations.

Are there some challenges that we would need to overcome? Sure. We would have to get Union Pacific approval. We would have to determine if this can be implemented safely. We would have to figure out how to pay for such a project. And we would have to engage different groups in the community to tell the story of Evanston on each overpass.

Still, these challenges are not insurmountable as proven by other communities who have successfully implemented creative solutions to unsightly viaducts and overpasses.

To the extent that the world is but a canvas to our imagination (Thoreau), so are these viaducts to our community. Before we spend $400,000+ to paint each viaduct let’s have a conversation about alternative solutions, particularly ones that may not only beautify the structures but leave a lasting, positive impression of this great City that we live in.

Steve Hagerty is the founder and CEO of Evanston-based Hagerty Consulting Inc.

Steve Hagerty is the mayor of the City of Evanston.

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  1. I’ve been working on the railroad….

    I just don't know why the city cannot force the Union Pacific Railroad to maintain the viaducts.  If an Evanston homeowner or commercial real estate owner dosen't maintain their property, fines are (or should be) issued.  Is there a federal law that exempts railroads from maintaining their property that goes through communities?  And as a side note, no matter what we are told the cost is, after all is said and done, it will be ten times higher.

    1. There likely is a federal law on point

      As a policy matter, the federal or state government doesn't want towns to unduly burden railroads with aesthetic or other demands that make it economically unfeasible to run a railroad through a particular jurisdiction, which is a reasonable policy. Union Pacific doesn't have to look at the sides or legs of the viaducts, so their only interest is in making sure they are functional and safe. Given the state of their on track equipment and the forthcoming price hikes, projects like this are probably the lowest priority and wouldn't get funded for decades, if at all. 

      1. Touch-up

        The Union Pacific Railroad is, according to their own maintenance manual, suppose to be touching up their metal bridges with galvenized paint to prevent further deterioration of the bridges.

  2. Great article

    This is a community project that should not cost the town money.  Northwestern Art Professor's, have you're amazing students develop a project with UP and each neighborhood? The Evanston community needs to own this project from a grassroots perspective.  Locals know best.  $400,000 is CRAZY.

    1. Community Project NOT Community dollars
      When I was a child, my parents organized a work day to clean up the “Northwestern” embankment at the Main Street station. (it was in a lot worse shape than it is now). It was fun and it was cheap but I’m talking about picking up garbage and cutting brush, not removing lead based paint! The city is dreaming if they think this is going to cost $400,000! Metra needs to pony up and the city needs to force Metra’s hand…

    1. Giving credit

      Hi Muneaux.

      This isn't my idea … it's Steve Hagerty's idea … and his illustration.

      — Bill

  3. Absurd math about cost for painting RR viaducts

    Are we expected to believe that $400,000 will cover lead abatement, grinding, priming,securing,scaffolding,insurance,hauling,labor ,paint…..on and on!    My calculator came up with around $23,000 for each viaduct if there are 17 of them at a total cost of $400,000. This is not the kind of project we should be engaging in. The city should get busy and make the RR maintain THEIR property. If we persist in this madness I predict the cost for each viaduct will exceed $100,000. Who came up with this idea?

    1. What was cost for Central Street Metra work ?
      10+ years ago Metra painted the viaduct at Central. They may have done structure work which should be able to be separated from the painting. A good guide, with an inflation factor, and comparative rates of UP and Evanston workers [what do you bet significantly higher and UP] should not only give us an accurate picture but show how well Evanston government can ACTUALLY estimate cost—I bet very poorly.

  4. What about advertisements?

    The city with Union Pacific's permission could allow ads on the viaducts. Potential clients could be Northwestern University, Trader Joe's, The Space, 27 Live, Pete Millers, St. Francis Hospital, Barnes & Noble, any of the Evanston theaters, any of the car dealerships on Chicago, etc.

    Since Union Pacific doesn't care that their viaducts look gritty and rusty they shouldn't care if the city collects all the ad revenue for its work selling and placing the ads. In the worst case scenario, the city splits the ad revenue. It's still a win.

    The city could set standards on the ads so they don't appear cheesy.  The city could use the potential ad space as incentive to attract businesses to Evanston.

  5. Idea

    Since there are 17 UP, Union Pacific, bridges in Evanston that means there are 34 bridge sides that could be leased and painted by sponsers under the authority of the UP and the theme approval of Evanston. The themes would need to exclude political and personal causes that would divide the citizens.

    This is just an idea that could further be expanded upon

  6. Wally Once asked employees to think creatively?

    Why do citizen here like Mr Hagerty come up with far better solutions to problems, than Wally and his junior level staff? 

    Wally about a year ago, was talking about employees thinking out of the box, on the mess they recently proposed to council about the bridges it is very sad state of affairs. Beyond the fact its stupid, they did not even have the right numbers, since they forgot the bridges have lead paint.

    Who is to blame here for the continued marginal and screw up work of city staff, Wally, the Mayor and council members. I suspect one of the public official put out this stupid idea to paint the bridges. So Wally who wants to be rated an outstanding performer, rather than question it,  had a staff person waste hours on it. ( our tax dollars)

    Those of you who think this is no big deal, since it only to paint bridges – need to take a good look at the city budget, Wally is proposing years of water bill increases, with no back up.

    It would be nice if citizens like Mr Hagery who can think in a creative manner  and with intelligence looked at the budget, maybe even the operation of the so called enterprise fund the city water plant.  Alot more creativity is going to be needed here soon, since water bills are likely to be doubling in the not so distance future.

    ( by the why it looks like our city council  members have  already discussed  the water bill increases and the water resorvior project in private communications, and will not likely say a word about them at the budget hearing, and will just approve the 10% increases)

    1. All aboard the train to Benghazi!
      “Wally is proposing years of water bill increases, with no back up -”

      Oh come on, Junad – do you really have to bring up ‘water bill increases’ in an article about railroads?

      I’m glad that City Council is limiting speakers to just ONE appearance at each council meeting.

      1. Doesn’t matter

        The matters that are decided by council votes are decided before the speakers speak. Most of their decisions are made outside the view of Evanston citizens. Everyone must have already figured that out. There is very little debate in the council chambers. Sometimes there is a little discussion at meetings. There is a record of the votes but not how they come to their votes.

        The one time I remember when people changed the way the council would have voted, is when 250 people jammed the council meeting and let the council know that they would be tarred and feathered if they sold the mansion to Pfitzker and that ended the best deal Evanston was offered in its history.

      2. You must work for the city?

        Given after the Mayor hands out the awards – the council chambers get quite vacant accept for employees and public officials, Why are you concerned about me mentioning water bill increases?

        The only people that want to cover that mess up are public officials and city staff – so which one are you?

  7. Mr Haggerty is correct.

    I have always thought we should simply mount large multiple metal frames on the concret walls under the viaducts.  These frames could then have art panels installed, art which could rotate and change, art which could be produced offsite, made by any number of community institutions / individuals or groups.  And yes, some paid for advertisements would be fine.  No need to even whitwash the concrete, just a good power washing would obtain an urban feel and keep focus on the panels. 

    In front of the overpass structure simply install supports for banners stretched in front that in essence would visually mask the ugly viaducts. The banners could announce community happenings like art fairs, seasonal greetings, simple welcome to XX neighborhood,  etc.

    I have seen this elsewhere, most recently in Milwaukee, done with vinyl banners or systems supporting a billboard type of structure enabling changing visuals. 

    Leave the hazardous paint removal and maintenance issues to UP, yet still block the eyesore appearance without spending what will ultimately be way more than 400K.  There are better solutions.  

    1. Not bad, I like it, but I’m

      Not bad, I like it, but I'm not sure if the council will just want to spend 400k (probably closer to 600k).

  8. Weather Proof?

    Congratulations to Mr. Hagerty on his novel idea, but what he's proposing has not taken into account the destructive nature our harsh and enduring winters might have on the art embellishment of these viaducts. What might look cool when installed in warmer months might look like hell after only one Illinois winter. I've been passing under these rusty monsters for years–my guess is that once someone gets really close and starts working on them, a host of other expensive problems will be revealed.

  9. pratt viaduct

    Just passed under the viaduct on Pratt in Edgewater, mounted, not painted, on the wall was a decorative art piece, larger & different than what I proposed earlier, but somewhat similar in concept. So now I've seen Milwaukee cover their rusted train viaducts with changeable billboards, and now I've seen Pratt ave. has mounted art pieces to cover the unsightly concrete sidewalls. Obviously, it can be done, obviously, there are cheaper/easier/arguably better alternatives than what staff has proposed, obviously we should be considering Mr. Hagertys suggestion.

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