Each spring, dozens of sailboats—pleasure crafts all—make their way from their winter homes in the boat yards of the Chicago River’s South Branch, motoring up the river to Lake Michigan en route to their summer berths. Along the way, they must pass under the city’s many movable bridges, and since the boats have tall masts, it’s necessary for the bridges to lift to allow the boats to pass.
Once upon a time, the bridges opened constantly. The main stem of the Chicago River was the city’s principal port, and lake boats and cargo ships would enter through the Chicago Lock at the mouth of the river to moor alongside the many warehouses and freight yards that lined the banks. Federal law mandates that shipping traffic has the right-of-way over street traffic, so the bridges had to open for any vessel that needed to pass, resulting in several opens an hour. (Even today, bridges along the Calumet River on the south side of the city operate almost as frequently.)
Nowadays, the port has moved away from downtown, the warehouses and freight yards replaced with upscale apartment complexes and enormous skyscrapers. The only river traffic that requires a bridge lift are those sailboats, so to minimize street-level disruption they are relegated to a limited number of transit windows: one run per day on (most, but not all) Wednesdays and Saturdays from late April through June; the return trip happens between September and early November. It’s a stressful, madcap event for boaters, zipping from one city block to the next only to wait for the next bridge to lift, while a dozen or more other boats jockey for position as if there’s any chance that they’ll make it to the lake more than a few seconds ahead of their fellow travellers.
Here’s my point: I will contend that it would actually be less disruptive of street traffic if the bridges were to open more often.
Today at lunch I watched the flotilla pass under the bridge at Lake Shore Drive, known officially as the Link Bridge and colloquially as the FDR Bridge, for the President who attended its dedication in 1937. This magnificent art deco double-decked double bascule trunnion bridge was considered to be the longest and widest bridge of its type in the world at the time of its completion.
Traffic stopped, the warning gates closed, both spans opened, and the dozen or so sailboats scooted through. The spans closed. The warning gates opened, briefly, then closed again. One span opened slightly, closed again. The traffic waited.
And waited… and waited.
I suspect the cause was something I’ve seen with these bridge lifts several times in the past: the locking mechanism between the two spans fails to engage properly. Without the two spans latched together, they can’t allow traffic to cross the bridge. Sometimes opening and closing a span again is enough to trigger the latch; sometimes a CDOT worker has to give it the hairy eyeball. Usually a couple of tries is enough to get it to work.
Not this time. By my reckoning, the LSD crossing was blocked, on both levels and in both directions, for well over thirty minutes, more than three times the expected delay. The red markers on the Chicago Congestion Map extended past the Oak Street curve to the north—basically back to the last convenient exit, where traffic could detour onto southbound Michigan Avenue—and all the way to Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park to the south.
Meanwhile, the sailboats motored another quarter mile and entered the Chicago Harbor Lock; the inner gate closed; the chamber level rose; the outer gate opened; and the sailboats passed through the lock and into Lake Michigan.
In fact, after that a tour boat came in from the lake and passed all the way through the lock before traffic began to move across the bridge.
In other words, in the time it took for the bridge to complete one open/close cycle, the lock performed four gate moves and two controlled water flows.
The Chicago Lock operates around the clock, year-round, and cycles dozens of times a day. It’s partly underwater, for God’s sake… and yes, it requires quite a lot of maintenance. But it works.
Another case in point is the Wabash Avenue bridge. For the past several months they have been working on the new pedestrian riverwalk that will run beneath this bridge. Each day from 9:30 AM to around 3:30 PM, the bridge is lifted so that the cranes and cement trucks can do their work without risk of striking the truss overhead. And each day when the work is through, they lower the bridge and it closes without issue. The lift is a routine part of the workers’ day.
Most of the bridges, though, open far less frequently. In fact, many of the city’s movable bridges have been demolished and replaced (North Avenue being the most recent example) or semi-permanently bolted shut, such as the historic Cortland Street bridge (which happens to be the first fixed-trunnion bascule bridge built in the United States). And those that do move only do so a few dozen times a year. With that level of infrequency, it’s unreasonable to expect CDOT bridge workers to develop any familiarity with the bridges and their inner workings, much less their quirks.
The result: worker surprise when the bridge fails to operate as expected, and slow response due to not knowing precisely what the problem might be, even if the exact same problem occurred the last time the bridge was raised. And untold hundreds of motorists delayed or detoured to meander their way through an already-congested downtown to find an alternate route across the river.
I know, I know—the level and kind of river traffic today is insufficient to justify full-time bridge tenders, and any staffing level less than that requires a limited and preset schedule of lifts. I simply think it’s unfortunate that this reduction allows the CDOT to defer maintenance and shifts the economic and logistical burden away from the CDOT and onto the shoulders of every downtown driver and pedestrian.
(One year later, I changed my tune.)