Ceremony held for completion of Albany Park storm water tunnel
by KEVIN GROSS and CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Officials celebrated the completion of the Albany Park storm water diversion tunnel on July 24 that is designed to reduce or eliminate flooding on the Northwest Side along the North Branch of the Chicago River.
The 18-foot wide tunnel 150 feet below ground level under Foster Avenue diverts up to 2,300 cubic feet of water per second about 1.4 miles from the river to the North Shore Channel, according to the city.
It has an above ground intake shaft at a bend in the river near Field Park just east of Pulaski Road, and goes into operation as the water level rises but before the level reaches flood stage.
"In essence the tunnel serves as a second river underground, making sure the above ground channel doesn’t overflow and flood neighborhoods like Albany Park," said Chicago Department of Transportation first deputy commissioner Tom Carney. "It’s really an incredible feat of engineering."
The ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 24 was attended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th), Carney, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board President Mariyana Spyropoulos, representatives of U.S. Senators Dick Durbin, Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Representative Mike Quigley, and other local and state officials.
"In my tenure as mayor we’ve had four ‘100-year’ weather events," Emanuel said. "That’s climate change, that’s what’s happening. It’s (those) things you never think could happen now happen with more frequency."
The mostly completed tunnel had already kicked into operation four times, preventing neighborhood floods, according to Carney. The tunnel first activated on May 3, when the water level reached the intake channel. It diverted a flow of over 1,000 cubic feet of water per second, bypassing Albany Park and emptying into the North Shore Channel at the outlet shaft.
"The people of this community are looking forward to rain storms without their homes and lives being devastated. The quality of life improvement this project provides for these residents cannot be overstated," Laurino said.
Since 2008, Albany Park has experienced two major floods that have affected hundreds of homes on the Northwest Side along the North Branch of the Chicago River.
"To visualize how devastating the floods were, think about this: People had to be taken from their homes in these inflatable rowboats, and we actually lost two houses," Laurino said.
After the last round of serious flooding in April of 2013, Mayor Emanuel pledged the city would address the problem in a comprehensive way and directed CDOT to move forward with design and engineering of a drainage tunnel.
The project should reduce flooding for 332 buildings in the area, which should no longer receive Federal Emergency Management Agency flood zone designation, according to Carney. Successful removal of the FEMA designation should reduce home insurance costs, Emanuel said.
Bob Fine, an area resident who lives near Monticello and Foster avenues, said that he has advocated for increased flood control in the area since 1987, and that "31 years late is better than never."
"Between 1950 and 1980 more than 50 percent of the green space by the river was lost to development," Fine said. "For this I had to be a pest communicating with aldermen and officials."
Tunnel construction is mostly completed, except for concrete work near the tunnel inlet near Foster and Springfield avenues that should be completed by the end of the week.
The $70 million project will also add improvements to Field Park at the western end of the tunnel, including landscaping, new trees, a new walkway, benches and a water fountain, and improvements to River Park at the eastern end of the project, including landscaping, new trees, a new soccer field and a new regulation-sized baseball field and diamond with a backstop fence and batting cage.