CEDAR RAPIDS — “The trains are tying up traffic on Fourth street in Cedar Rapids again. It’s nothing new.”
So wrote Gazette reporter Jack Ferring — in 1947.
That’s how he started a three-part article on the “Fourth Street Problem.” It had been studied for at least 22 years, since 1925, although it was undoubtedly discussed earlier than that since the tracks and vehicular traffic run perpendicular to each other.
In all fairness, Cedar Rapids owes its existence as an Eastern Iowa metropolitan area to the railroads. When trains arrived a century and a half ago, commerce came with them. That’s why trains are still important.
But, they’re also inconvenient. Especially soon after 5 p.m. when you leave work and a long train blocks your way as it’s switching back and forth in the yards north of downtown. That’s when motorists flood the A Avenue NE viaduct, the only way to drive above the tracks other than I-380.
In the 1947 stories, a plan to construct elevated railroad tracks above streets on the west side of town had garnered considerable support in the early 1930s. That plan, after seven years of study and consultation with a St. Louis planning firm, called for the tracks entering town from the east along Otis Road to be elevated beginning at 11th Avenue SE and to cross the Cedar River and Riverside Park to Beverly Yards near Rockford Road SW. Access to Quaker Oats was to continue on the F Avenue railroad bridge over the Cedar.
Then, discussions with railroad officials revealed this plan would add $50,000 per month to their operating costs. This in the early ‘30s during The Great Depression when gasoline was 19 cents a gallon, national unemployment hit 23 percent and the hungry waited in soup lines. Scrap that idea.
Next up, why not bury the tracks, from D Avenue NE to about 10th Avenue SE? Couldn’t do that because a creek bed ran under the tracks. Pumping stations would have been needed to keep the tracks dry. Snow removal along the buried tracks would have been virtually impossible.
How about relocating the tracks east, to about Ninth Street? Viaducts on the avenues, from A to Fifth, would have carried vehicles over the tracks. It was the most expensive option of all.
The planning commission, in 1929, approved partially elevated tracks along Fourth Street with some avenues routed below them. Union Station, which was to be relocated in the other plans, would remain between Third and Fifth avenues. (Of course, it’s gone, now). But the cost for this plan, about $4.5 million by 1931 ($68 million today.) was too great.
Oh, and there was another problem. Raising the tracks also meant lowering the avenues, no lower than the high water level of the river.
Oops. Today, we know that the Flood of 2008 proved that impossible.
And so, that’s why people still talk about the Fourth Street Tracks.
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