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Brown Line renovations already need repairs Wood platforms deteriorating at rapid pace

Zoom  Zoom Issue Date:2011-08-30   Source:chicago traffic   Browse:804

Some CTA riders are walking extra cautiously to and from trains because the wood platforms are rotting, splitting, warping and sagging at a rapid pace at many of the new stations on the Brown Line, which underwent a $530 million overhaul that was completed nearly two years ago.


The prematurely decaying wood is the worst at the Francisco station, where the entire platform will be replaced between September and the end of the year at an estimated cost of $150,000 to $175,000, transit officials said. The station reopened in 2007 after a six-month renovation.


Rahm Emanuel The expense comes on top of the $350,000 the CTA has spent so far to replace thousands of square feet of southern yellow pine planks and apply weather-resistant sealers on the new boards at 14 Brown Line stations in hopes of slowing down the deterioration, according to CTA records. Fifteen of the 18 stations on the line have wood platforms; the others are concrete.


Total costs could soar. CTA officials are researching a permanent solution that could include replacing the platform decks at other stations. The overhauled Brown Line stations were intended to last at least 100 years and the wood platforms to provide decades of sturdy performance.


None of the bad wood is covered by a guarantee because manufacturers will not provide warranties for products used in commercial settings or for deterioration and decay, transit officials said. It means the CTA, which faces more than $7 billion in capital improvements systemwide that the agency cannot afford, will be forced to spend more money on Brown Line stations that should have been virtually maintenance-free for years.


"Clearly this material that was chosen for the platforms on those stations was obviously defective, and this continues to cause the CTA repeated problems, high maintenance costs and patchwork solutions that we will have to address," CTA President Forrest Claypool said. "This was a bad decision made many years ago about the type of, I don't even want to call it wood, whatever it is."


CTA officials said they now know it was a mistake to install wood pre-treated only with fire-retardant chemicals when the Brown Line capacity-expansion project commenced the renovation of 18 stations in 2005, which included extending platforms to accommodate longer trains and adding elevators for disabled riders.


"The original wood that was used in construction was treated with a fire-retardant chemical that has not held up well when exposed to the elements,'' the CTA said in response to questions from the Tribune. "At the time, there was no product that provided both the required fire rating and maximum weather preservative. It was expected that the exterior fire retardant material would perform better than it has.''


The problem appears to be spreading too fast for CTA carpenters to keep up. Heel marks from shoes that sink into the soft wood can be seen on more than a half-dozen platforms. Large splinters of wood project up from their surfaces. Screws holding down blue tactile strips on platform edges are pulling away from the wood, causing the blue strips — which are intended to warn blind passengers they are close to the tracks — to peel and curl up, creating a tripping hazard for everyone.


"It has gotten much worse recently. I don't know if it has to do with all the rain we've had,'' said Gretchen Helmreich, 34, who boards the Brown Line at the Francisco station in the Albany Park neighborhood. She contacted the CTA about a week ago to report the worsening condition and express her concern that sooner or later someone is going to lose their footing on the platform and fall in the path of a train or on to the electrified third rail.


"When you walk along the platform, you can feel it give. It is a spongy feel," Helmreich said. Even after repairs were made last week, there were still spots where you could see the rocks on the ground, she said.


Helmreich said a co-worker broke the heel of her shoe on a rotted plank.


"I just refuse to wear high heels on the platform," she said. "It's dangerous because you see people with their coffee and looking at their BlackBerry or their newspaper and not paying attention to the hazards. I don't do any of that. I just focus on not falling."


The CTA selected the southern yellow pine and all other building materials used in the Brown Line project, officials said, adding that contractors performed the work according to CTA specifications. The platform decking was installed by FHP Tectonics and McHugh Construction.


Any type of wood placed where it will be exposed to weather should have a wood preservative applied to it at the beginning, according to the American Wood Protection Association, which has been in contact with the CTA about the problem.


"Chicago's fire codes are among the most stringent on the planet. My understanding is that the CTA was more concerned about fire retardancy than wood protection," said Colin McCown, executive vice president of the association. "But most fire retardants are water-soluble and they shouldn't be used outdoors."


He said the fire-retardant product originally used on Brown Line platforms, made by Flame Safe Wood Products Inc., of Fort Worth, Texas, does not meet standards set by the association. The CTA's follow-up action — spraying a water-repellent on the platforms — may slow the flow of water into the lumber, but "it will only buy a little bit of time because it is a surface application,'' he said.


From the start, the CTA should have used pressure-treated wood, in which the protective chemicals are forced deep into the planks, McCown said.


CTA officials said they first became aware of decaying wood on some platforms in the summer of 2008. But the proliferation of the problem has accelerated.


Fourteen rail platforms were spray-treated with a wood preservative between April and August of 2009, officials said. The preservative, called CedarShield, was recommended by a consultant who formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory in Wisconsin. McCown said he referred the consultant to the CTA.


Station platforms that received the spray treatment less than two years after the wood decking was installed are holding up better, officials said. Those stations are Damen, Montrose, Irving Park, Addison, Paulina, Diversey and Southport.



Rahm Emanuel Stations that received the spray treatment two years or longer after the platforms were installed are not performing as well, the officials said. Those stations are Kedzie, Francisco, Rockwell, Armitage, Sedgwick, Chicago and a portion of Kimball, whose platform is mostly concrete but has a wooden extension about 100 feet long.


"Given the fact deterioration has been continuing even after we did some seal-coating treatment, we have what appears to be a chronic problem that needs to be addressed long term," said CTA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan.


CTA officials are researching new products that combine weatherproofing and fire-retardant properties.


But there is no product that does a superior job at both shielding wood from the weather and safeguarding it from fire, according to McCown, adding that wood rots from the inside and fire attacks from the outside.


When Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a member of Congress, he helped secure federal funding for the Brown Line project.


"I know he's not happy that his project has bad wood in there," Claypool said.


Most of the rebuilt Brown Line platforms were designed using wood in order to preserve historic aesthetics and avoid more costly structural renovations, officials said. Concrete platforms would have required more extensive work to reinforce their understructures due to their greater weight.


Across other lines on the CTA rail system, some of the older platforms built of wood were treated with creosote to extend the deck's life to 25 years and beyond, officials said. Creosote is sticky and not nearly as environmentally friendly as other preservatives, they said.


Rick Simkin rides the Brown Line every day and is bothered by the "dangerous decay" he sees only a few years since the project concluded.


"This needs to be addressed before the CTA is hit with a lawsuit for someone tripping on or even falling through disintegrating wood," Simkin said.


He said the old wood that was removed for the renovation lasted for many years and was in much better shape.


"I have not taken care of the wood outside my house, and it is in better condition than the CTA's new stuff," Simkin said.

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