Project Delays Cause More Backups, Frustration on Jane Byrne Interchange

Whether you call it the spaghetti bowl or by its old name, the Circle Interchange, or by its official name, the Jane Byrne Interchange, it’s a major headache for Chicago drivers.

Consistently listed one of the worst bottlenecks in the country, a massive project to improve the Jane Byrne Interchange is causing even more backups and frustrations. Originally on track to be finished by 2018, the latest projection is 2022.

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And last week, the Illinois Department of Transportation announced another cost increase, putting the cost of the reconstruction 50% higher than the original estimate. It’s now estimated at $713 million.

We discuss the project with:

• Eric Ray, senior resident engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation

• P.S. Sriraj, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center

• Mary Wisniewski, transportation reporter for the Chicago Tribune

Below, a Q&A with Sriraj.

Thoughts on why this project is costing so much more and taking so much longer than originally projected?

Getting a construction project of this magnitude completed is complex. Keeping the interchange open while fixing it is also a big part of the delay. Other reasons are the soil structure and global issues like steel and gas prices. The scale of this project lends itself to cost and time overruns. Honestly, it was a given that there’d be a cost overrun and delays. It was just a matter of how much. Look at road projects around the country and the world, and you’ll find anywhere from 12% to 200% cost overrun. The cost overrun on the Jane Byrne is now projected around 49%. I’m not saying it’s an acceptable range, but if you look at the rest of the world it’s not an outrageous overrun. It’s pretty typical.

Apparently if we have a really wet spring, that could cause further construction delays. Is that the case?

Weather always plays a part in the outcome of construction projects. But in cases where you need to have additional reinforcements set, inclement weather may delay everything even more. 

Could the Illinois Department of Transportation have done better?

Given the numbers I’ve seen, and without looking at every facet of this construction project, I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Also, when you look at the report IDOT released, they’ve reduced costs in other areas.

I hear your building, UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, which overlooks the Jane Byrne Interchange, was impacted by the construction? 

There was some construction that seemed to damage our building. The exact specifics of who accepted blame, I don’t know. We had to relocate for a year though. The building sunk a couple inches, which impacted alignment. Some doors wouldn’t even close.

When it comes to urban planning, is it a good strategy to continue building roads, or should we be focusing instead on public transit improvements?

I’m a staunch supporter of public transportation. However, we need to support what has been built already. The automobile is still important in this country. These construction projects have to happen so we have safe roads with fewer delays.  Of course, we need to be funding public transit appropriately as well.

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