Federal Infrastructure Bill Could Pave the Road for Rebuilding the Ike

Legislative leaders drive push to move on stalled Eisenhower Expressway project

Naming one of Chicago’s original expressways the Eisenhower after the U.S. president who conceived of the interstate system may have been intended as an honorific, but drivers routinely caught in traffic today can’t be blamed for uttering profanities under their breaths at “the Ike” roadway.

I-290 is a “major, major transportation corridor in the Chicago region,” said transportation director for the non-partisan Illinois Economic Policy Institute Mary Tyler.

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“It is the direct connection into the city from the western suburbs, so it’s directly east-west going into the Loop,” she said. “It’s providing that important connection for those commuters coming from the western part of Chicago. It’s providing connection for residents living along 290 in southern Cook County, particularly to get to job centers along I-88, or O’Hare.”

Tyler is the author of a new analysis that examines the Eisenhower, and found good reason for traffic jams, given that there’s far more traffic on it than it was designed to handle. Tyler also reports that the passageway is plagued by more than congestion. Among the issues: Crash fatalities average two a year (higher than comparable roads), 90% of the expressway’s underbelly is original, and some 86% of the bridges are “functionally obsolete.”

The paper suggests that as Illinois is set to receive some $17 billion from a $1 trillion federal infrastructure program, reconstruction of the Eisenhower is a worthy priority that would reap dollar-for-dollar benefits from a projected $2.5 billion-plus construction cost. Benefits include making it easier for residents who live off I-290 in economically depressed areas to travel to places with more job opportunities.

Leaders from the Chicago chamber of commerce and labor unions lent their support to investing in rebuilding I-290 on Tuesday, as did the drivers of the state legislature: State Sen. President Don Harmon of Oak Park and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Westchester, whose districts would benefit from an Ike overhaul.

The legislature in June passed a non-binding resolution formally requesting that the U.S. Department of Transportation provide resources that would allow Illinois’ transportation department to move forward with such a project.

“The Eisenhower and CTA Blue Line projects are an opportunity to reconnect communities and repair racial inequities and displacement caused by historic construction that emphasized transportation efficiencies without attention to racial equity, livability, community enhancement, and preservation,” the resolution reads.

Northwestern University professor emeritus of civil engineering Joseph Schofer said the federal infrastructure program is “a huge opportunity.”

“We want to take advantage of it. I think the challenge is to make the right decisions,” he said.

Decision-makers should be cautious about jumping to expand and widen roadways to deal with congestion.

“The evidence is that if we increase the capacity of the road network, that a decade or 15 years downstream, we’ll be facing severe congestion again,” Schofer said.

He suggests metering demand.

“That is, to try to hold down the demand so that we don’t grow the amount of automobile traffic that we have now, to some point that is not particularly helpful if we’re concerned about climate change,” Schofer said. “For example, are there better transit alternatives where we should put the money? Is this an opportunity to consider road pricing, or what we call managed lanes, so that in the peak period, for example, we charge people a little bit extra to give a better quality of service and use that as a way to hold down demand.”

The Eisenhower project presents opportunities leaders could consider.

“I think it’s all too easy to say ‘Gee, we’ve got a lot of congestion, gotta fix that’ without stepping back and saying ‘/might there be some different solutions.’ A different mix,” Schofer said. “Maybe to adapt that project, for example, to address the impact that the original construction of the Eisenhower Expressway had on communities on the West Side of Chicago, and is this an opportunity not just to add capacity or renew the infrastructure, but to renew the communities themselves.”

The plan analyzed by Tyler would take an innovative road, by adding the first high occupancy toll corridor to Chicagoland.

Bottlenecks on I-290 often occur where the four lands are reduced to three; the design calls for adding a fourth lane in each direction on those stretches, between 25th Avenue and Austin Boulevard.

Eventually, tolls would be charged to all vehicles using the expressway, save for those with three or more passengers, which could use a High Occupancy Toll +3 (HOT3+) lane. Pace buses could use the HOT lane for express bus service.

The project calls for other investments, such as adding bike and pedestrian lanes and improving access to Blue Line stations that run parallel to the expressway.

“We’re not talking about just, you know, paving a road and improving some bridges,” Tyler said. “We’re also talking about that managed lane which is going to be the first in the Chicago region, which is going to allow for transit access, better transit access. It’s going to promote carpooling. We’re improving pedestrian facilities. We’re improving access to transit stations. It’s truly a project that is improving all modes of transportation.”

U.S. Rep. Raja Kristhnamoorthi, D-Illinois, indicated on “Chicago Tonight” Tuesday that he backs using federal infrastructure money for a rebuild.

“I hope so; 290 goes through my district,” he said, before immediately moving on to another project in need of funds. “Also, the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway, which neither reaches Elgin nor O’Hare … I would put that somewhere on the top 10 if we can get to that.”

It’s an indication that the redevelopment of the Eisenhower could hit a political traffic jam, given infrastructure investment needs that outpace money available, even with historic federal investments and the state’s 2019 Rebuild Illinois capital plan – a bipartisan package that raised the state tax on gas to pay for projects, leaving the state well poised to come up with matching dollars that will be required to take advantage of federal funding.

“The needs are massive across the state, and Rebuild Illinois did a really great job of trying to address some of that, but unfortunately the need is so large that it still can’t even scratch the surface of being able to address a lot of these major projects,” Tyler said. “There’s just not enough funding to go around.”

While Tyler concluded the Eisenhower redo should take precedence, there is no sign the Illinois Department of Transportation has reached that conclusion.

IDOT analyzed the Eisenhower Expressway in 2017, and at the time estimated the cost of improvements would be $3.3 billion.

That proposed scope of work for IDOT’s project “includes reconstructing I-290 from Mannheim Road to Austin Boulevard, including the mainline roadway, ramps and bridges and improvements to Interchanges at Harlem, First, Laramie, Cicero and 25th avenues and Austin Boulevard, along with adding an additional travel lane in this section, as well as, removing the left-sided ramps at Austin Boulevard and Harlem Avenue. The project also includes drainage, bike paths and wider sidewalks for pedestrians and other multimodal improvements, such as reconstruction of several Blue Line stations to make them more accessible. The remaining portion of the corridor, between Austin Boulevard and Racine Avenue, the existing 8-lane section would have the inside lane converted to managed lane, creating a 13-mile long managed lane facility.”

According to IDOT’s press office, that project “is currently not included in IDOT’s FY 2022-2027 Proposed Highway Improvement Program.”

“As far as impact of the federal infrastructure bill, IDOT under Gov. Pritzker is overseeing historic investments in the state’s infrastructure across all modes of transportation through the Rebuild Illinois capital program. With additional federal funds, Illinois is poised to capitalize on that success and continue creating jobs and economic opportunity while building a 21st century transportation system that’s truly safe, reliable and equitable for Illinois businesses, travelers and residents,” IDOT’s media office said in an emailed statement. “Under the governor’s leadership, IDOT looks forward to working with our federal partners and local stakeholders as a nationwide infrastructure package is now a reality and additional federal guidance becomes available.”

Meanwhile, the CTA says there are no official studies or plans to extend the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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