The Illinois Department of Transportation is in the final stages of preliminary planning for a project that would drastically alter the section of the Eisenhower Expressway that runs through Austin.
While IDOT analysis shows the change would decrease congestion on the expressway, community members and activists say the options being considered are inefficient and don’t seriously take into account the benefits of public transportation.
“Every one of [their] alternatives involves widening the Ike,” said Rick Kuner, a former Village of Oak Park trustee and the founder of Citizens for Appropriate Transportation.
But Kuner said there is no way the department can widen the expressway enough to solve the congestion problem and cut down ride times to the level IDOT aims.
“Going from six to eight lanes when you really need 12 to 14 just isn’t going to cut it,” Kuner said.
According to analysis of IDOT data by Citizens for Appropriate Transportation, a 700-member group pushing for IDOT to consider public transit-centered alternatives to improve travel along the Eisenhower corridor, the proposed plans for the Ike would not significantly reduce congestion.
A May 2012 report from IDOT concluded that at best the proposed changes could decrease congestion 8.5 hours per day on the Ike from 18 to 9.5 in just one of the options, and 8.25 hours per day in another, but the other eight options may only decrease congestion one hour per day or less, according to the report. Kuner called that a minor change considering the estimated $1 billion price tag for the project.
IDOT did not respond to repeated rquests for comment before deadline.
The stretch of highway IDOT is planning to upgrade is a seven-mile stretch of I-290 from Mannheim Road in Hillside to Cicero Avenue in Chicago. According to IDOT, the use of the Eisenhower far exceeds the capacity of the nearly 60-year-old expressway, and it is one of the most congested highways in the Chicago area.
To solve this congestion problem the department of transportation is planning to completely rebuild the stretch of I-290, and it is near the end of initial planning to do so.
“Whatever IDOT decides will have long-term, significant impact on the West Side of Chicago,” Kuner said.
The Eisenhower project is divided in to three phases, each with its own separate steps within the larger phases. The first phase is “preliminary engineering and environmental studies,” followed by “final design and land acquisition” and finally “construction.”
Funding is available only for the first phase, but IDOT must complete that step before it can apply for additional funds from the federal government.
B the spring of 2013, IDOT plans to have Phase I completed, which means it will have selected its preferred option for upgrading the Ike. Right now, IDOT is considering 10 possibilities, each one includes widening the Eisenhower and adding express bus service on I-290 and I-88 to the Forest Park Blue Line station. Six of the 10 alternatives involve adding some kind of toll lane to the Ike. And one of the options being considered would toll all of the lanes on the expressway.
After IDOT has selected its preferred option, residents will have a narrow window to challenge the decision before it is finalized and the department begins buying property and finalizing designs, Kuner said.
“If nobody pushes them, they’ll widen [the Ike] and they’ll do some form of congestion pricing,” Kuner said. “The politics are such that road contractors really like roads, and the lawyers and consultants really like roads.”
IDOT has held two public meetings on the Eisenhower to date, and is still accepting public comment on the proposals.
A May 2012 report published by IDOT concluded that the two best options being considered are:
- 1. Adding high occupancy toll lanes that require at least three occupants along with an express bus service to the Forest Park station, high-capacity transit and a toll on all of the lanes on the Ike
- 2. Adding high occupancy lanes requiring at least two occupants, express bus service and high-capacity transit, which IDOT defines as either extending the blue line or adding bus rapid transit.
Despite the findings, residents said they don’t think IDOT is seriously considering public transit options.
“(I) didn’t hear enough about public transportation (in IDOT’s proposals),” Oak Park resident Mena Boulanger said after a meeting last month held at Austin’s Third Unitarian Church, 301 N. Mayfield Ave.
Five of the 10 proposed options include high-capacity transit, but Kuner said the department is leaning toward bus rapid transit instead of extending the Blue Line, which he said is less efficient and demands greater man-power per rider.
Boulanger said she thinks widening the expressway is the easy way out.
“I think sometimes an easy fix is one that gets a lot of attention,” Boulanger said. “We need to figure out ways that we don’t have to rely on automobiles.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the project should visit eisenhowerexpressway.com. IDOT is still seeking public feedback. You can submit a question or comment about IDOT the project here.