Area citizens and Oak Park village trustees clashed with the Illinois Department of Transportation on multiple issues during a special meeting Monday when IDOT presented its case for the potential widening of the Eisenhower Expressway along with moving the left-side Austin Boulevard and Harlem Avenue interchanges to the right side.
Residents were mostly concerned about environmental impacts and having better options for public transportation. Specifically, residents cared about keeping the Ike out of their backyards.
Besides the potential widening, other aspects of IDOT’s proposal included car pool lanes, express bus lanes, and an extension of the CTA Blue Line.
All options on the table, however, involve adding a lane in either direction.
Pete Harmet, IDOT’s bureau chief of programming, was the main spokesperson of the evening and said IDOT doesn’t plan on going outside the current footprint of the expressway.
Harmet said keeping the expressway at three lanes was not an option. Overall, he said this 8-mile stretch of the Ike has roughly 2,000 crashes annually, and the area around Harlem and Austin has the highest crash rating of the entire corridor.
According to national data, Harmet added, a left-side ramp has a 49 percent higher crash rating than a right-side ramp. Other issues with the current ramps, he said, are that they are not within compliance standards when it comes to pedestrian and bike crossings.
Overall, Harmet said a D-level is a decent rating for expressway interchanges when it comes to mobility, community and environment. Harlem has an E rating and Austin falls below that, to an F. Crash hotspots, insufficient turn lanes, substandard turning radii, and poor access to transit were listed as reasons for the bad grades.
Harmet presented detailed sketches of conceptual plans for the expressway, which involved raising the roadway to combat drainage issues, but still sticking within the overall footprint.
Resident Jim Kelly referred to IDOT as the “Illinois Department of Automobiles,” and accused them of not caring about exploring options except those that back their plans for extensive reconstruction.
Oak Park Trustee Glen Brewer said he’s of the “if you build it, they will come,” philosophy, and was among others asking why public transportation wasn’t being looked at more seriously.
Harmet said the study is not just about vehicles, and that IDOT will be adding other elements as the study progresses.
Village President David Pope touched on the guidelines that Oak Park officials have stuck by since 2009 when the latest round of conversations began. Those consist of keeping the roadway out of the trench, increased railway presence for the Blue Line, having more physical linkage from the expressway to Oak Park, keep intersections in the middle of the corridor, and increase physical linkages from the two sides of the village separated by the expressway.
“If we think about this as only Oak Park, we will lose,” Pope said. “The things that impact Oak Park also impact our neighbors.”
Meanwhile in Forest Park, Village Administrator Tim Gillian told the village council that while he couldn’t be in Oak Park, he has attended at least 14 previous informational meetings about the Ike expansion. IDOT only has funding through 2014 and has no current funding to start construction, he said.
He also addressed concerns that right-exit ramps would consume private property in Forest Park at the U-Haul site on Harlem and the Community Garden north of the expressway. “There will be no private property affected,” he assured Forest Parkers. “There is nothing in the IDOT drawings to show that they want to acquire any private property.”
The next steps in the timeline call for a more concrete draft alternative by the fall, when there would be time for another public hearing. Harmet gave a 2017 time frame for construction to begin if proper funding is available.