Remodeling the 13-mile stretch of the I-290 expressway between Cicero Avenue and Mannheim Road has been discussed in public meetings in the area for the past several years. But on Wednesday, a forum sponsored by Vox60130 (formerly Citizens United in Forest Park) touched on how proposed changes might affect Forest Park.
The forum featured two presentations to the group of roughly 80 in the basement of the shuttered St. Bernardine School.
Pete Harmet, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation and Rick Kuner, transportation planner and former Oak Park village trustee, representing the volunteer group Citizens for Appropriate Transportation, presented power point slideshows and then answered questions.
Possibly lowering the grade of the highway to accommodate newly designed right-side exit ramps at Austin Boulevard and Harlem Avenue, installation of noise walls, reconstruction of the Circle Avenue bridge, the possible acquisition of the CMX freight tracks for extra highway room, and the fate of the Forest Park Blue Line CTA train yard were discussed.
Harmet’s IDOT presentation was similar to others he has given around the area, including the four proposals unveiled at a meeting at Proviso Math and Science Academy on Oct. 8.
Harmet said the 51-year-old highway had traffic of only 40,000 cars daily when it opened in 1962. Today that number is 200,000 vehicles per day. The highway remake is designed to improve mobility, safety and facility conditions, he said.
Three of the four plans involve a high-occupancy lane either for high-speed buses or carpooling drivers with two or more passengers. Two of the four proposals have high-occupancy vehicle lanes with tolls. In one proposal, vehicles would be charged a toll for travelling in the lane with fewer than three total occupants. In another proposal, all vehicles with fewer than three passengers would be tolled. All proposals stay within the existing footprint of the highway, Harmet said.
Kuner asserted congestion-hours reduced by an eight-lane highway overhaul would be “minimal.” But Harmet pointed to an IDOT study indicating the changes would move 40,000 more people through the corridor and time is money. IDOT calculated a savings of $700,000 per day in gained work productivity for people traveling the proposed eight-lane Ike, Harmet said. “Those numbers aren’t small,” Harnett said.
Harmet said Forest Park already feels the effects of congestion on the Ike.
“Jackson Boulevard is the fourth lane during rush hour,” he said.
The two diverged philosophically on the importance of the public transit piece of the Ike corridor.
Kuner pointed out a better way to reduce congestion on the Ike would be to decrease traffic by 10 percent by improving public transportation options on the CTA.
Lowering the road grade
Discussing the conversion of exits from the left side to right-hand lanes at Austin and Harlem, Harmet said IDOT could possibly lower the entire trench to lessen the height of the exit ramps. He also showed artist renderings of the new exits and pointed out pedestrian safety islands, which would reduce pedestrian injuries by 50 percent, he said, according to a national study. He also pointed out possible bus turnarounds and bus bump-out lanes that could keep Harlem and Austin traffic moving when buses delivered passengers to the Blue Line.
Kuner noted that renderings currently used by IDOT were not to scale and were not drawn by engineers yet.
Kuner’s presentation touched on specific Forest Park concerns. He said the highway, while below-ground until Harlem rose up to become almost level to residential grade as it passed through Forest Park. He showed photos from Lehmer and Elgin avenues and from the Circle Avenue bridge.
Forest Park, he said, would be faced with sound wall choices and showed photos of a highway sound barrier from Westchester that almost abutted a residence. Harmet later said sound-barrier technology had improved in 10 years and “choices we made 10 years ago” may not be the same today.
CSX Railroad tracks
The CSX track spur that may or may not be acquired for the widening of the highway is used by Ferrara Pan, a Forest Park business, to deliver railcars of sugar to the candy factory. Kuner and Harmet agreed railroads are often reluctant to part with their tracks although Harmet said, “Some right of way might be available, with the caveat: ‘at a price.'”
Kuner said the Circle Avenue bridge was poorly designed. The sidewalks are too narrow for Americans with Disability Act standards, and the hill is too steep to see oncoming traffic. IDOT would have to address those issues when the bridge is redone, he said.
Kuner and Harmet agreed that though IDOT and CTA share a thoroughfare, the timetables for their upgrades were not necessarily linked and the two agencies “don’t get their money from the same place.”
Blue Line upgrades
Although CTA spokespersons have said the Forest Park rail yard at 711 Desplaines Ave. is at the end of its useful life, Kuner and Harmet pointed out that the CTA does not have a financial plan in place to extend the Blue Line west and build a new train yard.
“It’s not a priority for them now,” Kuner said. But as Forest Park updated its comprehensive plan, he added, the village should think about what to do with the train yard site.
“Transportation and land use are intertwined,” Kuner said. “If you significantly change one, you will change the other.”
IDOT started their Environmental Impact Statement process in 2009. Public comment on the plans will be accepted until Nov. 7, 2013. The Draft EIS will be released in spring of 2014, Harmet said, with public hearings to follow. The phase 1 study would be complete and a plan presented in the fall of 2014.
If financial stars align (involving federal government highway dollars) the soonest the project could be started would be 2016, Harmet said, “if all these things go quite smoothly.”
This article has been updated to clarify Pete Harmet’s position on congestion reduction expected with an 8-lane highway proposal.