The exit ramps are lower, tolls will likely be optional instead of mandatory, and the Illinois Department of Transportation has lots of pedestrian and bike amenities in the latest plans released for the I-290 Expressway expansion.

IDOT completed a third round of meetings last week with the engineers, planners and stakeholders in the I-290 Corridor Advisory Group Task Force to hammer out the project that is seeking to add extra lanes to the Ike between Austin Boulevard and Mannheim Road.

IDOT and CTA representatives met twice at the Carleton Hotel in Oak Park, once in July and then Sept. 24 for the task force to hear about plans for the expressway rebuild. The CTA is working in tandem with IDOT to take into account Blue Line improvement plans, which may take longer.

Four alternatives were presented in April, but almost all stakeholders gave a thumbs down to an option with mandatory tolls for all lanes. An IDOT study found a mandatory toll would likely push traffic onto parallel arterial roadways such as Roosevelt Road, Jackson Boulevard and North Avenue.  

The options most likely left in the running include two general purpose (GP) lanes east and west, special high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which would require at least two passengers in the car called “HOV +2”, and high-occupancy toll lanes (“HOT 3”), which would be no-charge for cars with three or more passengers, but other cars could gain access by paying a toll. “No build” is another option.

“Managed lanes are a growing national trend as a means to increase efficiency on an existing facility,” the meeting summary from IDOT said. 

The rebuilt highway would stay “within the trench,” the study has declared, but sections of the roadway between Harlem Avenue and Austin Boulevard would be shifted as much as 18 feet to the south. This can be done by removing the middle islands that make up Oak Park’s iconic left-hand ramps. 

The right-exit ramps themselves have been reimagined as 7 feet lower, with more than 300 feet of the highway covered by the ramps. Along with a proposed retaining wall along the expressway, the rejiggered ramp design is meant to lower highway noise pollution.

“The proposed ramp design acts as a barrier to mainline expressway noise,” said a report in the Connections newsletter. “Also, the ramp traffic will be divided, pushing the higher volume, eastbound on-ramp traffic further south, away from Harrison Street.” The top of the ramp would extend 10 feet, or one story, off the village street level.

The task force seems to have heard local clamoring for more pedestrian- and bike-friendly roadways. 

“The bicycle and pedestrian features at every interchange will be enhanced as a part of this project,” said the report. At Austin Boulevard, there is a chance to connect the Prairie Path to Columbus Park via a temporary easement or via Harrison Street.

“We’ve met with IDOT and told them, don’t even consider doing this without dedicated bike and pedestrian lanes,” said Forest Park Village Administrator Tim Gillian. “It’s possible even before major funding for the entire project, that IDOT may be getting spot funding to start things like bridges. There could be a significant impact with the [Home Avenue pedestrian bridge], Desplaines and Circle avenue bridges.” Costs for the project have been estimated at $3 billion.

IDOT promises wider sidewalks, pedestrian refuge islands between ramps, large pedestrian plaza areas near transport stations, pedestrian plazas in all four corners at Austin and Harlem and a walking/biking trail underneath Harlem Avenue. 

The task force also tried to quantify the ways that Illinois highway users would be better off. The report claims travel times would be shortened between 24-59 percent, with over 15 minutes shaved off a commute into the city. Shortened travel times would improve productivity by $92-203 million (assuming a $24/hour wage), they said. IDOT also said improvements could result in 400-6,700 new rapid-transit riders daily and 5-8 percent improved safety on the highway. IDOT also said 310,000 more jobs would be within 60 minutes by car by the year 2040 with the HOT 3 option and 24,000 jobs would be within 60 minutes by public transit.

Drainage

At the Sept. 24 meeting, IDOT representatives talked about possibly replacing a drainage system built in the 1950s that has failed twice this summer when the road flooded. Because the expressway is going to be lowered anyway to accommodate the new ramps, the trunk sewer capacity of the drainage system is going to be re-evaluated and possibly replaced. This drainage system is not in any way connected to the systems of the villages of Oak Park and Forest Park, Gillian explained. 

“The village(s) sewer system overflows into the Deep Tunnel and, when that fills up, into the Des Plaines River,” he said. “The Ike from Central to Mannheim drains into Pumping Station 4 at the Des Plaines River.” The pumping station processes 90,000 gallons per minute, Gillian said. 

The CTA and CSX tracks south of the highway both have collection systems that are tied directly into the expressway pipe network so improving the IDOT system will benefit them as well, said Pete Harmet, IDOT spokesman in an email. 

“With the reconstruction of the expressway, we have an opportunity to add storm water storage and conveyance to redesign the entire system to meet current rainfall data,” he said.

Geometry

IDOT said better geometry and improved traffic signals at new right-hand ramps would significantly decrease the Ike backups at Austin and Harlem during rush hours. Updated ramp designs will make smoother turns for exiting cars, and better traffic signals will keep things moving. IDOT says vehicle stacking on the highway will be reduced by “up to 55 percent” and motorist delay would shrink by “up to 80 percent.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...