With the stroke of his pen Nov. 15, President Joe Biden may have breathed life into a dormant plan to remake the Eisenhower Expressway, a plan its proponents argue would help clear stifling traffic backups, create better and safer access to public transportation, and bring new economic opportunities to communities along the highway corridor that consist heavily of minority and low-income residents.
State and local leaders calling themselves the Rebuild 290 Coalition, including Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch (7th district), Senate President Don Harmon (39th) and Oak Park Village President Vicki Scaman, shared their optimism at a press conference Nov. 8 in Chicago, despite no public guarantees that any construction was imminent.
But the fact that the press conference came before the signing of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill and before the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) announced any firm plans to move the project forward is a sign of just how serious officials are about getting the rebuild off the ground and how confident they are that the state will redirect some of those federal funds to Interstate 290, one local mayor said.
Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins, who was invited to attend the event, called the signing of the infrastructure bill a major development for an ambitious plan that has languished since IDOT’s most recent proposal was published in 2017.
“I don’t think they would have come to a public press conference to talk about their expectations if they didn’t think there was a real possibility of those expectations being realized,” Hoskins said in an interview last week, before the bill was signed. “I walked away really optimistic from that press conference.”
The press conference came in the wake of a study released by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) that touted the wide-ranging benefits of a reconstructed Eisenhower, including needed repairs on an outdated roadway, renovations to stations along the CTA Blue Line, improved pedestrian safety on highway crossings, and a major economic boon to the area’s residents.
READ THE FULL ILEPI STUDY: https://illinoisepi.files.wordpress.com/2021/11/i-290-analysis-final-11.8.21.pdf
“Unlike many other highway projects, this project offers benefits to all modes of transportation, modernizing the corridor to serve the future transportation needs of both nearby residents and commuters,” the study reads.
For its part, IDOT would not speculate on what impact the infusion of federal dollars could have. A spokeswoman confirmed that the approximately $3 billion project proposed in 2017 was not part of IDOT’s Proposed Highway Improvement Program for fiscal years 2022-2027 but did not respond when asked whether an influx of cash from the feds could alter those plans.
IDOT does have two smaller projects — a $46 million effort to improve highway drainage and construct a new pump station near the Des Plaines River, and a $60 million plan to rebuild seven of 39 “overhead structures” — included in its 2022-2027 slate.
“IDOT under Gov. [J.B.] Pritzker is overseeing historic investments in the state’s infrastructure across all modes of transportation,” Maria Castaneda, IDOT’s public information officer, wrote in an email. “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 [as] additional federal guidance becomes available.”
Construction of the Eisenhower Expressway was completed in the late 1950s and, according to the ILEPI study, up to 90% of the “underlying pavement and subbase” remains from its original construction. In addition, of the 44 bridges that cross the highway, 34% are “structurally deficient” and 86% are “functionally obsolete.”
An IDOT website, eisenhowerexpressway.com, lists reports and studies on the highway dating back as far as 2010, and concerns about traffic jams related to the so-called Hillside Strangler — the area where interstates 88, 290 and 294 converge — date back well beyond that.
IDOT’s 2017 proposal, as detailed in its assessment report, centered around a full reconstruction of I-290 from Mannheim Road to Austin Boulevard that would include rebuilding dozens of ramps and bridges along the way (and eliminating the awkward left-lane exits at Austin and Harlem Avenue). It would also overhaul several stations along the CTA Blue Line, including the Forest Park terminal, and create wider sidewalks, add bike lanes, improve accessibility and create “safety islands” for pedestrians on some busy streets.
That 2017 IDOT proposal was the basis of the ILEPI analysis that served as the backbone of the Nov. 8 press conference.
The ILEPI study concluded, in part, that in addition to the benefits listed above, the IDOT project would “dramatically enhance access to jobs for Chicago’s most disadvantaged communities.”
A separate study by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), referenced by ILEPI in its report, estimated that the number of jobs available within 45 minutes of each household along the Eisenhower Expressway corridor would increase by more than 17,000 under the proposed project. CMAP projected that 31% of the residents traveling to jobs via I-290 would be from so-called Economically Disconnected Areas (EDAs) and estimated that 1,300 of the jobs created would be high wage positions that do not require a college degree.
The ILEPI report defines EDAs as “areas with a concentration of low-income residents and either minority residents or residents with limited proficiency in English.”
Mary Tyler, ILEPI’s transportation director and the report’s author, said that by simply cutting down on congestion, the radius of where a resident along the I-290 corridor could look for a job increases significantly.
“If you improve travel times, you are giving people the opportunity to travel to more opportunities because they are not being stuck in traffic,” Tyler said in an interview. “That’s one of the main components, opening up more access in a similar amount of time. Everyone has a slightly different definition, but everyone’s got a limit of where they can go [for work].”
Job access could also be impacted by the multimodal design of the proposal, which ties together highway travel and public transportation. The overall project would increase access to and, Tyler said, protect the safety of commuters looking to use the CTA Blue Line, much of which runs parallel to I-290.
“The existing CTA Blue Line stations adjacent to I-290 have significant limitations for pedestrian access,” Tyler wrote in the ILEPI study, specifically citing the stations at Austin and Harlem Avenue. “They require transit riders to use narrow sidewalks along busy roads and dangerous pedestrian crosswalks across I-290 exit and entrance ramps. The use of many of these facilities [is] difficult, if not impossible, for a person in a wheelchair.”
The other key feature of IDOT’s project, and something that would make the highway unique in the state of Illinois, is what engineers call a “managed lane” reserved for express bus service, vehicles with at least three passengers, and made available as a toll lane for those willing to pay. Envisioned as the inside, or left, lane, between 25th and Austin, the HOT3+ (high-occupancy travel for three or more people) lane would function as a so-called carpool lane and decrease travel times in those lanes by up to 56%, CMAP estimated.
Currently, the highway shrinks to three lanes between Mannheim Road and Austin, something that contributes significantly to traffic delays and, the ILEPI study says, an increase in fatal crashes, particularly in spots where the highway fluctuates between three and four lanes. The IDOT proposal creates an eight-lane highway throughout the 13-mile stretch slated for renovation, and a HOT3+ lane would be the first of its kind in Illinois, Tyler said.
Meanwhile, despite the enthusiasm at the Nov. 8 press conference and the benefits trumpeted by researchers, the project still has no concrete future. The exact dollar amounts headed to Illinois for highway improvements and the method in which money from the federal government will be allocated is still an open question, at least as of Nov. 15, but local leaders whose constituents would stand to benefit believe they have found the funds to move forward.
“Maybe the exact plan that the Rebuild 290 Coalition is advocating is not part of what IDOT already had on the table, but what IDOT had on the table I don’t think ever really reflected the huge infrastructure bill that we expect President Biden to sign,” said Forest Park’s Hoskins.
“It’s kind of a game-changer.”