There is a long-dormant plan to rebuild the Eisenhower Expressway from the dirt up, to reconfigure the space within Oak Park’s Harrison to Garfield ditch to allow two added lanes, to modernize and make the Blue Line el accessible from the Loop to Forest Park, to finally get rid of the space-saving but long unsafe center entry and exit ramps at Austin and Harlem, to replace all, and potentially widen, some bridges from Racine to Mannheim.
That plan, on which Oak Park lobbied heavily, and with some influence, more than a decade ago, went on the shelf after the state of Illinois’ Department of Transportation spent upfront for planning and development but then had no access to federal dollars for actual construction.
That changed Monday when President Joe Biden signed a rich, bipartisan infrastructure plan. There will be billions flowing to states to cover an array of hard infrastructure investments. And the rebuild of the 60-plus-year-old Eisenhower is essential and readymade.
Certainly that was the view of Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins, Oak Park Village President Vicki Scaman, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon (Oak Park), Speaker Chris Welch (Hillside) and other political leaders last week as they touted the Rebuild 290 Coalition.
The goal, and certainly neighborhoods and towns along the Ike from the West Side to the far edge of Proviso Township are well represented here, is to make sure the Ike project is top of the list when IDOT apportions those federal dollars in the very near future.
There is still work to be done on a plan last seen four years back. Still at issue is how grand and expansive rebuilt bridges will be. The new bridge at Harlem, for instance, will be wide enough to allow bus lanes to drop off passengers at the Blue Line. Oak Park is lobbying for added width on the Oak Park Avenue bridge and maybe at East Avenue. Oak Parkers were divided five years ago on whether they wanted tall walls lining the highway to block sound and visuals of the roadway from neighborhoods.
While it is right and necessary to eliminate the center exits and entries, the replacements were stunningly intrusive in Oak Park and encroached on the south end of Columbus Park. A fresh look will be necessary.
We are glad to see Forest Park’s Hoskins taking a more pro-active approach on this plan’s impact on his town than his predecessor. Making sure two more lanes do not cut into the community, lobbying hard for a far better CTA terminus at Desplaines, and replacing the humpbacked Circle Avenue bridge with something far more connective of the north and south sides of town is imperative.
Finally, this rebuild comes in a moment when there is rightfully renewed focus on how the original interstate highway system was built through cities in the 1950s and 1960s. So many of the decisions on routes and which neighborhoods would be decimated and divided had absolute racial motivations.
That consciousness needs to be brought to the final stages of the design debate. Do Blue Line stops on the West Side get reopened? Can the Blue Line be extended west toward more job opportunities? How does Columbus Park, a gem of the Greater West Side, get protected this time after it was sliced into back in the 1950s?
All important questions we need to collectively work through while making sure it doesn’t stop work on a project that absolutely must move forward.