"Even highway exits go to the left in Oak Park," goes the old joke. In 1961, Oak Park's then-village president J. Russell Christianson lobbied hard to get left-hand exits when the "Congress Expressway" was built, seeking to decrease loss of property and noise levels. The name of the expressway changed to the "Eisenhower," but the ramps stayed on the left.
Drivers hate Oak Park's Eisenhower on- and off-ramps: Westbound, merging to the left causes last-minute maneuvers; traffic backs up on the off ramps — especially at Harlem — causing dangers on the highway. The Ike constricts to three lanes, which causes an almost permanent traffic jam between Austin and Harlem. Merging onto the eastbound Ike from Harlem is a race to get on before your lane disappears. The same with the Harlem westbound entrance.
And at the top of the ramps, trucks get stuck at the hairpin turns, panhandlers work the captive drivers, Harlem clogs up for blocks, buses stop at the CTA stations and close off the right lane, and pedestrians dash for their lives to cross the street going north.
What's so great about these left-hand highway exits anyway?
If IDOT ever gets their wish of reconfiguring the Eisenhower, the left-hand ramps may be history. They aren't safe. According to a Federal Highway study, left-hand ramps have crash rates twice as high as the next highest type of ramp: 1.74 per million vehicles.
In real numbers, IDOT found that in three years, 2006 through 2008, 537 crashes occurred westbound between the Laramie and Austin exits with one fatality. Another 110 occurred at the Harlem off- and on-ramps. (The average crash rate on much of the rest of the highway for those three years was 27.) Seventy-seven percent of the collisions were rear-enders or sideswipes and occurred during a.m. or p.m. rush hour.
What would right-lane exits at Harlem and Austin look like? Jim Budrick, village engineer, guesses it would be a "diamond interchange" as opposed to the land-gobbling cloverleaf design. The interchanges would probably be built for high volume, perhaps similar to the very tall new I-355 interchanges. Almost 19,000 cars currently use the westbound Austin ramp daily, while 16,100 exit at Harlem going west.
With right-side ramps, houses might be endangered at Harrison and Maple and the Forest Park community garden property would be absorbed. On the south side of the highway at Harlem, any right-lane exit/entrance would have to contend with the Volvo dealership on the Oak Park side, the U-Haul property on the Forest Park side of Harlem and bridges over the train tracks. At Austin, exit construction might eat into Columbus Park and residential properties at Harrison and Garfield.
The IDOT study says if Austin and Harlem bridges are replaced, ramp angles will be softened to accommodate turning trucks and high-velocity traffic. Bus bumpouts will likely be added to stop buses from clogging right-hand lanes. Also more pedestrian safety precautions might be added. Two pedestrians were killed between 2006 and 2008 at the top of the Oak Park ramps, both around 4 a.m. on Sunday mornings.
IDOT gets involved
The Eisenhower's stretch through our village is one of the worst-rated patches of highway in Illinois: It gets an "F" in Level-of-Service rating from the Illinois Department of Transportation.
In August 2010, IDOT completed a nine-year "Environmental Phase 1" study of the problem. One option to get traffic moving through the failure zone is widening the Ike to four lanes through Oak Park, making one a carpool (or High Occupancy Vehicle — HOV) lane.
When IDOT began the study in 2001 this caused concern among Oak Parkers who worried that an expanded highway would mean a land-grab to the north — compromising two of Oak Park's business districts. Since 2001, a 122-member task force of volunteers, which includes Village President David Pope, has kept abreast of IDOT's plans. A sub-group advocates for "capping the Ike."
Rick Kuner, a retired transportation planner, founded Oak Park's Citizens for Appropriate Transportation. As former village trustee, Kuner has read every study IDOT has issued and attended many community meetings.
Kuner does not want to cap the Ike, but he believes adding an extra lane would be futile. "If you build it, [traffic] will come. It's called 'induced demand.' The Hillside Strangler construction (at Mannheim Road) cost $140 million and caused two years of disruption and only gained a minute. They just pushed the congestion further east." He points out that the Dan Ryan Expressway is 16 lanes wide in some spots and still has congestion.
Kuner is especially worried about one scenario in which IDOT declares eminent domain on a non-used third CTA rail line running parallel to the highway. This easement would be much better used, he said, by extending the CTA through Maywood into Westchester. The Maybrook Courthouse alone, he says, would contribute a significant ridership, as well as possible Park-and-Ride facilities in Hillside. Building more public transportation will reduce highway congestion, he contends.
But Kuner may be able to rest assured: In the August 2010 study, it appears IDOT has determined a train-track plan won't work. Railroad viaducts are too low: only 19 feet high. IDOT would have to raise every bridge by 4 feet (to 23 feet) or lower the grade of one highway lane by four feet, which is unacceptable.
Will this mean that the expansion of the Ike will take land to the north? IDOT is mum on that subject.
Whatever happens, lots of tax money, time and construction will be involved. With two high-volume highway interchanges emptying into Oak Park, perhaps towering over the rest of the village, Oak Parkers may soon miss the old left-hand ramps.
In any case, villagers like Rick Kuner are paying attention and making sure that IDOT acknowledges the village as a stakeholder.
"If I'm not willing to defend my neighborhood, what am I willing to defend?" he asks.