State Senator Don Harmon said he remembered hearing stories as a child about people who lost their homes as a result of the Eisenhower Expressway being built.
"I was the only kid in Oak Park who had nightmares about eminent domain," Harmon said, drawing laughs from an audience of about 150 people at the I-290 town hall forum Tuesday.
He said the current plans to reconstruct the aging roadway don't suggest that fear will come again.
Harmon's remarks were part of a public meeting he hosted at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, intended to show area residents the four possible plans for reconstructing the Ike and updating — also possibly extending — the CTA Blue Line. The evening also allowed for questions to be asked about the project.
Harmon introduced a panel of planners, including Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider, Illinois Department of Transportation Planning Chief Pete Harmet and Michael McLaughlin, vice president of planning and federal affairs for the Chicago Transit Authority. Collectively they answered roughly 30 questions submitted in writing from audience members.
Harmon called the existing ditch that contains the expressway and the Blue Line tracks "an ugly scar the separates the two parts of our village," and gave reassurance about the project's future.
"Ten years ago, it was not at all clear that the Ike would remain in the footprint of the ditch," he said. "I think that victory has been secured, and that's a good thing."
Several audience members asked why the Blue Line could not simply be renovated and extended west without waiting for the revamp of the Ike. Their questions were met with applause. According to McLaughlin, such an approach would cost significantly more than remodeling the two modes of transit together.
When asked which of the four plans the agencies favor, Schneider denied having a preference, and insisted the process, including public commentary, had to play out before determining the best route.
A question was asked about if the Oak Park Conservatory, which borders the expressway, would be endangered, but Harmet said it would not.
"Staying within the right of way is an absolute must," he said.
Cost of the project was a main talking point, and according to McLaughlin, the best way to estimate such a massive plan is to look at the similar Dan Ryan Expressway project, which cost around $426 million. Some reports, however, have suggested the Ike reconstruction could cost upward of a billion dollars.
Several people were concerned with how traffic congestion is measured, and what reductions could be expected under any of the plans. Schneider said approximately 200,000 vehicles use the Ike daily. Harmet added that a ten-year projection estimated a seven-percent increase in that number, and said congestion is expected to be relieved enough to increase average travel speeds from the current 25 mph to 50 mph.
McLaughlin said express buses and using the shoulder of the expressway are an important part of IDOT's discussions with PACE during the project's planning stages.
"We are very interested in expanding 'bus on shoulder' and see it as a very valuable service," Schneider added.
When asked how "environmental justice" was being addressed in the planning, Schneider pointed out that it is part of the Environmental Impact Statement process. Harmet reminded the group that the future of the expressway affects everyone who lives or travels on the roadway.
"The Ike serves everybody," he said. "If it falls apart, it has an impact on all communities, including low-income."
One woman wanted to know whether soundproof barriers would be erected during construction of the exit ramps. Ramp congestion, according to Harmet, could be controlled by better timing of lights, which he said would enhance pedestrian safety as well.
The height of on- and off-ramps was another audience concern. Harmet, an engineer, said "we are working on pushing those ramps as far as we can" to limit noise and preserve air quality.
When asked about bicycle paths and safety for riders, McLaughlin said when the CTA remodels it will add bike parking and bike racks, both inside and outside the stations.
IDOT has extended the date to receive public comment by to Nov. 7. To view the four plans, or to comment, visit the project's website at eisenhowerexpressway.com.
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