By Anna Lothson
Oak Park residents and village trustees clashed with the Illinois Department of Transportation on multiple issues during a special meeting Monday when IDOT presented its case for the potential widening of the Eisenhower Expressway along with moving the left-side Austin Boulevard and Harlem Avenue interchanges to the right side.
Residents were mostly concerned about environmental impacts and having better options for public transportation. Specifically, residents cared about keeping the Ike out of their backyards.
IDOT presented a draft proposal that included 10 different scenarios, which at a recent meeting were narrowed down to five. Besides the potential widening, other aspects included car pool lanes, express bus lanes, and an extension of the CTA Blue Line.
All options on the table, however, involve adding a lane in either direction.
"Everybody wants to know, what are the limits?" resident Michael Caldwell asked at the meeting. "How far do you want to go beyond the trench? That's what everybody wants to know."
Pete Harmet, IDOT's bureau chief of programming, was the main spokesperson of the evening and said IDOT doesn't plan on going outside the current footprint of the expressway.
The expressway may not get wider, but it may get higher, according to scenarios presented at the meeting. Despite claims that the options would increase safety and mobility, many in attendance weren't convinced.
Harmet said the no-build option that would keep the expressway at three lanes is being used as the standard to compare to when evaluating data, but he said it's the worst-performing option compared with the other 10. Overall, he said this 8-mile stretch of the Ike has roughly 2,000 crashes annually, and the area around Harlem and Austin has the highest crash rating of the entire corridor.
According to national data, Harmet added, a left-side ramp has a 49 percent higher crash rating than a right-side ramp. Other issues with the current ramps, he said, are that they are not within compliance standards when it comes to pedestrian and bike crossings.
Assistant Village Manager Rob Cole said in an interview last week that village staff isn't convinced there's enough data to support IDOT's findings.
"There is no real consensus indicating that left-side ramps are inherently dangerous," he said. "They basically have an encyclopedia-sized argument that they are inherently dangerous, and we don't know if we agree with that. There is a lot of literature that doesn't support that."
Overall, Harmet said a D-level is a decent rating for expressway interchanges when it comes to mobility, community and environment. Harlem has an E rating and Austin falls below that, to an F. Reasons named for the poor rating in the presentation include the amount of crash hotspots, insufficient turn lanes, substandard turning radii, and poor access to transit, among others.
Harmet and a group of IDOT representatives presented detailed sketches of conceptual plans for the expressway, which involved raising the roadway to combat drainage issues, but still sticking within the overall footprint. The details, however, were another point of criticism among the board.
Lueck said it was difficult for trustees or residents to comment on the specifics because the updated drawings were not available prior to the meeting. She questioned how the public could absorb the complex jargon without time to study the materials.
Harmet responded by assuring this was one of many public meetings IDOT plans to offer. He said the public will get periodic updates about progress, including the next public meeting sometime in August.
Resident Jim Kelly referred to IDOT as the "Illinois Department of Automobiles," and accused them of not caring about exploring options except those that back their plans for extensive reconstruction.
Trustee Glen Brewer said he's of the "if you build it, they will come," philosophy, and was among others asking why public transportation wasn't being looked at more seriously.
Harmet said the study is not just about vehicles, and that IDOT will be adding other elements as the study progresses. Trustee Ray Johnson, however, wasn't buying it.
"You can say all of that and I can take you at your word that that is true. The evidence does not say that. The data you're presenting does not say that," Johnson said. "This just doesn't add up to me and it gets more concerning as we get further in the process."
Many residents asked why there wasn't more focus on environmental impact, especially since the name of the presentation was "I-290 Environmental Impact Statement."
Resident Jenny Jocks Stelzer was among the residents who pushed for more dialogue about environmental impact.
"We live and work here — we don't just drive here," Jocks Stelzer said. She emphasized the need for a sustainable outcome, instead of just catering to a current problem. "It's not OK to accept the inevitability that with more cars we need more roads."
Village President David Pope touched on the four guidelines that Oak Park officials have stuck by since 2009 when the latest round of conversations began. Those consist of keeping the roadway out of the trench, increased railway presence for the Blue Line, having more physical linkage from the expressway to Oak Park, keep intersections in the middle of the corridor, and increase physical linkages from the two sides of the village separated by the expressway.
"If we think about this as only Oak Park, we will lose," Pope said. "The things that impact Oak Park also impact our neighbors."
Resident Rick Kuner, co-chairman for the Citizens for Appropriate Transportation, a group that opposes the widening of the expressway, has a master's degree in city planning and was recognized at the meeting for his expertise. Kuner characterized IDOT's plans as bad options from a transportation and environmental standpoint.
He said the costs, which are unknown at this point, won't achieve the benefits IDOT is promising. Instead, he thinks the problems will shift, not be solved.
Lueck homed in on her disappointment with IDOT multiple times, saying late in the meeting that "our community goals are going to be at odds with your overall goals." She emphasized that Oak Park's goal is not to ease traffic through the community but to enhance the quality of life for residents.
"We're much more interested in having an urban transit-based community than transportation scenarios that improve the highway for people who live in Naperville," Lueck said.
The next steps in the timeline call for a more concrete draft alternative by the fall, when there would be time for another public hearing. A final plan is expected to be completed by the spring of 2014. Harmet gave a 2017 time frame for construction to begin if proper funding is available.