By Anna Lothson
It's hard to conceptualize what the future of the Eisenhower Expressway will look like, at least from the Village of Oak Park's perspective.
Higher left-side ramps; lower road heights; an extra lane on each side; narrower lane widths; public transit expansion — these are a few of the key concepts listed in the five scenarios that officials from the Illinois Department of Transportation presented at a recent village board meeting. Fifteen meetings and hours of presentations later, however, Oak Parkers and IDOT remain divided on the plans involving interchanges at Austin Boulevard and Harlem Avenue in Oak Park.
It's too early to tell which direction the discussions are headed, but Oak Park officials want IDOT to stay in close contact as decisions are made.
"We still feel there is a significant amount of discussion that needs to be held," said Rob Cole, assistant village manager. "There are still some significant questions unanswered."
The most optimistic scenario has construction on I-290 starting in 2017, pending funding, according to Pete Harmet, IDOT's bureau chief of programming. He said from day one, IDOT has promised its goal was to stay within the trench and not expand the expressway beyond its current reach. That, however, may mean evaluating lane widths and the possibility of acquiring land currently used by the CSX Railroad, which is part of the Eisenhower Transportation Corridor. They have three tracks running through the Oak Park "canyon."
Currently, there's no indication which tracks CSX plans to keep, but Harmet said discussions are in the works to see what could be done to acquire that land for possible expressway expansion. He noted the CSX line adds complex elements to evaluate as IDOT moves forward with its plan.
The CSX trains serve the Ferrara Pan Candy Company, which transports a significant amount of sugar on the railways. An employee of the company said at the village board meeting last week that without the railway, it would be impossible to get the same amount of product distributed.
Still, the rail lines running along the expressway, including the CTA Blue Line, remain just a small portion of the overall discussion of what the Ike will eventually look like from IDOT's perspective.
"In some ways we are talking about concepts, regardless of what's been resolved," Harmet said. The process, taking into account stakeholders and various design alternatives, builds into what IDOT hopes will become a finalized plan in the spring of 2014. "That's really the purpose and scale of what we're doing."
Each step, Harmet said, will become more detailed and will hopefully allow interested parties to better conceptualize the next steps in drawing up the overall design.
The other piece of the puzzle on Oak Parkers' minds are the height of the ramps, which could be closer in height to people's homes, according to the renderings presented in IDOT's recent drawings.
The conceptual drawings provided by IDOT suggest the ramps could be raised as much as 15 or more feet at some spots, which leaves questions about air and noise pollution.
In terms of the overpass, Harmet said, the goal isn't necessarily to simply raise it, but to find "innovative" ways to stay within the footprint.
"Our objective is to stay within something that maintains the status quo with the bridge," Harmet said, emphasizing this would create a more pedestrian friendly crossing and connect the two ends of the overpass better. The interchanges, Harmet said, are just one factor in determining how to improve mobility and safety of the expressway and its surrounding areas.
Overall, besides a potential widening, other aspects that factor into IDOT's decisions include toll carpool lanes, express bus lanes, and an extension of the CTA Blue Line.
"We will add additional detail to these alternatives and preliminary costs," Harmet said. This includes factoring in environmental impacts, which many residents said IDOT did not include in its previous public presentation. "You don't want to start with design and then talk about what the alternatives will be," he explained.
Cole said the village isn't overly confident about IDOT's plans, especially since it doesn't see enough evidence presented as to why the transportation agency thinks left lane ramps are inherently more dangerous than those that exit on the right.
"We remain concerned that they are not appropriately hearing and responding to the questions we raise," Cole said. IDOT, he added, seems fixed on only highway solutions, whereas Oak Parkers would like more focus on transit-oriented options. That way, the problems of encroaching on people's homes who border the expressway would be lessened instead of possibly increased.
Air quality and environmental impacts are among Oak Park's top priorities as the project moves forward. Those concerns tie into the height of the ramps and the expansion of lanes, which IDOT officials say will be part of a future analysis.
"IDOT represents that environmental impacts are done later in the study," Cole said. "That seems backward, the way they do things. … Those types of measures are on the tail end of the study, so they end up being a secondary consideration."
The ramp heights and how they impact the presence of the expressway on Oak Park also remains a concern on Cole's list.
"How much higher would they be?" he said. "I don't know."
Bottom line for Oak Park, he said, is that a lot of questions are being asked but answers aren't coming back. The drawings, he said, do not necessarily convey that the entire project will stay within the roadway as promised.
He's hoping this will change as plans develop.
"We'd like to be able to be an informed participant," Cole said, which involves having an impact on the overall outcome, not just offering policy commitments.
Courtesy of IDOT