By Dan Haley
Over the past nine months, for reasons that will make an interesting column for another time, I've become a part-time commuter. Yes, I mean someone who gets in the car multiple mornings a week and tangles with the Eisenhower. I've been heading west, dropping someone off, and then heading right back east.
Depending on the day, I might want to start cursing at the top of the bridge at Austin when I look over at the river of stopped metal. Last week I said my first "gosh darned" when traffic was dead on Harrison near Lombard and it took me 12 minutes to get on the stopped Ike.
Always I curse on the return trip when I get past CarMax and decide whether I have any patience for the stupendous traffic jam that awaits or if I have any more patience for wending my way down Madison or Roosevelt or St. Charles through Broadview and Maywood and Forest Park.
Yes, I know that these are the usual places to curse and I am ready to admit that I am a spoiled person. I've spent the past 35 years making my morning commute from Austin Boulevard to Oak Park Avenue by car, bike or foot. It is a glorious blessing and I have not appreciated it enough.
I'll also admit to severe DuPage bias. You want to live in Wheaton and work in the Loop? Then go ahead and suffer on the commute. It's the price you pay for abandoning the city. I would drive over the Oak Park Avenue bridge and look at the cars ground to a stop below and be smug about my wise lifestyle choices.
And I still am smug about my lifestyle choices. It's good to live in Oak Park and have two el lines and Metra, and, in the diminishing number of off-hours, the Ike ready to take you the reasonable distance to the Loop. Better yet, it's great to work in town and have a 10-minute commute by bike, to live in a purposefully walk-able town.
Obviously, I'm all in when it comes to Oak Park. And in the battle to influence the eventual remaking of the Ike, Oak Park has been singularly leading the effort to stomp down the Illinois Department of Transportation's concrete-pouring, lane-adding mania. Given the opportunity, IDOT will add lanes. It will spread as wide as it is allowed. It doesn't give a fig about growing public transit options.
It is the enemy of good urban planning. And for nearly 10 years Oak Park has properly treated it as such. In the process of building coalitions with neighboring towns along the Ike, by working carefully-built political connections in Washington and Springfield, by always being there when the deadly dull meetings have taken place, Oak Park has had powerful influence and multiple victories in the process to this point.
Most critically, as IDOT looks at the four remaining and very similar options for rebuilding the Ike — perhaps late in this decade — each one keeps the expressway within the existing trench through Oak Park. That is a huge win and was certainly not IDOT's preferred choice. Second, Oak Park has kept the extension of the Blue Line in the plans even though IDOT has disdain for the el, and the CTA wasn't much of a champion itself. But the four options on the table stretch the Blue Line to Mannheim Road. It's not all the way to Oak Brook as Oak Park wanted, but it is a victory.
Oak Park is going to lose its quixotic battle to retain the left hand exits at Harlem and Austin. It should. They're not safe. And it is in the fix for that — way high in the air, swooping about entry and exit ramps — that Oak Parkers still have to fight. These ramps are life-altering for people who live along the highway.
But as a latter day commuter, I've come to accept the fourth lane in each direction. It's not a panacea but it is only logical to remove the Oak Park strangler.