By Anna Lothson
Oak Park residents and leaders were in agreement about one thing when it comes to the Illinois Department of Transportation: They're not happy about how the Eisenhower Expressway expansion project has been relayed to the people it impacts most.
Monday evening's meeting, however, brought a mix of opinions about what's wrong with the Ike itself and what should and shouldn't be done to fix the aging highway, where IDOT has pledged to conduct a massive overhaul over the next several years.
The forum, held during a special village board meeting at Irving School, consisted of presentations from Oak Park Assistant Village Manager Rob Cole; Rick Kuner, founder of Citizens for Appropriate Transportation; and a representative from CTA's strategic planning staff. Nineteen people spoke during public comment and an estimated 110 people attended.
Those commenting, regardless of where they stood on whether to expand the number of lanes, remained skeptical, particularly about the lack of options being considered when it comes to tackling a project that's estimated to cost more than a billion dollars.
"How accurate do you think IDOT can be at predicting the Eisenhower to 2030?" Kuner, Oak Park's go-to transportation expert, posed to the audience. He suggested residents take the promises and concepts provided by the transportation group with a "grain of salt," and encouraged them to stay engaged throughout the analysis and planning process.
"We're not seeing the best alternatives from IDOT. If we do nothing, we will get a poor solution," he said. "There are long-term, significant impacts."
Kuner's concerns, some of which were expressed by Cole earlier, focused on the design and height of the ramps that, as proposed, are shifting from the left to the right and could be raised — possibly as high as two-and-a-half or three stories, according to his analysis. Kuner also spoke about the lack of solutions that actually improve congestion, which is consistently cited as the main problem of the Ike, particularly the bottleneck area surrounding Oak Park.
"The four alternatives don't do much to reduce congestion," Kuner said. "They haven't looked at a way of designing ramps that show the highest level ramps at grade level. … It's feasible to look into some new alternatives."
Kuner referenced statistics released by IDOT that show the Eisenhower is congested 17 out of 24 hours a day. The four alternatives only collectively reduce that number to between 16.25 and 16.75 hours a day. IDOT officials have said a final preferred alternative should be identified by late 2014.
"That's not a very good return on investment," Kuner said.
Factors like lane width, shoulder width and the impact on increasing traffic and how it relates to crash frequency were among the criticisms of IDOT's plans Kuner referenced; he also brought up the missing pieces: air quality, noise, social, economic and historical impacts of altering the roadways and ramps.
'Let's keep with them'
Janine Farzin, a CTA strategic planning professional, spoke about the long-term planning study of the Blue Line to reassess and reconsider current conditions. She told residents the group understands the current Blue Line stations are less than ideal for pedestrian use in terms of ease of access and exposure to weather elements.
The CTA's perspective has become particularly relevant since June, when it announced the Blue Line Forest Park Branch Feasibility/Vision Study to assess the needs of the areas between downtown Chicago and Forest Park.
The group of residents who spoke about the expansion project consisted of varying perspectives, some for and some against, with a majority of the speakers being residents who lived near the Ike.
Climate change, environmental and historical change, "capping the Ike," visual and noise pollution, improving pedestrian access and public transportation, safety and the height of the entry and exit ramps were all raised. Some residents encouraged Oak Park to be more receptive to IDOT and work toward finding a more "creative" and cohesive solution; others stressed the need to remind IDOT that many in the community don't want the Ike in their backyard, regardless of their promises to "stay within the ditch."
Trustees spoke briefly toward the end of the meeting, and it was Trustee Ray Johnson who pointed out that "there is more split than before in the community about the expansion."
Johnson said what's important now is providing more clarity about how concerned residents can share their input with IDOT on the record. More convenient meeting times are also needed, Johnson said.
Trustee Peter Barber also recognized the division of people for and against the expansion, and focused his comments toward reviewing the issue from a regional perceptive.
"We also have to recognize our role as a neighbor. Most of us are not driving down the Ike. … How can we try and use whatever solution for our advantage?" he asked.
Trustee Colette Lueck offered another perspective, suggesting Oak Park needs to be cognizant of its own residents in any direction it moves with IDOT's plans. She pointed out the current flaws of the ramp and roadway construction but suggested much more needs to be done before IDOT picks a plan.
"I'm really not clear on why Oak Park would support a plan that would spend a billion dollars," Lueck said, adding that much of the impact and expense could be felt by Oak Park and its residents if not properly executed.
Trustee Adam Salzman jumped on Barber's points about how Oak Park needs to think of the neighbors, too, and ensure all options are vetted before jumping to any conclusion.
"It's not a zero sum game," Salzman said. "This is not an either-or situation."
The evening's comments concluded with President Anan Abu-Taleb who offered an optimistic perspective about what can happen if the community bands together.
"I think we are making headway with IDOT. I think they are looking at us as a serious player," the president said. "Let's keep with them."