People have been going back and forth in our Viewpoints section about the notion of covering the Eisenhower Expressway with a “green” roof. It’s a lovely dream–healing our 50-year-old landscape “scar” and gaining green space–but on the surface (where most of us live) the idea of “covering the canyon” seems preposterous. I mean, it’s a long way across the Ike and it’s even longer from Austin to Harlem.

So the criticism, “It’s too much, too costly and it’ll never get done,” sounds reasonable. Critics are also fond of saying, “The billion dollars it would take could be put to so much better use.” And they’re absolutely right–but only if we had that billion dollars available to us to spend at our discretion. Unfortunately, if that billion dollars isn’t used for an Ike Cap, it will very definitely not be used to upgrade inner-city schools or to help ex-offenders find jobs on the West Side or to fund programs that will eradicate the academic achievement gap in Oak Park. You can trust me on this. I’m a professional observer of local government in action (well, mostly inaction).

So is it worth pushing for an Ike Cap, spending millions on engineering feasibility studies and all that, when it will likely never come to fruition?

Well, a case can be made that lobbying aggressively for something like the Ike Cap might throw a major obstacle in the path of bureaucratic momentum toward IDOT’s real goal: widening the Eisenhower so we can cram even more cars onto it and encourage even more people to drive (contraindicating Al Gore and every other foe of global warming). That widening, by the way, would almost certainly take out Harrison Street between East and Oak Park avenues. Go stand on the East Avenue bridge sometime, looking west, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. There is no give. None whatsoever. If they widen the Ike, we lose a street and probably some homes as well. Not an appealing prospect to say the least–not to mention it makes things that much worse on the old carbon emission front. And, really, we need to talk turkey here. It’s getting late–I mean really late–for the planet. If things don’t start going the other direction in a big way very, very soon, we’re toast.

No, I’m not being hysterical.

The more responsible course, of course, would be for IDOT to expand the Blue Line west so more suburbanites have the option to leave their cars at home. Maybe if IDOT is averse to the possibility of a pitched battle over capping the Ike, they’ll propose the Blue Line extension as a tradeoff for us giving up on the Ike Cap. Might just be worth the wheeling and dealing.

Let’s face it. We’re playing chess with Death here. It’s just like the Ingmar Bergman film, “The Seventh Seal.” You can’t beat Death in a chess game, but you might be able to buy some time, and you might win some small concessions in the process.

The thing about capping the expressway is that it’s not just a pipe dream. It’s been done before in other municipalities–in other Oak Parks for that matter. And here’s the other thing: The cap doesn’t have to extend all the way from Austin to Harlem.

Here’s my proposal: We aim for a full Ike Cap (what the hell, you never know) but we settle for capping the canyon at its narrowest point–from East Avenue to Oak Park Avenue. After they cap that section, IDOT can dig underneath Harrison Street for all I care to widen the expressway (though I’d rather they didn’t) and we won’t lose any more land. There’s enough embankment to the west of Oak Park Avenue and to the east of East Avenue to squeeze in an extra lane if IDOT (aka Death) gets its bureaucratic way.

In other words, this is a whole lot more complicated (and intriguing) than the anti-Ike Cap contingent thinks. We really need to do something because if we do nothing, we’re going to get a wider Ike and lose land in the process.

Take it from a professional government watcher: Bureaucratic momentum is slow to build, but once it does, it’s very hard to stop.

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