Friday afternoon, Oak Park Village President David Pope sounded like a guy who’s heard both good news and bad news.

Last Wednesday, the Illinois Department of Transportation announced the good news: It will resurface the worn-out road bed of the Eisenhower Expressway in 2010, all 13.5 miles of it, from I-88 west of Hillside to the Kennedy Expressway. The $45.1 million IDOT project will be the biggest in the Chicago region next year.

Earlier last week, the Oak Park village board approved receipt of $955,000 in federal money to study capping of the Eisenhower, with the intent of minimizing the impact of traffic noise on surrounding neighborhoods.

More money than has been available in years is being appropriated by the federal and state governments, promising much-needed transportation improvements. But the related acceleration of interest in large-scale transportation projects has a downside, Pope said.

That downside surfaced in a paragraph in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune story on the Eisenhower resurfacing:

“But a major new funding infusion could help accelerate long-range plans to reconstruct the Eisenhower and add a fourth lane in each direction from the Hillside area east to Austin Boulevard to help unclog traffic congestion, IDOT officials said.”

For Pope and others who have been working long and hard to assure that light rail alternatives to additional vehicular lanes are seriously considered by planners, the Tribune article confirmed what they have always suspected – that IDOT fully intends to proceed with plans to expand the width of the Eisenhower Expressway through Oak Park.

“Obviously, the comments in the Tribune are a source of considerable concern,” Pope said.

Pope, who is vice chair of the Cook DuPage Corridor Study, has spent the past four years deeply involved in discussion, study and planning for the possible extension of the Blue Line rapid-rail system west to DuPage County, as part of an overall approach to using commuter rail lines to ease regional traffic congestion. RTA funded and carried out the corridor study’s first two of three phases, which collected public input and developed models for transportation planning.

An analysis of alternatives, intended to be the third phase, reportedly may not happen because of financial pressures that the RTA is facing. Loss of that phase would transfer planning to the IDOT, which has a history of choosing roads over rapid rail.

“It appears IDOT is prepared to move forward with phase one of an environmental impact study,” Pope said. That study, which is required under federal highway funding guidelines, would – if done in the absence of the final corridor study phase – give IDOT the upper hand in applying for federal funding for added lanes on the Eisenhower.

Conclusions from either IDOT’s environmental impact study or from the completed Cook DuPage Corridor study would be factored into a Regional Transportation Plan and Transportation Improvement Plan. Those formal plans are what Pope called “governing documents” required as part of submittals for federal funding of transportation projects. Allowing the IDOT study to be submitted would all but inevitably mean the eventual loss of significant land mass in the village along the expressway, as well as the elimination of the rapid rail alternative.

The way to assure that rapid rail does not get derailed by IDOT planners, Pope said, is to assure that a “good, strong, robust analysis” of all transportation alternatives is done. He said the final phase of the Cook DuPage Corridor study would take 18 to 24 months. The completed study would then qualify for inclusion in any federal project funding application.

“All we’re looking for is an even-handed, objective evaluation and consideration of all reasonable alternatives,” Pope said. “The comments in the Tribune … raise significant questions about whether that objective, even-handed analysis is really what IDOT has in mind.”

His concern is shared, Pope said, by elected and appointed officials in many of the municipalities that make up the West Central Municipal Conference, which represents the legislative interests of 36 west suburban communities. Pope spoke with members of the municipal conference last week and said he heard a strong desire to see the third phase of the corridor study completed. So Pope arranged to meet with Stephen Schlickman, RTA’s executive director, and with Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which had worked closely with the RTA on the corridor study.

They discussed the possibility of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) carrying out the corridor study’s third phase if the RTA backs out. Pope said CMAP, which is responsible for transportation and land use planning in northeastern Illinois, has worked closely with the RTA on the corridor study, and may assume the facilitator’s role if the RTA backs out.
“The West Central Municipal Conference is pretty confident that all options will get a fair hearing under a process led by either the RTA or CMAP,” Pope said. Simply adding more roads, he insists, will give taxpayers little bang for their buck, while damaging the village.

“We need to be very careful that we not waste hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money for little or no net benefit, when other alternatives could have a far greater impact,” Pope said.

Reassuring for Pope ?#34; rail support by Obama, Quinn

Concerns over threats to the Eisenhower Blue Line extension aside, David Pope said he’s encouraged by recent changes in attitudes toward rapid light-rail and high-speed rail projects.

“I’m absolutely encouraged,” he said Friday. “The support and commitment from the federal level is encouraging.” Pope was pleased to hear that Gov. Pat Quinn has thrown his support behind President Barack Obama’s commitment to invest in high-speed intra-city rail service.

Addressing reporters in Springfield on Friday, Quinn said, “I’m asking the legislature to follow President Obama’s lead and invest in the growth and efficiency for transportation in Illinois by appropriating funds in the capital bill needed to make high-speed rail a reality.”

Pope also has reason to be encouraged by comments from Gary Hannig, Quinn’s transportation secretary. Hannig suggested that IDOT was open to rail as an alternative to more roads, at least as far as highspeed inner city rail is concerned.

“We will take full advantage of the federal resources President Obama’s leadership has made possible, but more must be done,” Hannig said. “We hope to receive the support of the legislature to move this plan forward and get travelers to their destinations safely and faster than driving.”

Just as he supports local light-rail investment, Pope backs creation of a system of high-speed rail connections among key Midwest cities.

“Rail continues to present a tremendous opportunity for our region,” he said. “The Midwest is better situated than anywhere but the Northeast to take advantage of significant investment in rail infrastructure that supports the entire economic base of the region.”

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