First reported 11/6/2009 1:57 p.m.
The Illinois Department of Transportation announced last week that it’s “re-initiating” the first phase of a study of the Eisenhower Expressway. That translates into planning for the possible expansion of the roadway through Oak Park. And that led to a quick response from village officials who have worked for years on alternatives to adding lanes to the interstate.
“This will either be the last massive, sprawl-inducing highway project of the 20th century, or it will be the first great, integrated transportation and smart growth project of the 21st century,” said Oak Park Village President David Pope.
Pope and others are still pushing for completion of a final portion of a lengthy study of the Cook and DuPage corridor, which included planning for the Eisenhower. That effort, funded largely by public transit agencies, has focused on extending the CTA’s Blue Line rapid rail to DuPage County as a way to make added lanes on the Ike less necessary. With the Regional Transportation Authority in fiscal straits, funding of the last phase of the study, expected to cost some $1 million, is now in limbo.
IDOT’s decision to take this moment to restart its own study makes alternative transit advocates wary, especially since the IDOT press release on the subject pointedly said its study will ignore all previous reviews and planning efforts.
At issue for Oak Park, and other near west suburbs, is the likely pressure to add two lanes to the Ike, a move that would match up lane configurations for the entire length of the highway. Whether such an addition could be contained within the existing Ike “ditch” that bisects Oak Park is unknown. With housing, commercial structures and several notable civic buildings – the Maze Branch library, the Oak Park Conservatory and Rehm Pool — on the banks of the Ike, expanding the highway presents the village with few good options.
Public transit advocates are working to encourage a different planning body, CMAP, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, to take on the final phase of the corridor study. Loss of this phase of the local and regional study would effectively transfer planning authority and direction to IDOT, which has a history of choosing roads over rapid rail.
Rick Kuner, a former Oak Park village trustee and public transit advocate, characterized the first phases of the corridor study as “well-done, competent and thorough,” and expressed disappointment and concern that the much-anticipated third phase, which many considered crucial, might not be conducted because of RTA budget tightening.
“I have more confidence in CMAP than in IDOT in doing these studies,” said Kuner, who leads a group called Citizens for Appropriate Transportation.
Any complete rebuilding or expansion of the expressway is still years off. In May, IDOT announced it would resurface the entire 13.5-mile-long Eisenhower Expressway, from I-88 west of Hillside to the Circle interchange downtown. That $45.1 million project, which will start in April, will be the biggest in the Chicago region next year.
IDOT said the first phase of its preliminary engineering and environmental study would “take a fresh look” at transportation needs related to the Ike. That segment of the Eisenhower being assessed extends from west of Mannheim Road in Hillside to east of Cicero Avenue in Chicago.
Kuner acknowledged that IDOT has recently expressed a greater willingness to support a more transparent, public process in determining transportation solutions under the state’s new “Context Sensitive Solutions” approach. But he and others point to the IDOT press release, which suggests the state will disregard any information gathered in the corridor study.
Pope, Kuner and Rob Cole, a village staff member, all have strongly urged IDOT not to set aside the findings of the Cook DuPage Corridor Study, regardless of whether Phase 3 is done.
The IDOT release did state that interaction with “potentially affected communities is important for ensuring that IDOT proposals are consistent with community goals and objectives.” To that end, it said, a Corridor Advisory Group has been organized. Elected officials from Oak Park, Forest Park, Maywood, Bellwood, Broadview, Hillside and Westchester and Chicago, as well as from Cook and DuPage counties will serve on the committee. Pope is Oak Park’s representative.
Pope said in May that any IDOT public input study, if done without the final phase of the corridor study, would give IDOT the upper hand in applying for federal funding for added vehicular lanes on the Eisenhower, a development that Oak Park has staunchly opposed.
“We’re in a far weaker position,” he said of the corridor study’s Phase 3 being dropped. “It (will) force some questions to be asked and answered.”
All three men stressed the importance of as many people as possible making their voices heard on the issue of alternative transportation in the Ike planning process, even if the third phase of the corridor study isn’t conducted.
“The more people know about this, the better off we’ll be,” Kuner said, referring to the IDOT process.