A potentially $17 million decision to narrow Madison Street down to three lanes from four could come in the next couple of months.
Oak Park has been talking for more than a year about the possibility of squeezing the car-dominated stretch in order to add bike lanes in either direction, along with safer crosswalks for pedestrians heading north and south.
In November, village officials revealed that it could cost anywhere from $6.9 million to $17.3 million to pull off these elaborate plans. At the time, trustees asked for more information before making any decision.
On Monday, consultants lined up to discuss the positives of putting Madison on a “road diet.” Other communities, such as Toronto and Seattle, have shrunk streets and seen speeds reduced and pedestrian safety increased. It’s hard for businesses to succeed on Madison with cars whizzing by at 30 mph, said John Mac Manus, a landscape architect with Altamanu.
“Speed kills retail unless you’re a major shopping center with a highway leading directly to it,” he told trustees Monday.
But some elected officials expressed skepticism about whether such an expensive plan could produce the return on investment that Oak Park wants. Trustee Ray Johnson asked why other auto-dominated stretches are seemingly thriving, such as North Avenue in Elmwood Park, where there’s a line of popular restaurants between Harlem and Thatcher.
Trustee Adam Salzman questioned whether Oak Park would see its Madison Street bikes lanes used as frequently as San Francisco or Seattle, where the weather is more temperate.
“One distinguishing factor is that the weather is a lot better,” he said. “Bikers are much more likely to be out and about during any part of the year.”
Consultants estimated that about 71 parking spots, or 10 percent of those currently available, would be lost if Oak Park were to pursue the road shrinkage. And traffic likely wouldn’t devolve into gridlock, as Madison already has travel volumes compared to some of the narrower streets in Oak Park, such as Ridgeland.
Mark de la Vergne, with Sam Schwartz Engineering, said it’s possible that some traffic will be pushed onto residential streets after the shrinkage. He said Oak Park could explore ways to beef up Washington and Jackson to be able to handle higher traffic volumes, while also adding traffic-calming devices (such as speed bumps) to minimize the effect on quieter blocks.
An added wrinkle is that the city of Chicago is considering building a bike lane on Madison, too. And consultants told Oak Park that it may want to coordinate with its neighbor to the east to create a path all the way to the Loop.
Trustee Johnson expressed doubts, though, as Chicago has yet to finish its portion of a street project collaboration with Oak Park on North Avenue. Not to mention the public safety concerns cyclists might have while pedaling through the West Side.
“Let’s just remind our friends in Chicago that they started a streetscape project on North Avenue that’s not been finished for seven years because they ran out of funding, and it’s negatively impacting Oak Park,” Johnson said. “We need to make sure we’re looking at projects that haven’t been finished before we start a new project, let alone the fact that there’s a number of public safety issues in that 10-mile corridor that would have to be addressed to make sure people use it.”
Mac Manus told trustees that the community’s reaction, from both residents and businesses, has been generally positive about the road diet idea. Dennis Marani, head of the Madison Street Business Association, said he started with disbelief, but urged trustees to approve the plan in the coming months.
“Oak Parkers want to make Madison street part of where they live, where they work and where they shop,” Marani said.
Trustees held off on having a detailed discussion about the plan Monday night. They plan to reconvene sometime in May or June to go over the financials of the proposal and make a decision.
Currently, Oak Park has about $7.6 million in its Madison Street tax increment financing (TIF) district available for the project, along with a $570,000 grant in hand to go toward the bike lanes, which would run from Lombard to Home Avenue. One possibility, officials said, is issuing bonds to make up the rest of the funding gap. Trustees asked for information about the village’s total debt capacity, and whether Oak Park has the ability to take on an I.O.U. for the other $9 or so million it might take if the board decides to pursue the most expensive version of the plan.