Reducing Congestion on the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290): It’s Needed, But What is the Best Option?

The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has proposed a variety of solutions to help alleviate congestion on I-290—all of which include adding more lanes to the highway.  While highway expansion may help to fulfill the goal of reducing travel times across the Eisenhower (it didn’t in the case of the “Hillside Strangler”), it presents environmental, community, and fiscal concerns that must be considered in the planning process.

Oak Park is one of the neighborhoods that would be significantly impacted by this highway expansion, as it could result in a loss of park acreage as well as the destruction of several residential neighborhoods, including a historic district. Oak Park is recognized as a leader in environmental initiatives around the region and many Oak Park residents have shown interest in exploring sustainable options during this planning process.

With 200,000 cars driving on I-290 everyday, this highway is a key gateway connecting the western suburbs to Chicago. The Eisenhower was not originally designed to carry this volume of drivers at once, however, and it is currently one of the most congested highways in the Chicagoland area.

An image from CTA demonstrating the heavy traffic along I-290.

An image from CTA demonstrating the heavy traffic along I-290.

According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s (CMAP) figures, east-bound lanes are jammed for more than nine hours a day; and west-bound lanes for more than seven hours a day.  During peak hours, expected travel time between any two locations tends to be more than twice that of free-flow hours. And while the highway drivers are suffering from painstakingly long commutes, residents of Oak Park living along the highway are dealing with elevated noise and air pollution.

According to past studies by the American Lung Association, 33 percent of Oak Park villagers live in diesel hot spots, meaning they are exposed to higher levels of diesel emissions than are generally considered to be safe.  Oak Park residents are worried that noise levels and air quality will worsen with highway expansion and that the expansion will further isolate the Village’s north and south-side residents from one another.

Finances present an additional concern. This project is estimated to cost between $600 and $800 million over the next decade.  These costs include not only expenses directly associated with building more highway lanes, but also the cost of bridges, retaining walls, overpasses, and El tracks that will have to be renovated to fit the wider expressway.

Despite the issues of pollution, community reconfiguration, and financing, there is a support group for the expansion. For example, CMAP’s GO TO 2040 plan asserts that the potential benefits of the expansion —reducing traffic congestion, eliminating multiple left-hand exit and entrance ramps, and creating a car-pool friendly HOV lane—outweigh any associated detriments.   These benefits are still theoretical and, when completed, the project may do little to improve highway commuting.

One of the favored alternative plans among Oak Park residents and CNT staff is to expand the Blue Line, which already runs near many of the neighborhoods affected by the proposed Ike expansion; more research is needed to determine if that solution would benefit the community.  Oak Park already has ample train services, with access to CTA buses and trains as well as the Metra.  But for commuters who live west of the Forest Part terminus, driving is the only option.

Current transportation options in Oak Park.  Map originated from a draft of I-DOT’s Environmental Impact Statement.

Current transportation options in Oak Park. Map originated from a draft of I-DOT’s Environmental Impact Statement.

In 2011, 220,762 commutes were taken on the Blue Line entering from the Oak Park Station, 13,000 more rides than 2010’s figures.  As it is, the Blue Line currently diverts an approximated 24,550 transit commuters from highways.  According to IDOT’s own studies, expansion of the Blue Line and improvement of bus service could reduce between 7,000 and 11,600 auto trips annually.  These figures show that transit ridership is becoming a more favorable option for commuters and that transit expansion could reduce road congestion.

The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) Cook-DuPage Corridor Study, conducted between 2005 and 2009, evaluated mobility problems along I-290 as well as their potential solutions, many of which include transit.  Those of us engaged in transportation issues at CNT would like to see these alternative options, and their ability to connect commuters with job centers, more fully evaluated in IDOT’s final plans.

The absence of both an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and an alternative  option in IDOT’s initial proposal is concerning.  The alternative option is required by law to be submitted in draft form to the EPA during the initial stages of planning—not towards the end or the middle.  While IDOT is planning on submitting its first draft of an EIS in the fall of 2012, with public hearing of it in the spring of 2013, we think they should get their homework done sooner.

“Cap the Ike”—an alternative vision for Oak Park proposed in 2003 to deal with congestion, noise, and air pollution associated with I-290.  This plan that would build green space and roadways over the Eisenhower has not been mentioned in recent debates about this issue.

“Cap the Ike”—an alternative vision for Oak Park proposed in 2003 to deal with congestion, noise, and air pollution associated with I-290. This plan that would build green space and roadways over the Eisenhower has not been mentioned in recent debates about this issue.

With the recent passing of the MAP-21 national transportation bill, which is increasing the availability of federal dollars funneled to states to support non-automotive transportation development, now is the optimal time for exploring alternative solutions for congestion reduction. Extending train lines, improving bus services, and creating more bike paths are all viable ways to maximize transportation availability while reducing automobile reliance.  Oak Park residents and environmentally-conscious commuters along the I-290 corridor should maintain their persistence and not let Chicago’s landscape become increasingly cluttered by highways.