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Will construction of the Jane Byrne Circle Interchange ever get done?

The city built the Ryan, Eisenhower, Stevenson and Kennedy expressways in roughly the same amount of time it will take to get this project wrapped up.

Construction continues — and continues— on the Jane Byrne Interchange west of downtown.
Construction continues — and continues— on the Jane Byrne Circle Interchange west of downtown.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

In uncertain times like these, some constants do remain: death, taxes and the seemingly never-ending reconstruction of the Jane Byrne Circle Interchange.

It’s an embarrassment that a project that was begun in 2013 and was supposed to be finished in 2018 won’t actually wrap up — if you even believe current projections — until late 2022. That’s nine years from start to finish.

Chicago built four major expressways — the Ryan, Eisenhower, Stevenson and Kennedy — in roughly the same length of time, from 1956 to 1964.

Also distressing: The reconstruction’s original $535 million price tag has jumped to just shy of $800 million.

We have no gripe with the project itself. The former Circle Interchange — the concrete knot that ties together the Kennedy, Eisenhower and Ryan — was built in the 1950s and was never upgraded. Everybody in town agrees it was a mess.

The reconstruction has been designed to increase the interchange’s capacity, bringing in additional car lanes, three new flyovers, and reconstructed bridges over the expressway at Harrison, Monroe, Morgan, Taylor, Van Buren, Adams and Jackson streets.

The new interchange is a complicated piece of work, which accounts for some of the unexpected delays. And after construction began, work crews discovered poorer-than-expected soil conditions. That meant that portions of the exchange, including massive retaining walls, had to be re-engineered to make them significantly stronger, which has driven up the price.

Given the project’s ambitious scope, the Illinois Department of Transportation should have done better advance work to create a realistic budget and timetable. This smacks too much of the 2006 reconstruction of the Ryan, originally priced at $550 million. Change orders hiked the price to nearly $1 billion.

There’s more work to come as part of the interchange project. The roadway and barrier walls on the northbound Dan Ryan, between Roosevelt Road and Madison Street, will be rebuilt, along with the Madison, Washington, Lake and Randolph exit ramps.

The southbound Ryan will include similar work, plus new underground stormwater tanks to help alleviate roadway flooding.

The project’s delays — and escalating costs — are another harsh reminder that undertaking ambitious road projects to solve traffic congestion is an increasingly expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

A better approach will always put a greater emphasis on mass transit.

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