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Infrastructure bill provides a chance to finally fix the long-ailing Ike expressway

We’re eager to see the oft-congested Ike transformed into something vastly more beneficial to the city and suburbs.

The INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard annual report also lists the Eisenhower Expressway — particularly from I-290/294 to I-90/94 Interchange — as the most congested road in the country.
A view of the Eisenhower Expressway at Mannheim Road. A group of local officials seek $2.7 billion from the state’s share of the federal infrastructure bill to improve the oft-congested highway.
Sun-Times file photo

The Eisenhower Expressway/I-290 was intended as an efficient, high-speed thoroughfare to and from Chicago when it opened in 1955.

But in the 66 years since its construction, the roadway has been just the opposite: a slow and often traffic-knotted expressway that is more detriment to the city and region than a benefit .

So we can understand why a group of state legislators and suburban leaders, armed with a new study from the non-profit Illinois Economic Policy Institute, want to rebuild 13 miles of the Ike from Racine Avenue westward out to Wolf Road in Hillside — using $2.7 billion of the state’s cut of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill headed to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature soon.

We like the idea of an improved Ike. But for that kind of money, we’d want to make sure taxpayers walk away with more than new asphalt and the promise of improved pedestrian connections and rehabbed stations along the CTA’s Blue Line that winds down the center of the expressway.

In short, we think there’s a chance to create an Ike we can like, giving us something vastly more beneficial to the city and suburbs than what’s there now.

Eisenhower should be ‘a priority’

Once signed by Biden, the federal infrastructure bill will send $17 billion to the state. Illinois highway projects are slated to receive $9.8 billion, while bridge repairs and replacement would get $1.4 billion.

That means there will be statewide competition for the funds.

“We stand united here today in calling others to join in making this [Eisenhower] project a priority,” Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said in a news conference Tuesday.

“This becomes a reality if and only if federal transportation officials join with state and local leaders in providing resources,” he added.

Harmon’s urgency is understandable. According to the Illinois Economic Policy Institute study, 34% of the expressway’s 44 bridges are “structurally deficient” and 86% of them are “functionally obsolete,” according to Illinois Department of Transportation data gathered by the group.

And drivers are still rolling atop the original roadway that was built in 1955, exceeding its design life by two or three decades, the study said.

During that time, traffic on the roadway has grown tremendously. Built to handle 40,000 vehicles a day, about 200,000 travel the expressway daily.

And many of the Blue Line stops along the expressway need renovation, rebuilding or re-opening.

“Overall, this project is [about] creating a modern transportation corridor,” Mary Tyler, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute’s transportation director, said.

“It’s not just a highway project that’s focusing on road and bridge improvements, it also includes pedestrian and transit access, adds express bus opportunities and promotes carpooling,” Tyler said.

This is exactly what’s needed. But care must be taken to make sure we get there.

An Ike we can like?

An Illinois Department of Transportation spokesperson said it’s premature to speculate on which projects could be funded through the infrastructure bill.

There is an ambitious proposed IDOT reconstruction plan for the Eisenhower from 2017 that calls for bridge and highway upgrades, new High Occupancy Toll lanes for express buses and carpooling, and improved pedestrian and bike traffic areas above the depressed expressway.

And the CTA is seeking to upgrade and reconstruct a number of Blue Line stations.

But we don’t mind IDOT taking the time to reconsider or even re-think all this infrastructure, given how much things have changed since even 2017.

Should there be new housing around the station entrances, for instance? Might there be provisions made for electrical vehicle recharging stations near the entrances to the expressway?

How can e-scooters and the like be accommodated? And, just maybe, there could be serious talk about extending the line farther west.

All that can be all hashed out.

But at a time when the region is faced with many competing transportation priorities, it’s important to make sure rejuvenating the Ike is high on that list.

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