Rebuilding I-290 could boost economy, reduce travel times and improve safety, new report says

The report, scheduled to be released Tuesday morning and shared exclusively in advance with the Chicago Sun-Times, said rebuilding the road, bridges over it and CTA Blue Line could create 22,000 jobs and reduce congestion by 56%.

SHARE Rebuilding I-290 could boost economy, reduce travel times and improve safety, new report says

The Eisenhower Expressway, I-290, seen from the overpass at South Leavitt Street on the West Side.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As a group of politicians and union leaders push to speed up a multi-billion dollar project to expand and rebuild the Eisenhower Expressway, a new report found the proposed improvements to I-290 could have more economic impacts and improve equity and traffic issues for the region than any comparable project.

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute’s report, which comes just days after the passage of a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, detailed I-290’s current infrastructure needs and examined the safety concerns, congestion problems and economic impact project.

The report, scheduled to be released Tuesday morning and shared exclusively in advance with the Chicago Sun-Times, determined the interstate’s existing design is outdated and in dire need of improvements.

Nearly 90% of the 44 bridges on the 13-mile stretch of the expressway between I-94 and the I-88/294 interchange are considered “functionally obsolete” and 34% are “structurally deficient,” the report found. Ninety-percent of the underlying pavement and foundation below it are more than half-century old.

“There have been a lot of bandaids that have been done to try to fix it, try to make it better. But of course, it’s not longstanding, it’s not going to improve the highway in the long run,” said Mary Tyler, the institute’s transportation director.

Narrow sidewalks and a lack of pedestrian signals and pavement markers on the bridges raise safety and accessibility concerns, which would be addressed with this project, Tyler said.

The expressway also had a higher crash rate — averaging 4.3 fatal crashes each year from 2010 through 2019 — than comparable roadways, the report found.

“The road actually reduces from four lanes to three lanes and then goes back to four lanes and, like, if you look at the traffic flow for such a major interstate as you’re coming right into the city of Chicago, it’s crazy,” said Tyler, who noted the lane reduction causes severe congestion. “You can just see a lot of these operational issues.”

The proposed plan is to fully reconstruct I-290 from Mannheim Road to Austin Boulevard, including the mainline roadway, ramps and bridges, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Interchanges at Harlem, First, Laramie, Cicero and 25th avenues and Austin Boulevard will also be improved.

The project also includes adding a lane in each direction between 25th and Austin and creating wider sidewalks, pedestrian plazas and better lighting among other improvements.

The CTA Blue Line project, which is inherently tied to the expressway reconstruction, is expected to modernize the entire Forest Park line, from UIC-Halsted to Forest Park and six substations. All stations will be made ADA accessible and add auxiliary entrances to stations with only one entrance.

The report concluded that the project could create 22,000 jobs, with an average annual salary of $80,000. The interstate improvements would also reduce traffic congestion up to 56% and dramatically expand access to and from downtown and the West Side.

Tyler called the project “unique” and noted it’s a generational investment in equity and the economy.

“You’re not just paving the road and fixing the bridges you’re adding that lane and giving it express bus access for transit, you’re improving nearby pedestrian facilities ... you’re promoting carpooling with it,” she said. “This is what the corridors of ... the future — what we hope every highway would have in a major metropolitan area.”

In 2017, a state-funded study estimated that improving the expressway and modernizing the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line would cost about $3.3 billion. However, the project has been stalled due to a lack of funding. 

Illinois House Speak Emanuel “Chris” Welch and Senate President Don Harmon are slated to join the Rebuild 290 Coalition at a news conference Tuesday to call for federal funds to go toward the project.

“Not only is this interstate among the most congested in our nation today, but when it was constructed there was little regard for the lives and livelihoods of many people in our state,” Welch said in a written statement. “We must modernize this regional transportation hub and promote economic development. But more importantly, we must do it the right way by reconnecting our communities and repairing the racial inequities and displacement caused by the original construction.” 

Both legislative chambers passed Senate Joint Resolution 31 this summer, which requested federal support to expedite engineering and construction. Now, the bipartisan infrastructure bill is expected to give Illinois $17 billion to fund projects, with the prospects of billions more from competitive grants.

Harmon called the passage of the infrastructure bill a “tremendous step forward” and hopes some of the money will go toward the I-290 project.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconnect communities, repair injuries and displacement, and make a difference,” Harmon said in a written statement.

An IDOT spokesperson said the department, under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s leadership, is prepared to oversee historic investments through the Rebuild Illinois capital program. 

“With the prospect of additional federal funds, Illinois is poised to capitalize on that success and continue creating jobs and economic opportunity while building a 21st century transportation system that’s truly safe, reliable and equitable for Illinois businesses, travelers and residents,” the statement said. 

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