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Use $2.7B from federal infrastructure bill to rebuild the Eisenhower Expy., officials say

Local and state leaders gathered Tuesday to build momentum for a rebuild of the headache highway.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon flanked by a a coalition of state and local leaders Tuesday calling for the rebuilding of the Eisenhower Expressway.
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon flanked by a a coalition of state and local leaders Tuesday calling for the rebuilding of the Eisenhower Expressway.
Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

State and local leaders from the western suburbs called for money from the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed Congress over the weekend to be used to rebuild a 13-mile segment of the Eisenhower Expressway.

As if for effect, Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch showed up late to a news conference Tuesday morning that was held adjacent to the expressway and blamed his tardiness on the congested Eisenhower.

“I apologize for being late, but I live in Hillside and I got stopped by the Hillside strangler,” he said, referring to a chokepoint on the expressway that runs through his hometown.

The proposed $2.7 billion project would rebuild the Eisenhower from Racine Avenue in Chicago to Wolf Road in west suburban Hillside.

It would create 22,000 jobs, each paying on average $80,000 a year, and reduce travel times by 25% to 56%, according to Mary Tyler, a transportation researcher with the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization that provides analysis on highway projects.

The organization released a report on the proposed project Tuesday.

“Overall this project is creating a modern transportation corridor, 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.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, which ultimately would sign off on any such project, said it was too early to speculate on specific projects that money from the infrastructure bill would fund.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, who is from Oak Park, called Congress’ passage of the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill over the weekend, which is awaiting a signature from President Joe Biden, a “tremendous step forward” for the Eisenhower project.

The new infrastructure bill will pour $17 billion into Illinois, including $9.8 billion for highway projects and $1.4 billion for bridge replacement and repairs, with the prospects of billions more from competitive grants.

The Eisenhower is one of the most congested highways in the country, Harmon said.

“We stand united here today in calling others to join in making this project a priority. This becomes a reality if and only if federal transportation officials join with state and local leaders in providing resources,” Harmon said.

“We’re certainly hopeful that the federal infrastructure investment will allow us to fast track this,” he said, noting that the fixes have long been an unfunded item on IDOT’s wish list.

“It’s been on their agenda for a decade-plus,” he said.

A spokeswoman from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office told the Sun-Times that IDOT did preliminary engineering and environmental studies for an Eisenhower reconstruction project in 2017.

The governor has signaled his support for the project.

The federal money will flow from the Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration to IDOT with the breakdown of how much is formula money — that is coming to the state automatically — and how much comes from grants for projects not yet determined, a FHA official told the Sun-Times.

The official said IDOT “would decide whether highway money is spent on the Eisenhower Expressway, unless a discretionary grant is applied for under an eligible program. In that case, the U.S. Department of Transportation would decide on the award selection.”

Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said Chicago’s economy depends on infrastructure.

“It’s the underpinning of good-paying working-class jobs here in Chicago,” he said. “If anybody’s got a backhoe or a grinder, I’ll run out there right now and grab a couple of apprentices and we’ll get to work. ... Let’s do it now, let’s do it quickly, let’s send the money here to Chicago.”

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