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Local officials are pleased with 294 expansion agreement

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

The Illinois Tollway Board of Directors last Thursday agreed to move forward with plans for a $4 billion rebuilding project on the Central Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 294) between Balmoral Avenue and 95th Street.

It was all good news to people like Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar, who sat on the Central Tri-State Tollway Planning Council last year, as did Justice Mayor Kris Wasowicz.

“The two things we thought were the most important were improving traffic flow on I-294, and ingress and egress to the expressway, and those are on top of this project,” Tolar said.

He said the 95th Street entrance and exit ramps west of Harlem Avenue “are convoluted, the way it was set up. It is like a zoo there, whether you are getting on or off the expressway.”

He added that “even the mile-long bridge is bad” over the UPS facility near Willow Springs.

The stated goal is to increase capacity, reduce congestion and improve travel reliability on the 22-mile stretch of roadway. The Board also agreed to expand the Tollway’s Move Illinois Program commitment to more than $14 billion in spending over 15 years, without requiring an increase in toll rates.

Plans call for building additional lanes, including integrating a Flex Lane through the full length of the corridor, which is a wide inside shoulder with access controlled through the use of SmartRoad technology. Additional noisewalls, aesthetics and quality-of-life improvements such as local park enhancements, tree plantings and bike and pedestrian connections are also to be considered.

Tokar said members of his committee asked about possibly moving or adding interchanges at 103rd, 105th or 107th Street, which are all going to be under review by engineers in the next couple of years.

“I think it is encouraging and gratifying for the Tollway Board to be in favor of increasing the scope of the project. Instead of just looking ahead 20 years, they are looking to have it be 40 or 50 years,” said Tokar.

He noted that the Hinsdale and O’Hare oases will likely have to be removed, due to the planned widening of the expressway to six lanes in each direction. “The planners of those didn’t think far enough ahead,” he said, adding that Illinois is one of only a few states with overhead oases.

“Anything that improves traffic flow on 294 is going to help the economic conditions in the south and southwest suburbs,” said Jim Sweeney, a director on the Tollway Board and president and business manager of Operating Engineers Local 150.

According to the Tollway Board, I-294 connects four other interstates, I-80, I-55, I-290, I-88, and I-90, with the new I-490 Tollway being built as part of the Elgin O’Hare Western Access Project set to become the sixth interstate connection. It also provides connections to both O’Hare and Midway airports, and plays an important role in Chicago’s freight economy, which supports more than 176,000 jobs and generates $12.3 billion in personal income.

“All of the ramps are going to be improved. There are some real bottlenecks,” said Sweeney, citing the interchanges between Interstates 294 and 290 specifically, as well as those at 95th Street and Interstate 55.

“This will increase capacity, reduce congestion and improve travel reliability,” said Sweeney, noting that the Tollway system opened in 1958, “when Eisenhower was president.”

“There will be no increase in tolls. We will be able to do it with our present revenue capacity,” said Sweeney.

He said the cost of the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway construction project came in under budget, so some of that money will go for the 294 improvements. Other revenue will be generated from “chasing derelict consumers,” delinquent in paying tolls.

Sweeney said that for every billion dollars spent, 35,000 jobs will be generated, including many permanent jobs as well as construction jobs.

The Tollway’s analysis estimates improvements will reduce stop-and-go traffic and delays and result in significant reductions in peak travel times, including a 55 percent reduction in time it would take to drive the full length of the Tollway.

“It is desperately needed,” said Sweeney. “This is one of those rare things that really is a win-win for everybody.”

Project information along with the recent public presentations held in Justice and elsewhere are available online at illinoistollway.com/outreach.