IDOT pitches plans to rethink downtown Chicago's highway hub
Drawing a new circle
09/05/2012 10:00 PM
In the neighborhoods around the Loop, whether you’re north, south or west, there’s one constant: Traffic.
Commuters from other parts of the city, suburbs and other states continuously drive through, trying to get to downtown for work or play.
But the hub of all the far-flung roads that bring people to Chicago is the Circle Interchange, the mish-mash of highways that sits between the West Loop, South Loop and University Village. It’s where I-90/94 and I-290 meet, and by anyone’s measure, it’s a mess.
Crashes pile up as massive numbers of cars squeeze through the overburdened junction of the Kennedy, Dan Ryan and Eisenhower expressways; 1,100 crashes a year and 300,000 cars a day, to be precise.
So when officials realized the time was coming to rehab the ramp decks on the 60-year-old twisting, turning interchange for the first time, they decided they should make it work better in the process, too.
As a result, the state is pitching a makeover for the Circle Interchange, increasing the flow of traffic through the interchange and from one highway to another. The final product could cost $375 million, officials say.
“These ramps are safe, but we know we’ll probably need a new deck in the next eight to 10 years,” said Steve Schilke, the Illinois Department of Transportation’s project manager for the Circle Interchange proposal. “If I’m going to need a new deck, I should probably make this project meaningful.”
At a public meeting last week, IDOT presented five plans for fixing up the Circle Interchange, with ideas that could be mixed and thrown together any number of ways. All the proposals add lanes on every ramp throughout the hub, as well as on the main line of the Dan Ryan.
One of the biggest problems they’re aiming to fix with the project is the ramp from the northbound Dan Ryan to the westbound Eisenhower, a queue that’s perpetually clogged with drivers who abuse lanes intended to take cars to eastbound Congress Parkway, but who instead cut over to the Eisenhower lanes at the last second.
IDOT’s solution in every one of their plans was to separate the ramp going to the Eisenhower entirely from the Congress ramp, in some cases forcing drivers to split off from the Dan Ryan south of Roosevelt Road, while Congress-bound cars exit much further north.
Beyond that, one of the main questions is, simply, how tall will the new Circle Interchange be?
Right now, the interchange is two levels tall, which contributes to its unique weaving, circular ramps. But those circular ramps aren’t great for helping traffic move quickly and efficiently, which is why cars frequently back up on them.
So, some of IDOT’s proposals add a third and even fourth level to the interchange, digging a tunnel below ground to transport traffic from the eastbound Eisenhower to the northbound Kennedy. Another proposal calls for a third-level flyover ramp from the northbound Dan Ryan to the westbound Eisenhower.
Adding more levels is more expensive, of course, but giving a ramp its own level allows it to curve more directly from one highway to another by avoiding other pieces of the interchange. Also — and perhaps most importantly for the drivers hoping to keep moving in the coming years — it would mean that more of the existing interchange could stay open during construction.
As for the communities built immediately around the highway, IDOT has said the Circle Interchange upgrade should stay entirely within the current right-of-way, and they’re hoping to finish the entire project without buying any property or demolishing any buildings.
They’ve specifically identified a number of structures around the interchange they don’t want to disturb: the CTA Blue Line station at Halsted, pumping stations to the south and northeast of the interchange and the Haberdasher Square Lofts further northeast.
There is one change that could affect the West Loop: IDOT planners see the Morgan Street exit from the westbound Eisenhower as a big problem. Despite the fact that traffic zooming westward from Congress is forbidden from exiting at Morgan, cars still cut across multiple lanes of traffic to make the exit. With little room to make an exit easier, planners are considering putting a hard barrier between the exit and the highway to keep cars from cutting across multiple lanes.
With the discussion of more levels being added to the highway as well, there’s a good chance that bridges connecting the streets around the interchange might need to be replaced as well. Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison and Halsted could be in for a rebuild, too, and the interchange’s new, higher ramps could soar above them as well.
Dennis O’Neill, head of the neighborhood group Connecting4Communities that represents University Village and Little Italy, said there’s no doubt the reconstruction will disrupt the surrounding community. Nevertheless, the project is clearly needed and IDOT is giving locals a good chance to provide input, he said.
“It’s necessary — the interchange is in pretty poor condition. Anyone who ever traveled it can tell you that. It’s old. The pedestrian thoroughfares, especially on the north-south streets, are foreboding,” he said. “It’s really a once-in a lifetime opportunity for our community.”
One of five plans for the Circle Interchange’s makeover would turn it into a four level structure — twice as many as it currently has.
Illinois Department of Transportation