An almost half-billion-dollar reconstruction plan aimed at untangling the Circle Interchange in Chicago, one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the U.S., is being modified again to lessen the adverse impacts on nearby West Loop residents, Greektown businesses and the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, officials plan to announce this week.
The changes include realigning two proposed highway ramps, building more noise walls along the corridor and implementing safeguards that would halt construction if vibration-related structural damage were to threaten buildings in the area.
The refinements, as engineers with the Illinois Department of Transportation describe the changes, come in the wake of a buzz saw of public criticism that IDOT hadn't solicited feedback from affected stakeholders. The anger peaked when a slightly reworked version of the original design was unveiled to the public in April. The complaints from residents, business owners and aldermen quickly reached Gov. Pat Quinn, who ordered IDOT to rethink some elements of the Circle reconstruction, officials said.
"Since the first public hearing on April 3, we have held a number of meetings with the community to come up with a more solidified design and improve the aesthetics of the whole area,'' said Steve Schilke, IDOT project manager.
The Circle, so named because of its curving ramps, is the half-century-old junction where the Eisenhower, Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways meet, along with Congress Parkway, west of the Loop. Built starting in the late 1950s, the Circle has been rated by the federal government as the slowest, most congested highway freight bottleneck in the U.S.
The Circle accommodates more than 400,000 vehicles daily, including about 33,000 trucks, according to IDOT. The outmoded design contributes to sudden lane changes and weaving patterns that cause an average of three crashes each day at the congested junction, traffic data show.
The overhaul of bridges over the Eisenhower (I-290) is to commence this year, starting with the Morgan Street viaduct, to mark the preliminary start of the $420 million, approximately four-year reconstruction, which carries an additional $55 million price tag for design and engineering, IDOT said. The $475 million cost has been programmed into IDOT's 2014-2019 highway program.
Mock-ups of the new-and-improved final redesign, as well as the required environmental assessment for the project, will be available for the public to comment on at a hearing Thursday. Details about the open house-style hearing are at the bottom of this column.
One change involves rejiggering design blueprints a second time to further increase the distance of a highway elevated ramp that originally would have arched within 71/2 feet of the windows of a residential loft condominium overlooking the Eisenhower.
In the first revision that IDOT offered in April, the back of the retaining wall for the ramp from the northbound Ryan to the westbound Eisenhower would have come within 19.89 feet of the Green Street Lofts, 400 S. Green St., in the Greektown neighborhood.
Under the plan that will be presented Thursday, IDOT proposes to increase the spacing to 26.1 feet, install a sound-abatement wall, landscape the area between the wall and the lofts and provide equipment to monitor vibration, officials said.
"We were able to continue to refine the geometry of the ramp,'' Schilke said. He said IDOT obtained a design-exception variance from the Federal Highway Administration to move the ramp and narrow its shoulder. No further changes are anticipated, he said.
The new tweaks were presented late last week to Green Street Lofts residents, who in April rejected the first modification as "ridiculous'' and the original plan as "insane.'' They reluctantly agreed to the latest proposal.
"We are still opposed to the whole flyover (ramp) concept. Nobody wants it, and it doesn't seem to add a whole lot to IDOT's grand master plan of alleviating congestion,'' said David Lewis, condo board president of the Green Street Lofts.
"But they have sweetened the pot a little bit for us after we garnered enough attention to be a thorn in IDOT's side. If they deliver what they now promise, we are satisfied with the result to protect our building. Happy? No. Satisfied? OK.''
At least six more sound-abatement walls will be built along the Circle Interchange corridor to help dampen traffic noise, IDOT's refined design drawings show. In addition to the loft building, the walls are slated for the school playground behind St. Patrick's Church and adjacent to the UIC campus, Schilke said.
Vibration monitors will also be installed in the basements of up to 29 buildings to provide warnings about the potential threat of structural damage during the massive Circle project, officials said. Baseline readings will be taken before construction, as well as measurements during and after construction, Schilke said.
"This vibration monitoring was successfully used during the Wacker Drive reconstruction project to measure the drilling impacts,'' Schilke said. "The thresholds for the monitoring devices to issue warnings are set well below what would be perceived as getting to the point of possible damage to buildings. Should those warnings alarm, the contractor must stop work and re-evaluate their means and methods.''
Another major change involves a new ramp design to improve aesthetics as well as traffic movements around UIC, officials said. The new alignment will start in the Halsted Street area and funnel traffic from the inbound Eisenhower to the Ryan (I-90/94). Eisenhower traffic will have the option of exiting at both Taylor Street and Roosevelt Road, instead of only at Taylor under the original plan, officials said.
In addition, enhancements will be made to widen the pedestrian corridor along Peoria Street near the CTA Blue Line Halsted stop at the UIC campus, officials said.
For drivers, key features of the Circle redesign include a two-lane elevated ramp from the northbound Ryan to the westbound Eisenhower; expanding the Ryan and Kennedy from three lanes to four lanes in each direction through the Circle to ease bottlenecks; and also doubling to two lanes the eastbound I-290 ramp to northbound I-90/94.
IDOT projects at least a 50 percent reduction in traffic delays on the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Ryan after the Circle work is completed, although some independent transportation experts have expressed doubts.
The project is one element of a comprehensive plan that one day, when funding becomes available, might include adding a lane in each direction to segments of the Eisenhower that currently have only three lanes, experimenting with high-occupancy vehicle lanes during rush periods and extending the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line to Mannheim Road and linking it to express bus service going west from Mannheim.
The public hearing on the Circle redesign is scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro hotel, 733 W. Madison St., Chicago. IDOT will accept comments on the plan and on the project's environmental assessment, which is posted atcircleinterchange.org. Comments on the environmental assessment will be accepted through July 12, according to IDOT.
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