(WGN-AM)- Drivers accelerating down the left-side entrance ramps to the Kennedy Expressway in downtown Chicago must often throw the dice -- and perhaps mumble a quick prayer or profanity -- while attempting to merge, squeeze, plead or fight their way into highway traffic.
Hundreds of collisions result each year at the "suicide merges" along the Kennedy, the second-busiest expressway in the Chicago region. (The Dan Ryan Expressway ranks No. 1.)
Work is set to begin Monday toward rebuilding six notoriously dangerous center-access entrance ramps to the Kennedy. And that inevitably will cause a whole different kind of mess: a months-long traffic nightmare at a crucial choke point for Chicago's highway system.
The first phase of work, aimed at improving traffic flow and reducing crashes on the Kennedy ( Interstate Highway 90/94) near the Hubbard's Cave tunnel, focuses on realigning three exit ramps. The change is intended to allow for more gradual maneuvering off the expressway and to discourage drivers from aggressively weaving across lanes and causing rear-end or side-swipe collisions, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.
"Hubbard's Cave is an area where we see fender-benders every day," said IDOT spokeswoman Marisa Kollias.
After the exit ramps are overhauled, crews will start rebuilding the entrance ramps in September to improve the lines of sight and lengthen the acceleration lanes, IDOT officials said.
When the construction dust settles in November, reconfigured and more motorist-friendly entrance ramps to the Kennedy will open eastbound at Lake, Randolph and Madison Streets; and westbound at Madison and Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard, IDOT officials said.
The earthen remnants of the Kennedy entrance ramps at Washington Boulevard and Monroe Street, which were closed in 2005 and 2006, respectively, will be removed to make way for longer, gentler ramp entrances at Randolph, Madison and Adams, officials said.
Drivers who today must make split-second decisions whether it is safe to merge onto the Kennedy will probably approve of improvements.
"I'm an engineer, and it blatantly baffles me how such a poor and, more seriously, how such a dangerous design could have been approved [decades ago]," said Raymond Spruit of Chicago, who drives the downtown corridor of the Kennedy each weekday.
"The public-safety aspect of the left access on-ramps is about as dangerous as playing chicken with a train," Spruit said. Drivers making the merge are "pretty much blind until you reach the end of the ramp," he said.
"If you're going 35 m.p.h., that gives you approximately one second to decide whether to merge, hit a car, slam on your brakes or crash into a cement barrier that is rapidly approaching you because half of an old 'ramp to nowhere' is sitting in front of you," Spruit said.
Unfortunately, the newly redesigned entrance ramps will still be in the center median of the expressway, requiring drivers to merge into the fastest lane of traffic from the left side of the expressway.
There just isn't sufficient available land, officials said, to build entrances on the right-hand side of the highway, which was originally named the Northwest Expressway and completed in 1960 to provide a direct route from the Congress Expressway (now the Eisenhower) to O'Hare International Airport.
Starting in the 1980s, Chicago and state transportation officials had studied whether to close up to a half-dozen center-access entrance ramps to stem the accidents. But the plan was dropped in the face of stiff opposition from nearby business owners and residents who feared a loss of traffic in Greektown and other neighborhoods.
The roughly mile-long downtown stretch of the Kennedy contains 17 ramps. In June, daily traffic counts on the Kennedy at Randolph totaled more than 260,000 vehicles in both directions, according to IDOT.
Congestion is most severe in the area of Hubbard's Cave to the Eisenhower Expressway ( Interstate Highway 290) Circle Interchange. Traffic is backed up for hours each day, and drivers entering the stop-and-go zone often fail to step on the brakes in time for the sudden stops.
The first phase of the project, beginning this week, centers on reconstructing the exit ramps at Jackson, Adams and Monroe Street on the eastbound Kennedy. Those ramps closed June 15 and are scheduled to reopen in September with longer stretches for drivers to maneuver their way to the exits, as well as use a new through-lane for vehicles traveling from the Kennedy to the Eisenhower, officials said.
The existing separate exit ramps at Adams and Jackson will be replaced by a single ramp, which would then split into individual exits at each street, said Anthony Albert, a senior engineering associate at TranSystems. In his role as consultant to IDOT, Albert is the resident engineer for the Kennedy ramp project.
Taking alternative routes or switching to mass transit will be the best bet to avoid delays, especially as the Kennedy project progresses and temporary lane closings are introduced, officials said.
In the initial phase of work, traffic to the Loop will be detoured to Madison and other open ramps.
When construction starts later this summer to realign the center entrance ramps, one lane of the Kennedy will be closed in each direction between Van Buren and Lake Street.
Read more from the Chicago Tribune's Jon Hilkevitch at Getting Around.
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Work On Dangerous Kennedy Ramps To Begin Monday
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