IDOT Presents Final Plans for Circle Interchange

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"Community divided by flyover."

The Illinois Department of Transportation showed final plans for the Circle Interchange expansion last Thursday at the last public meeting about the project. You now have a week and a half to tell IDOT your thoughts on the record before the public comment period ends July 12 (see how below).

Since the last public meeting, IDOT has made changes to the option it wants to build, including increasing the distance of a highway ramp from people’s homes and adding green space at the corner of Van Buren and Halsted Streets, but the Circle Interchange project remains an expensive and unnecessary highway expansion that hijacked the regional planning process.

The danger of expanding highways

John Norquist speaking out against highway expansion
John Norquist addresses residents.

IDOT justifies the  Circle Interchange project by saying that adding traffic lanes will improve regional mobility at the nation’s most congested interchange for freight traffic. But only 8.25 percent of the traffic here is freight (33,000 out of 400,000 vehicles daily) and adding highway lanes without tolling them will encourage more driving. Truckers will be stuck in the same mess and so will taxpayers. Meanwhile, 1,000 transit trips will switch to car trips, according to an analysis by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Before the meeting, a group of 15 residents opposed to the project gathered at the southern Greektown gateway to hear Congress for New Urbanism president and former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist describe how Detroit solved its congestion problem (“by building freeway after freeway”) but created a people problem — a city with dwindling population,  disconnected neighborhoods, and overburdened public budgets.

Changes to the project

IDOT made changes to the “preferred alternative,” Alternative 7.1C, to move the Halsted flyover further away from the residence at 400 S Green Street, where residents fear the noise and foundation-damaging vibrations. The building’s face will now be 26 feet away from the highway (instead of 7 feet) and its 23-foot tall noise wall.

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Rendering showing the wall in front of 400 S Green Street.

I asked resident Arlene Manelli if she would prefer keeping the view over the highway (which is currently sunken) but having the new flyover in view, or the wall that will block views from the first two floors. “From a noise perspective, I want the wall.” She added that because of the flyover is wider and can fit more cars than the existing ramp, she expects more people to drive, and drive faster, thus making more noise.

IDOT also presented new designs for the grade change where the Peoria Street bridge meets the roadway in front of the UIC urban planning college. There were nine options proposed, all of which eliminate parking from the bridge and push the CTA headhouse back to create a wider pedestrian area, which was originally presented in the Peoria Street Pedestrian Street proposal. Like that proposal, some of the options create a nearly-single grade roadway for a more pedestrian-focused street. This is one area where all IDOT’s talk about “enhancing the community” actually makes some sense.

Speaking of which, many of IDOT’s marketing materials — the newsletter, postcard, and presentation video — referred to how the Circle Interchange will “enhance the community.” Here’s what the video narration said: “Well-designed flyovers won’t divide communities,” and “this creates a gateway to Greektown, connecting communities.” How? With wider sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping, decorative fencing and handrails, and aesthetically-pleasing lightbulbs. The actual flyover — which will impose a 32-foot wide concrete structure overhead — has nothing to do with connectivity or community enhancement.

The plan for bike lanes on Halsted between Van Buren and Harrison Street keeps changing. Halsted Street currently provides a northbound bike lane. At one point one of the two northbound travel lanes was removed to make room for buffered bike lanes, but now the plan calls for two curbside bike lanes without buffers. Mike Eichten, a project consultant with AECOM, said that these bike lanes are still under negotiation.

Meanwhile, the only transit improvement in the project remains a covered mid-block pedestrian crossing for CTA riders transferring to and from buses and trains.

Dubious safety claims

IDOT has also stressed “safety” as a reason to rebuild and expand the Circle Interchange. But how many people are actually getting hurt with with current design, and is this project a smart way to reduce injuries and deaths? IDOT’s Environmental Assessment report says a “review of the crash data and patterns collectively” indicates “a need for improvement to the existing facility,” meaning to widen segments of the interchange. Measuring injuries is the best way to understand danger and risk, yet all of IDOT poster boards focused purely on the number of crashes, not injuries. With “940 crashes” per year shoved in your face, you may think that the Circle Interchange is quite unsafe. But a large majority of crashes involve no injuries.

The most common crash type for the reported period of 2006-2008 in the surveyed location (which included through lanes, Circle Interchange ramps, and the on and off ramps) was “rear end” — 56.8 percent of all crashes. In that period, 89.9 percent of crashes resulted in no injury, while 1.31 percent of crashes resulted in “incapacitating injuries” or fatalities. All told, there were eight deaths. Of those fatalities, five occurred in a single crash caused by a speeding, 29-year old driver going the wrong way at 2 a.m. near Racine Avenue.

Keep in mind, over that same period, 140 pedestrians died in Chicago car crashes. But we don’t see $475 million from IDOT to prevent future pedestrian deaths.

Ultimately, IDOT is only accountable to Governor Quinn’s office, and, to a lesser extent, the Federal Highway Administration — not to people who will have to live, work, and travel around the project.

Comments about the environmental assessment (EA) are being accepted through July 12, 2013. You can leave a comment (to go on public record) at the contact form on the project’s website, or email project manager Steve Schilke.

  • CL

    Since most of the crashes were rear-end crashes with no injuries, I imagine they were caused by people crawling through bumper-to-bumper traffic, getting distracted, and hitting the car in front of them at a very low speed. People often look at their phones while they’re driving in very slow traffic, and it leads to this type of accident.

    It’s hard to have a dangerous collision when you’re stuck in excruciatingly slow traffic — but very easy to have these little accidents since people don’t pay attention.

  • Ryan Lakes

    Excellent article! Thanks for covering this so closely, Steven. I love that John Norquist spoke at a protest rally for this.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the Peoria Street ‘community enhancements’ are largely a result of the fact that for the new 90/94 N to 290 W flyover to work, that bridge has to be demolished and rebuilt, and so UIC was likely directly involved.

  • Anonymous

    You rock, Norquist!

    How about weighing-in on the project that is actually driving IDOT’s desire to “improve” the Circle Interchange – the proposed I-290 expansion boondoggle?

    The reason the Circle got expedited was because of the need to correct one of the many procedural deficiencies with the I-290 study – the absence of both logical project termini and independent utility.

    Fast-tracking the Circle does not make the I-290 project any more valuable, though – it is still a dog of a project that relies upon an outdated understanding of urban transportation needs and uses flawed analysis to artificially prop-up the preferred solution as the “best performing” alternative.

    They want to add a lane between roughly Mannheim and Austin and take one away between Austin and Ashland in order to construct a HOT lane. They claim all sorts of inflated benefits and make ridiculously incredulous findings that transit ridership would *decline* if we make significant transit investment, e.g., extending the CTA Blue Line to Mannheim and connecting it to new BRT service running between the three largest suburban employment centers, i.e., Naperville, Oak Brook, and Schaumburg areas.

  • Fred

    Out of curiosity, what is the bare minimum project that needs to happen? I know only one bridge on the interchange is considered ‘deficient’ and needs to be replaced. If there were a project that only demolished that bridge and rebuilt it to modern standards, what would that cost? Or is it not possible to do that given the space constraints?

  • Anonymous

    Also, IDOT also had problems figuring which crashes were actually attributable to the Circle. Ask them how many – if any – they removed from the data provided to them, which they new to contain confounded stats due to the fact that there’s a crash investigation site near the Circle. Crash location is often attributed to the investigation site, i.e., the Circle, when the crash didn’t actually occur there.

  • Common Sense

    To quote former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, “Building more roads to alleviate congestion is like loosening your belt to alleviate obesity.”

    And, the data proves it:

    http://usa.streetsblog.org/2011/05/31/study-building-roads-to-cure-congestion-is-an-exercise-in-futility/

  • This was only an issue when the crashes happened on the main lines between Harrison Street and Roosevelt Road. (The crash investigation site is between Harrison Street and Taylor Street; it’d be under the Polk Street bridge if that existed.)

    This also highlights another shortcoming of the crash data collection process.

  • An extremely small percentage of crashes occurred either on (1) on/off ramps, and (2) ramps within the Circle. The great majority of crashes were on the main lines, during the day, on dry pavement, in lighted/daylight conditions.

  • He said this at the gathering.

  • This alternative was not considered.

    For those interested, there is only one ramp here that is considered structurally deficient: I-290 Westbound to I-90/94 Northbound. Data from Transportation 4 America.

  • Anonymous

    They can always rebuild what is there without altering the configuration. That is what they should do, not expand it.

  • Steve Schlickman, director of the UIC Urban Transportation Center (inside the urban planning college building on Peoria Street) spoke at the “public forum” officially representing UIC. He thanked IDOT for their close cooperation with the university.

    Of the 9 options, 4 of them go beyond just stairs and ramps and redesign the street to reduce automobile access and increase pedestrian and bicycle mobility.

    Photos of those 9 options:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/sets/72157634453813864/with/9193716269/

  • Anonymous

    When I wrote the Circle, I meant the defined Circle project area, including mainlines – didn’t mean the ramps, themselves, though I did not make that clear.

  • Anonymous

    And the limitations in what conclusions the data can be used to support . . .

  • Anonymous

    Yep, it does. Finally we agree! :)

  • Fred

    It needs to be built to modern safety standards. I don’t mean in terms of expansion, just in terms of if the exact same bridge were being built today, how would it be built.

    If you were redoing electrical in an old house, you wouldn’t wouldn’t put new knob-and-tube wiring in because that is what was there.

  • Ryan Lakes

    9 options!? I think any increase in the Peoria Street bridge height should be considered unacceptable by UIC and the community, since it will make the challenge of connecting the campus to the West Loop more difficult. ..And, rumor has it that the only reason that this 90/94 N to 290 W fly-over is deemed necessary is a construction phasing/temporary traffic detouring issue. Were this off-ramp to instead stay under Halstead, I think everyone would be happier.

  • Anonymous

    They have to consider reasonable alternatives, including doing nothing. Reconstructing as-is sounds like a reasonable alternative that they should have considered. Decreasing volume into the interchange using pricing and transit could also overcome safety and capacity constraint arguments – especially given their ongoing work sharing a border with the Circle project area. Yes, they’re really one project, not two.

    It is up to stakeholders to hold their feet to the fire in requiring then to [properly] examine reasonable alternatives to the proposed action. If they have omitted a reasonable alternative, let them know they are required to examine it or explain why it is not reasonable. They’ll go to the project purpose, so know what that is and whether it is any good or not – may need work there, too.

    Also, the Environmental Assessment includes a very important finding: Whether a more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement is required or not.

  • Anonymous

    It can be built just like it is – legally and technically. There are “exceptions” all across the region, state, and nation to the Green Book that isn’t so green.

    If IDOT adhered to all the witch doctor prescriptions contained in the Green Book, they would run out of money and political capital in a hurry. Highways in built-out urban areas simply can’t comply with greenfield new construction standards. Thus, it is really a question of what they think they can get away with – politically and financially.

    Adding capacity is not necessary to build to modern standards. If you want safety, get people out of their cars, not try to make them go faster on ramps feeding an Intestate highway designed for 1/2 the capacity it is carrying (according to ASHTO).

    Modern standards? C’mon.

    The global standard for “modern transportation” is not adding road capacity, it is building and maintaining affordable, reliable, and efficient alternatives to driving. Using you old home analogy, we used to heat our homes using only firewood. Not too many do that anymore.

    We shouldn’t be addressing 21st century transportation needs with 20th century investments.

  • Honestly, I can’t believe it is 2013 and projects like this are still being built. IDOT claims this will strengthen the community? Who are they fooling? Every single city with a freeway like this cutting through neighborhoods just divides them. On a trip last year to SF I noticed how connected the city felt, how easy it is to walk between neighborhoods, except near my hotel in SoMa where there is a large freeway. Same thing in Manhattan. The neighborhoods just blend together. Throw in a freeway though and there is a divide instantly. Here in Chicago, in New York, even European cities with freeways, it can never do anything good for a neighborhood.
    I wrote a comment both times they had comments open (CMAP and now IDOT) and I just don’t know if it’s going to do anything… I am so adamantly opposed to this project and this huge waste of money.

  • Option 6-9 use a nice sloping ramp, great for bicycling and rolling up/down, while options 1-5 focus on ugly staircases with ADA-compliant ramps.

    The raising of Peoria Street is required because of the flyover over Halsted – that is correct. IDOT has said that the preferred alternative takes less time to build than a ramp going under Halsted.

  • I didn’t finish reading the EA or alternatives analysis to see what how their analysis of the “no build” compared with CMAP’s analysis.

    Does IDOT use consistent measures of evaluation across all of its projects?

  • New York City’s study on the Sheridan Expressway suggests turning it into a surface road, and now it’s up to the New York State DOT to do it. Or not do it.

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2013/06/26/city-recommends-replacing-sheridan-with-surface-road-focus-back-on-state/

  • Ryan Lakes

    One danger with the nicely sloping, bicycling friendly ramp, is that as you stretch it out northward to make the grade change more gradual, you start burying the southeast portion of CUPPA.

  • Anonymous

    The most significant issue is in how the problem gets defined. That definition forms the basis for everything that comes after it. The metrics, the alternatives, and the decisions that screen out competing alternatives early in the process because they are not responsive to the need, as defined by IDOT. That is like the fox designing security for the chicken coop.

    In any case, IDOT (and CMAP, unfortunately) have failed to adequately emphasize that the greatest transportation problem our region has is the absence of alternatives to driving. Our award-winning regional comprehensive plan was really well-done and was informed by a solid public engagement process; however, the most significant implementation component of the plan, the major capital investment component, was a failure. It is biased toward highway improvements. The modeling being done supports highway investments, not transit and alternative transportation investments – both at IDOT and CMAP.

    The modeling CMAP is doing in coordination with IDOT on I-290 seems to mirror IDOT work, which is really quite odd. How can they both find that major investment in transit produces less transit ridership (and even causes a loss of transit ridership) when compared to a highway add-a-lane, and that transit ridership declines over time no matter what we do? Maybe CMAP is working a little too closely with IDOT, or I guess it could also be that investing in transit and alternative modes of transportation really is as bad of a strategy as they both claim. Maybe there’s an entirely different explanation. I can’t tell what the reason is.

    In fact, it seems that nobody on the outside of the room where the modeling is done can tell because neither CMAP nor IDOT are inclined to explain counter-intuitive findings arising from their modeling runs. Both simply offer the black box explanation, e.g., “There’s a lot going on in the model” with a shrug of the shoulders from IDOT, and “Well, that ‘s the result the model provided” from CMAP. Well, gee wizz, I guess we all have to simply accept whatever the model says . . . without understanding how or why it generated such incredulous results. Maybe you can figure that one out.

    In one instance, and in response to heightened criticism over counter-intuitive model results being used to advance approval of GoTo2040, CMAP simply did a different run that produced dramatically different transit performance than that which they were trying to stand behind prior to that point while resisting addressing public comment calling out the issue. they never explained what happened in the model when it had obviously derailed, nor did they explain what was done to place it back on track, at least as far as anyone could tell at the time. Now, a few years later, it is the same problem again with the same stand-offish response from both CMAP and IDOT – an ‘Oh, models will be models’ sort of response that endeavors to brush off legitimate inquiry. The model must be a sentient being, as it seems to be able to dramatically shift outputs on its own, and doing it in ways that simply don’t make sense.

    But I digress. . .

    To your question, the measures are fairly standard by design, not that there could not be more and better ones. People can engage in the process with limited success to influence which metrics are used, but IDOT has been very rigid in determining what they will do an when. They have a cookbook for success and the ingredients must be carefully measured and used in sequence. If someone adds a little hot sauce, it could derail the recipe. Thus, questions about public health, economic development, disproportionate impacts to persons nearby the highway, etc., are either dealt with at the 30,000 foot level or beyond, completely side-stepped and dismissed, or mitigated with concessions at the periphery of project design.

    As for alternatives, the no-build/do-nothing scenario is required under federal statute.

  • Ryan Lakes

    One argument that I haven’t heard used enough, is that IDOT doesn’t seem to have the money to maintain the infrastructure that is currently has, yet is planning to add even more elevated highway here which has a high maintenance cost.

    If we were to continue tearing down elevated highways, we would not only be reconnecting communities and encouraging pedestrian scaled neighborhoods/lifestyles, we would be decreasing the amount of money that we must (or should) spend each year maintaining car infrastructure.

  • Ryan Lakes

    The decrease in annual vehicle miles traveled graph!!:
    Why are we spending money to increase its capacity?!

  • Brian

    Anything that can speed traffic up is a great idea! This project will hopefully do that, and relive some of the congestion, so people who HAVE to drive to their jobs can get home and then enjoy the city, and walk, and shop, and bike.

  • How about instead of increasing capacity we make a stronger effort to discourage unnecessary car trips and facilitate alternatives? That way people who *want* to drive to work won’t be blocking the road for people who *need* to drive.

  • It’s the question of the century. IDOT is not helping the Chicago region meet its transportation needs.

  • Demand increases to meet the capacity available to it. By increasing capacity, demand increases to fill it. Any capacity gains are eventually filled up and traffic congestion goes back to where it was before.

    Nationally, did you know that only 15% of daily trips are for work purposes? The rest comprise 45% for shopping and errands, and
    27% are social and recreational, such as visiting a friend.

    The Circle Interchange, and our highways in generally, represent driving capacity being used very inefficiently. Every trip a non-freight driver takes in the area delays a freight shipment by so many seconds. If the non-tolled highways in Chicago were priced according to demand, the number of non-essential trips would be reduced, freight shipments would be delayed less often, and there would be less air pollution.

  • Lately I’ve been focusing on the costs of borrowing money in Illinois and not the cost of maintaining new and additional infrastructure.

  • Anonymous

    That would be too logical. Besides, CMAP and IDOT models say it will never work.

    The models, you know, are infinitely reliable and the results that spit out are beyond challenge. They’re pretty complex, of course. They’re validated, too. So they must be right. Surely it must be true that major investment in transit improvement and expansion would yield less new transit ridership than added highway capacity, and even cause a reduction in transit ridership in certain scenarios . . .

    Only problem, of course, is that the results often lack intuitive sense and nobody wants to take a look at why, yet they form the justification for our investment decision-making nonetheless.

  • Anonymous

    . . . and CMAP.

    They’re holding hands with one another marching down the same path. Staff representing CMAP have indicated in public meeting in no uncertain terms that it is CMAP’s expectation that I-290 and the Circle will be expanded.

    I guess that has nothing to do with counter-intuitive model outputs that both IDOT and CMAP refuse to explain, but which skew decision-making in favor of highway and, by extension, Circle Interchange, expansion.

  • CL

    Wait, it just took me almost 2 hours to get from Evanston to 85th street during rush hour, and 72% of the people in my way were shopping or socializing?? Those jerks.

    I hope in Chicago the stats are different. The best shopping is near the train, and it’s best to keep up with friends on the opposite side of the city through Facebook, just like you would if they lived in Wisconsin.

  • milgrove25

    I think IDOT should focus more on building more bike paths and better public transportation than roads. Because making roads bigger just causes more driving and more pollution and congestion. I just came back from Europe and their transportation system is more friendly towards bikes and public transportation. I think we can do the same.

  • Anonymous

    They could do a lot more more for people that must drive their cars by simply getting people that don’t have to off the road. Of course, that can’t happen if there is no alternative to driving. We need a reliable, efficient, and affordable transit network complemented with other important alternative transportation investments, including biking and walking.

    Adding more capacity is the non-solution. It doesn’t help anyone . . . except road building industry financials.

  • That’s not true, Coolebra. It also benefits the politicians who get campaign contributions from the road-building companies.

  • Nathanael

    Fakery in the definition of the “need” and the “scope” is how the Columbia River Crossing pile of bull made it through “environmental assessment” (before finally being killed by lack of funding from Washington state). You have got to watch out for bogus statements of purpose of need and bogus scopes.

  • Anonymous

    Virtually all state DOT statements of Purpose and Need are heavily, if not entirely, skewed in favor of highway-oriented solutions.

    They may use language that implies to the casual reader that the agency is thinking and acting multimodally, but when pressed to be explicit in their references, e.g., bring both transit and highway facilities up to a state of good repair, or improving regional transit access, etc., they flat reject the request citing the oft heard, “We’re highways [and transit, bikes, and walking or someone else’s concern].”

    See the following for a prime example of a pure highway-oriented Purpose and Need for a project area that features concentrations of low to moderate income persons and an incomplete transit network to help both transit-dependent and discretionary riders get to and from places of employment and other living necessities:

    http://www.eisenhowerexpressway.com/pdfs/i290%20pn%20update%20draft%202013april11.pdf

    Given that the P&N serves as the foundation for subsequent analysis and decision-making, it is a critical document. State DOTs know it and that is why they infuse it with nothing but highway needs.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Guys, good news. IDOT just contacted me and told me my concerns about air quality are unfounded because the new circle interchange will actually improve air quality by 1/3. Who knew over 1,000 more cars per day would make the air cleaner?

    “Your comments were specifically related to air quality concerns and the level of bicycle and pedestrian accommodations as well as bicycle safety.

    The changes being proposed at this interchange are in response to significant transportation needs. The Circle Interchange was constructed between 1958 and 1962, and has outlived its design life. It is expected that the reconstruction of the Circle Interchange will ease congestion, move people and freight more efficiently, and reduce emissions from idling vehicles.

    Studies indicate that the air quality will be improved with the project. The
    annual Onroad CO2 Emissions from the project area will be reduced by
    one-third from 122,444 metric tons in 2012 to 81,197 metric tons in 2040.
    The Department will be implementing an air quality monitoring program and to
    continue investigating measures which can address air quality in and around
    construction activities throughout the duration of the reconstruction
    project. All applicable standard specifications and special provisions
    for air quality matters will be included in contract documents as appropriate.”

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