On a cold afternoon earlier this month, almost a year after the Illinois Department of Transportation held a hearing to update the public on the “Redefine the Drive” project to rebuild North Lake Shore Drive, IDOT hosted another community meeting to discuss design alternatives. While it’s encouraging to see the state proposing a somewhat less car-centric version of the shoreline highway, their plans still leave a lot to be desired.
The hearing started out with a quick update work to create separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists on the Lakefront Trail. Work on building a bike-only “commuter trail” on the South Side between 31st and 51st is progressing faster than originally anticipated, and there will be hearings about doing a similar project on the North Side next year. In fact, the North Side path separation work could be completed years ahead the North LSD reconstruction.
Next the discussion turned to the highway reconstruction. Residents have submitted over 1,200 ideas for improving Lake Shore Drive by various means. IDOT has already rejected many of these suggestions due to cost, as well as concerns about reducing so-called “Level of Service,” i.e. a measure of unimpeded traffic flow for drivers.
Several ideas for tunnels and/or causeways (roads on an embankment above a body of water) were scrapped due to expense. These would have involved either digging an express tunnel under existing North Lake Shore or building a massive tunnel or causeway bypass extending deep into the lake.
The state also rejected proposals to build a light rail line as part of the reconstruction (along with any hope of heavy rail in the future) due to cost. While no map was provided, an IDOT official did mention they had considered a plan for an 11-mile line that would have run from the McCormick Place convention center all the way to Loyola University in Rogers Park. The $4 billion price tag for the proposal was considered to be a deal-breaker.
Another proposal that the state threw out was to create at-grade intersections at Montrose, Wilson, and Lawrence, eliminating the viaducts. A possible motivation for this idea is the backlash from some local residents against homeless encampments in some of these underpasses. While IDOT is open to a possible reduction in lanes on the drive in this stretch due to relatively low traffic, they have already eliminated the possibility of at-grade intersections because the stoplights would delay motorists on the highway.
The proposals that IDOT hasn’t yet rejected include some very bus-friendly ideas. These include several managed lane options, as well as dedicated bus lanes. At the December 2015 meeting IDOT project and environmental studies section chief John Baczek indicated that adding dedicated bus lanes would probably require widening the highway, because it was unlikely existing car lanes would be converted to bus-only lanes. But, surprisingly, at the recent hearing there were signs that the department may be willing to convert two of the existing lanes after all.