During a public meeting held last month, the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Chicago Transit Authority gave West Side residents a look at possible roadway and public transit improvements for Eisenhower Expressway that are part of a $2.7 billion modernization project. 

The two agencies have been looking at making improvements between Racine Avenue and Mannheim Road. In the section that falls within this newspaper’s circulation area, this includes turning two lanes into high-speed toll lanes, adding sound walls and revamping entrance and exit ramps. In the longer term, IDOT is looking to either rehab or replace a number of bridges, including all of the major West Side bridges.

On the CTA side, the transit agency is planning to add new auxiliary entrances for Cicero, Pulaski and Western ‘L’ stations, replacing decades-old rail tracks and refurbishing all of the stations within the coverage area. Kostner, Central and California Blue Line ‘L’ stations, which have been closed since 1972, will be demolished completely. The CTA officials said that some of those stations might be replaced with brand-new stations, but that is far from certain.

The Eisenhower Expressway and the Blue Line’s Forest Park branch have been connected from the beginning. The expressway was meant to be an intermodal project, so when the Garfield Park ‘L’ Line was demolished, its replacement, then known as the Congress Line, was placed inside a median. When IDOT and CTA started looking at making improvements, it was only natural that they would coordinate their efforts.

On the third week of January, IDOT held two public hearings after releasing a 2,000-plus page Environmental Impact Study, explaining how its proposed improvements would affect the surrounding environment and what the department would do to address the negative impacts. The CTA used those meetings as an opportunity to present its own “Vision Study” for the Forest Park Blue Line terminus. The Chicago meeting was held on Jan. 26, at Illinois Medical District’s Marriott hotel.

On IDOT’s side, most of the major changes were planned west of Austin Boulevard, outside of the Chicago city limits. But that didn’t mean West Side wouldn’t see any improvements at all. The department wants to convert the westbound lane and the eastbound lane closest to the median into a High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane. Buses and carpool vehicles would be able to use it for free, while other vehicles would pay a toll. The payment would rise and fall based on the time of day.

Pete Harmet, IDOT’s bureau chief of programming, explained that the agency isn’t entirely sure how the system would distinguish between carpoolers and other vehicles, but they are researching possible alternatives.

To make up for what they anticipate will be increased usage of the expressway, IDOT is looking to rehab Madison Street and Roosevelt Road. And, to mitigate the impact of increased traffic noise, the department is looking to build noise walls on both sides of the expressway in most West Side sections. According to Steven Schilke, an IDOT project manager, it would be up to local residents to decide whether the walls will actually go up.

There are, however, areas where IDOT isn’t planning to put up anything. This includes the area south of Columbus Park, the north side of the expressway between Laramie and Cicero avenues, on the south side of the expressway between Cicero and the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad embankment, the northern side of the section between Sacramento Drive, and the south side of the expressway between Oakley Avenue and Leavitt Street.

According to materials available on the project’s website, they were ruled out because they wouldn’t be effective at reducing noise or because they wouldn’t affect enough people to justify the expense.

Meanwhile, CTA is looking to add second, auxiliary entrances to three Forest Park branch stations that currently only have one. Cicero station would get a new entrance at Laverne Avenue, while Pulaski station’s auxiliary entrance would lead to Kostner Avenue. The later would make up for the closure of the Kostner station. Western station would get a second entrance on the west side of Western Avenue. Jeff Tolman, CTA’s media representative, said that the measure would make it easier for passengers to board southbound buses.

The transit agency is also looking at widening platforms for all stations, adding elevators to stations that don’t have them to make them more accessible to people with disabilities, and generally spruce up the stations. While CTA presented several station renderings during the hearing, Tolman said that they were just ideas, and that the transit agency still needs to figure out what the actual designs would look like.

There was also the matter of the three abandoned Blue Line stations. Since being shuttered in 1972, they haven’t been maintained. In the case of California, parts of its ramp structure were used for spare parts to replace the damaged sections of Illinois Medical District station’s Paulina entrance.

As previously reported by Austin Weekly News, Valerie Leonard, co-founder of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, urged CTA to reopen those closed stops, arguing that increased ridership justified their reopening. But during the public hearing, Janine Farzin, the Forest Park branch study’s project manager, shut that idea down.

“We are planning on permanently dismantling them,” she said, adding that the stations could perhaps eventually be replaced in areas of high demand.

“The planning department is looking at opportunities for constructing infill stations, and locations on the Blue Line will be considered, as well as system-wide,” she said.

Farzin confirmed that it would be something similar to what CTA already did with Morgan/Lake and Cermak-McCormick Place Green Line ‘L’ stations, as well as Oakton-Skokie Yellow Line ‘L’ station. These locations had stations when the tracks were first constructed, but they were eventually closed and dismantled, and CTA wound up building brand-new stations in their place.

At a Jan. 25 public meeting held in suburban Maywood, Harmet said it could be several years before construction starts on the Eisenhower.

“This project will take two four-year periods,” said Pete Harmet, of IDOT. “The first four years will [deal with] overhead bridges and the next four years with mainline construction. We wouldn’t design it all at one time. The noise wall might be something at the latter part of the eight years. The thing is, we don’t have a schedule for when that eight years starts at this point. I would just say a number of years now, but it would just be complete speculation as regards to when.”