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Getting Squeezed

by Mike Ellis

The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISTHA) is contemplating widening the Tri-State Tollway from Rosemont to Hickory Hills, and Hinsdale would be significantly impacted if such a project is pursued.

The authority, which is comprised of a nine-member board appointed by the Governor of Illinois, is responsible for managing the Tri-State (Interstate 294, and 94 in Lake County), as well as the East-West Tollway (Interstate 88), North-South Tollway (Interstate 355), Northwest Tollway (Interstate 90) and the newly-completed Elgin-O’ Hare Western Access (designated Ill. Rte. 390), which was formerly known as the Elgin-O’ Hare Expressway. Its work is completely independent of construction projects conducted at the state (Illinois Department of Transportation), county or local levels, as the ISTHA receives funding from the tolls it collects on the above-mentioned highways.

The Village of Hinsdale held a special meeting to address this topic in detail with concerned residents at village hall on Feb. 27.

According to the village presentation, if the tollway board were to pursue expansion, the Hinsdale Oasis would be torn down, and Hinsdale residents on Harding, Mills and various other streets along the Tri-State would be affected, as well as Peirce and Veeck Parks.

“It is very important, in my mind, to organize and be heard by the tollway authority before they finalize their plans, because they made it clear to us that once their plans are finalized, there’ s little we can do to oppose them,” village president Tom Cauley said.

According to Cauley, the ISTHA identified congestion as a substantial problem on the stretch of I-294 from Balmoral Ave. to 95th Street in December 2014, and is considering widening it from eight to ten or 12 lanes throughout this segment. (Cauley said ten lanes appears to be more probable.)

When the tollway was first opened in 1958, it was six lanes from Balmoral to Interstate 55, and four from that point to 95th Street. In 1972, this entire segment was expanded to six lanes.

But the landscape of the western suburbs and Chicagoland area has transformed dramatically over the past half-century. In 1970, Naperville was a large town of nearly 25,000 people; it’ s now a small city approaching a population of 150,000. And towns like Oswego—which before 1990 was essentially a rural farming community—have become sizable suburbs with populations that exceed Hinsdale and La Grange combined.

Accordingly, in 1992, the Tri-State was extended to eight lanes from Balmoral to 95th, and in the last decade, the portion between 95th and Interstate 80 was also widened to eight.

Between O’ Hare Airport and 95th Street, the tollway has not been expanded in a quarter-century, and Cauley said “truck traffic” is one of the factors fueling the potential project in question.

“One of the reasons the tollway authority is looking to widen I-294 is because of truck traffic,” he said. “There’ s a lot of truck terminals to the north of us in Bensenville and other areas, and one of the issues that the tollway is trying to resolve is congestion on I-294, and [to] provide greater access for truck traffic.”

Although construction would not be scheduled to commence until 2020 if such a plan were approved, Cauley said ISTHA chairman Bob Schillerstrom communicated to him that the authority will likely reach a decision within the next six months.

According to Western Springs village manager Patrick Higgins, the tollway board has never publicly discussed widening the Tri-State at any of its meetings, and Schillerstrom is the only tollway board member that has ever spoken about the subject.

If the plan were to move forward, the tollway authority would also have to construct a new bridge for the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad, which Cauley said would be built to accommodate 12 lanes.

Because the ISTHA would require the village’ s approval of easements in Veeck Park north of 47th Street, it met with village officials in November 2016 to discuss the topic. That same month, the tollway authority conducted sound measurements in the Woodlands neighborhood in southeast Hinsdale.

The potential detrimental impact of a tollway widening project on Hinsdale and some of its residents include:

Noise in east Hinsdale: More lanes would likely increase the quantity of traffic, and with enhanced “sound-deadening” technology superior to the current Tri-State walls now available, the village has requested that construction would not result in a noise increase in southeast and northeast Hinsdale.

Property concerns: In order to accommodate a widening effort, if the tollway’s current center line were maintained, the village has estimated that sound walls would have to be relocated 12 to 15 feet to the west. Some properties within the 600 block of Harding and 400 block of Mills are already in very close proximity to the western wall, and would be impacted most significantly.

Hinsdale Oasis closure: Any widening project would require at least the temporary closure of the Hinsdale Oasis, as it would be impossible to filter ten lanes through the opening underneath it. Whether the ISTHA would decide to rebuild the oasis following its completion is unknown. “The tax revenue we generate at the oasis is helping to fund our infrastructure—the roads and sewers we do,” Cauley said. “We get about $500,000 from...the oasis.” While it is possible that the gas stations and restaurants could remain open during construction, which is expected to take three years, if they close, the village would lose an estimated $550,000 in annual tax revenue ($300,000 from restaurants; $250,000 from gas stations), resulting in a projected three-year loss of $1.65 million. “What is clear is that the oasis has a limited life as far as the tollway authority is concerned,” Cauley said.

Village parks: Peirce, Veeck, Brook and Woodland Parks would be potentially impacted if the sound wall were to be shifted westward.

Shoo-fly: If the BNSF bridge were to be reconstructed, a temporary “shoo-fly” would be erected in its place. “A shoo-fly would be a branch of the train tracks that would go over a new bridge that would be temporary, while they’ re replacing the old bridge,” Cauley said, adding that this temporary bridge would extend into Veeck Park for “a couple years.”“We’ re very concerned, because that would affect the use of the park.” Cauley said an area of the park could be required to buttress a permanent easement for the new bridge.

Village officials met with Schillerstrom on Feb. 6 to convey the village’ s concerns and potential alternatives to the project.

They proposed not widening the tollway, or starting the lane augmentation north of Hinsdale.

Schillerstrom replied that the former was essentially not an option, while the latter would be impractical for the tollway authority.

The village also proposed relocating the center line of the tollway further east, as it contends that Western Springs has fewer residences and parks in close proximity to the Tri-State. Schillerstrom told officials that the authority will take this suggestion under consideration.

“We also discussed with him the devastating effect that widening I-294 into Hinsdale could have, both on the residents, on the parks and on the oasis,” Cauley said, adding that Schillerstrom acknowledged that the ISTHA is aware that there “will be a lot of unhappy people” in the event of a widening project.

In the latter portion of the special meeting, a number of residents of Hinsdale and surrounding towns sounded off and posed questions regarding the potential project.

“Many of us here as residents of this community, we came here because of the beauty of the community, the mature trees, the quality of life,” Agurann Bates of Hinsdale said. “When you’ re beginning to add more to [the tollway], that takes away from those things that most of us moved here for.”

A Burr Ridge man that travels the tollway regularly during the week opined that “the obstruction is not in this area,” contending that the most congested zones are around I-55 and within the infamous “Hillside strangler” interchange, where I-294, I-290, I-88 and Roosevelt Road all converge.

Cauley said the village intends to be “proactive” in seeking alternative solutions from the tollway authority, referencing that it was heard when the Tri-State was last expanded locally in 1992.

“We have been able to make a difference,” he said. “Can we stop the tollway expansion?—maybe, maybe not. But if we are heard, we can minimize the impact of any expansion.”

Village trustee Laura LaPlaca, the Hinsdale Caucus-endorsed candidate for village president, also started an online petition opposing widening the Tri-State. LaPlaca said the petition had garnered more than 500 signatures as of Feb. 27.

The village board is planning to pass a resolution opposing the expansion of I-294 until the final details and their corresponding impact would be known.

Cauley said the village will request that the tollway authority addresses drainage concerns of any impacted residents in the event of the sound wall shifting westward; that it considers alternative engineering options like moving the center line eastward; and assurance that the village will not lose revenues if the oasis were to be closed.

He said the village would also require that the ISTHA conduct a noise abatement study, which the village would review by hiring its own experts to represent its interests.

Most importantly, Cauley said the village will not approve any easements until the plans are fully fleshed out.

“They can use their own land to widen the road if they want,” Cauley said. “They can also take down the oasis, because they own it; we don’ t; we lease that. But the one thing we do own is Veeck Park, and in order for them to do a shoo-fly, they’ re going to have to reroute the train [tracks] through Veeck Park.”

Cauley said the village would also like to express its concerns to Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“To the extent we can, we’ d like to get the governor involved in this,” he said, “because I think that Hinsdale is a valuable community to a Republican governor, and I think he will listen to us.”

The tollway board collectively meets once per month at the Illinois Tollway headquarters at 2700 Ogden Ave. in Downers Grove. Its next meeting is scheduled for April 27 at 9 a.m.; its most recent meeting was held after press-time on March 23 at 9 a.m. Residents seeking more information about the prospective project can e-mail the Village of Hinsdale at tollwayquestions@villageofhinsdale.org, and the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority at 294TriState@getipass.com.

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