Comparing 4 years to finish rebuilding a major interchange to other major undertakings

After the Illinois Department of Transportation recently announced construction on the Jane Byrne will take four more years, the Chicago Tribune compared this time frame to other tasks:

Two world wars were fought and won in less time. Rows of skyscrapers went up in less time. The transformation of Navy Pier, less time. New Comiskey Park, less time. Dan Ryan reconstruction, less time. Millennium Park, less time. The Deep Tunnel Project — oh, wait. That engineering feat began in the mid-1970s and isn’t expected to be completed until 2029. Somebody, go pick on them…

Still, four years is a long delay. Especially for a network so central to Chicago. We’ll never understand why IDOT didn’t order more intense work or bigger crews around the clock and on weekends. Let’s just say that if Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker shares Emanuel’s devotion to penalties and accountability, he’ll make new friends by the thousands.

Is this part of a larger trend of major infrastructure projects today running over schedule and over budget? There are hints yet people are unlikely to hear much about or celebrate projects that are completed on time and near budget.

Comparing the completion time to other projects may not be fair. Some of these sites were closed or not in use when the construction happened. Some happened with some private money at play. Others had more space to work with. Doing the work when the state and other taxing bodies had more money (or were less worried about debt) could help. And World Wars have their own logic compared to construction projects. (That said, I am still amazed how much the United States was able to mobilize and produce in a roughly 5 year span during World War II. Such devotion to the war mission led to unbelievable change.)

Would it simply be better for the Chicago region to accept a Carmageddon week where the interchange is closed and all the possible crews are brought in for 24 hour shifts for that time to rush work forward? Find a week with less traffic, probably a summer week, and give drivers plenty of notice about other options (ranging from mass transit to alternative highways, such as I-294, that can route traffic around the center of the city). Suffer short-term pain, make some serious progress, and show that efforts are underway to reduce the long-term burden of the interchange construction.

I survived the new Route 59 diamond interchange

I went out of my way a bit this weekend in order to try the recently opened diamond interchange at I-88 and Route 59. There wasn’t much traffic but I found it pretty easy to navigate and it looks like it will help move traffic onto I-88 more quickly. Here were some reactions from drivers earlier in the week:

“Am I doing this right?” one Daily Herald reporter wondered while test driving the new route. There was bemusement on the faces of some other drivers, but Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell reported no major problems Monday afternoon.

“We have observed folks maybe driving a little tentatively, a little slowly, perhaps because they’re curious, but everything is going according to plan,” Tridgell said.

While it may take drivers some time to adjust – though there are plenty of signs and traffic light indicators – the improved safety and traffic flow of such interchanges means more are coming:

A similar interchange will be completed at the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) and Elmhurst Road near Des Plaines in 2016.

The Illinois Department of Transportation opened another diamond interchange at I-57 and Route 13 this summer in Marion, in southern Illinois.

Given that more cars can now move through this interchange, does that mean traffic will increase? Generally, if you add lanes to a highway, drivers see that as a feature and this can lead to more congestion. (Conversely, road diets that limit lanes can reduce traffic.) This is already a busy area along I-88 with numerous crowded interchanges both east and west. Perhaps safety through a reduction of accidents in busy intersections is the number one goal here…

This particular type of interchange is relatively new – see a 2010 post here.

Illinois State Toll Highway Authority thinking of changing how new interchanges are funded

If you were ever curious how new interchanges on Illinois toll roads are funded (and I am), you can find out here as the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISTHA) thinks of changing its regulations:

The agency traditionally funds half the costs of interchanges, but it may provide more money if it appears revenues will exceed 50 percent of projections or if communities indicate that the location is near a major regional road or truck route.

Other considerations would be if towns can offer right-of-way land or agree to finance the project and be reimbursed by the tollway.

Another proposal would be a “corridor approach.” This could mean when a new interchange is built with tolls that are higher than other nearby ones, the agency may evaluate and increase those adjacent rates…

Some other revisions include stipulations that all future requests for interchanges must come from government agencies and requiring more financial information and payback schedules.

I had no idea this is how things work but I am not surprised. Having studied the early years of some of the Illinois toll roads, particularly I-294, I-88, and I-90, it is remarkable to me how few full interchanges were built originally. For example, I-88 only had a few full interchanges, meaning that motorists could get on or off the tollway going any direction, between the Cook County line and Aurora. Since then, things have changed as the population further west of Chicago has increased. These changes included a new full Winfield Road interchange in the 1990s (which helped spur the growth of the Cantera property which has become quite important to Warrenville), an added full interchange at Route 59 (originally it only had two ramps), and a new interchange at Eola Road to help handle the growth in the Aurora area. Of course, not all of the interchanges have been improved: exits like Route 53 are still limited. Additionally, if you drive on other toll roads like the Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania Toll Roads/Turnpikes, the exits are quite infrequent as it would cost a lot more money to build interchanges where the population may not support it.

The diverging diamond interchange

American interchanges can take many forms – see this field guide to highway interchanges from The Infrastructurist – including one called “the diverging diamond.” The goal is to provide better traffic flow from a road onto a highway through switching the lanes of traffic through the interchange area. That is, traffic entering on the right side of the road are then driving on the left through the interchange and vice versa.

Illinois Department of Transportation officials are considering this design, primarily being touted by Missouri officials, for an interchange in Naperville. See the design here and the background to the interchange here.