Following a year of faster travel times due to COVID-19-related closures, Chicago area drivers can expect to run into more delays this year, thanks to traffic increasing just as construction season gets into gear.
Following stay-at-home and closure orders last spring, travel times dropped by as much as 45% on city expressways. Now, as people return to work and socializing, traffic is ramping up quickly. On the tollways, commercial traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels, and passenger vehicle levels are only 10% below normal.
The mounting traffic is bound to run smack into two of the most massive road reconstruction projects to come to the Chicago area — the Jane Byrne Interchange and the central Tri-State Tollway.
Construction workers pour concrete on a new bridge pier above the Des Plaines River on the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) on May 7, 2021. The Tri-State widening project, which include subgrade improvements and new water basins in some areas, is 22 miles long, from 95th Street to Balmoral Avenue in Rosemont. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
Such massive roadwork projects should improve traffic flow somewhat, said P.S. Sriraj, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center. In general, travel times may be reduced if fewer people drive because they continue working from home, Sriraj said.
But as more people return to the office, if commuters avoid public transportation and switch to driving, the area could end up with even more traffic than before the pandemic, he warned.
“God forbid everyone has to be at work like they used to,” he said. “If they all decide to drive to work, that will be a very tough year.”
As traffic builds, seemingly endless work continues on the Jane Byrne spaghetti bowl next to Chicago’s Loop, where I-90/94 and I-290 converge. It is rated the most congested interchange in the nation.
Construction began in 2013 and will continue through next year, longer than expected for a variety of reasons. The timetable is more than twice as long as the three years it took to build the nearby Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) — mainly because the Sears Tower workers didn’t have 400,000 vehicles driving through the work site every day.
This summer, mainline work begins to repave I-90/94 in both directions. A new northbound collector-distributor road will be built to exit near Harrison Street and take drivers to the rebuilt Madison, Washington, Randolph and Lake Street exits. Part of the north-to-west flyover ramp temporarily will be reduced to one lane.
The Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard bridges are closed for reconstruction this year, and expected to reopen by the end of 2022.
Overall, 23 project components have been completed, including westbound I-290, with 12 to go. The project is due to finally and mercifully end in 2022.
Elsewhere on the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94), milling and resurfacing continues outbound from the Edens Junction to Harlem Avenue, and is to be completed this year. Inbound resurfacing was completed last year.
Nighttime lane closures will occur on the Kennedy at Cumberland Avenue for construction of a new outbound exit road, to finish by this fall. At Montrose Avenue, work continues to replace the north side of the overpass, with work due to end this summer.
On the Tri-State Tollway (I-294), reconstruction continues in earnest for the 22 miles from Balmoral Avenue in Rosemont, next to O’Hare International Airport, to 95th Street in Oak Lawn. The $4 billion, nine-year project will rebuild the road and generally add a lane in each direction, making it a massive 12 lanes wide in many places.
As part of the project, the closed northbound Mile Long Bridge is being demolished and construction of a new southbound bridge is underway.
The Archer Avenue Interchange is being reconstructed, a new BNSF Railway bridge is being built, and a new interchange will be built at I-290/I-88.
The entire project is scheduled to continue through the end of 2026.
On the south end of the Tri-State, one lane is closed in each direction as workers continue to build a new interchange at I-57. When completed in 2022, that project will connect northbound I-294 to northbound I-57, and southbound I-57 to northbound I-294.
On the north Tri-State Tollway (I-94), the Stearns School Road Bridge in Gurnee is being replaced, with a posted detour to allow access to Gurnee Mills Mall.
A truck drives the Tri-State Tollway below the new beams for a BNSF railroad bridge near Hinsdale on May 7, 2021. Trains are currently using a temporary bridge next to this new expansion. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
Construction workers build new bridge piers near the Des Plaines River on the Tri-State Tollway on May 7, 2021. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
Work also continues on I-490, the bypass being built around O’Hare International Airport from the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (I-90) to the Tri-State (I-294). New interchanges will link I-490 to I-90, the I-390 Tollway and I-294.
The interchange with the Illinois Route 390 Tollway, when completed by the end of 2025, would provide western access to O’Hare. Chicago plans allow for security screening and parking at that entrance eventually, but only for employees.
Over the Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88), workers are repaving the road from the Aurora Toll Plaza to Illinois Route 59, and rebuilding the Deerpath Road Bridge in Aurora. The bridge is closed with a posted detour.
In the southwest suburbs, the I-80 and U.S. 30 interchange will be rebuilt, with the widening of I-80 to three lanes each way for 1 mile. Two lanes will remain open each way during construction, with work expected to end by the end of the year.
In Joliet, four bridges will be rebuilt on I-80 eastbound and one bridge westbound, from Hickory Creek to Rowell Road/Canadian National Railroad. Advance pavement repairs are underway. The is in advance of eventually replacing the Des Plaines River bridge and building I-80 interchanges at Route 53 and at Center Street.
The I-55 and Weber Road interchange in Romeoville will also be rebuilt, with a third lane added in each direction on Weber Road. Drivers should expect periodic overnight closures with one lane open each way, from about 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., through the end of the project in 2022.
The state highway work is part of the multiyear $33 billion Rebuild Illinois transportation infrastructure program.
Looking to neighboring states, in Wisconsin, work continues to reconstruct the I-94 North-South corridor from the Illinois state line to the Mitchell Interchange, where I-43 splits off. The work will expand the expressway to four lanes each way, and move exit ramps to the right, with some lane and ramp closures potentially causing backups.
This also is scheduled to be the final year of the six-year project to rebuild and expand I-39/90, the “gateway to Wisconsin,” to three lanes each way. Work will focus on four interchanges, with various ramp closures at I-43 just over the state line in Beloit, U.S. 14 and Wisconsin 26 in Janesville, and U.S. 12/18 near Madison. Two lanes will remain open in each direction, but motorists should anticipate lane shifts, reduced speeds, and backups during peak travel times.
For drivers heading to Indiana, bridge projects on I-80/94 have already started causing backups in the Hammond area. Additional bridge work will be done on that expressway statewide throughout the summer, with occasional nighttime single lane closures.
In Michigan, drivers heading into Harbor Country should be on the lookout for the reconstruction of southbound I-196 from Holland to Saugatuck, which has reduced the road to one lane in each direction. There are also lane closures in both directions on I-196 south of M-89, with southbound ramp closures at the Blue Star highway, so vacationers may check the state website and expect substantial delays.