A long-planned transformation of North Lake Shore Drive is entering a new phase, as city and state planners look to cull ideas from the public on how best to serve the tens of thousands who use the crucial roadway every day.
Overhauling the 7-mile stretch likely will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and work probably won't start for at least five years, but such input is expected to help shape the project that aims to balance the thoroughfare's origins in the early 1900s as "a boulevard through a park" and one that will meet the changing needs of those who drive, ride, walk and run along it for years to come.
Public meetings are set to start next week, but civic groups are already weighing in with proposals to lower the speed limit, accommodate quicker transit trips via bus-only lanes, incorporate design standards that are compatible with city boulevards rather than highways and, among the top priorities, improve lakefront access.
Transportation authorities as well say they are studying bold concepts like expanding the shoreline near the downtown beaches to help ease overcrowding on the lakefront trail and alleviate flooding on the roadway from high waves during stormy weather.
For years the drive has been treated as an expressway by many drivers, despite speed limits that are lower than along most sections of interstate highways and tightly spaced entrance and exit ramps where weaving maneuvers contribute to an average of three crashes a day north of the downtown area, according to accident data.
Thousands of people each day also use the parks and lakefront trail, and accessibility and safety problems abound. Many of the 22 pedestrian underpasses are in poor condition and bridges and tunnels do not meet requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In addition, accidents and near misses are a daily occurrence on the trail system due to the chaotic logjam of walkers, runners, cyclists and others trying to share the same space.
"I've been hurt so many times in crashes that, except for very early in the morning, I won't ride my bike on the lakefront anymore," said Tim Jacoby, 39, of Rogers Park, who when he moved to Chicago about 10 years ago from Milwaukee regularly commuted by bicycle to his job in the Loop.
Over the next five to eight years, countless hours and hundreds of millions of dollars will be invested in reshaping the historic lakefront road between Hollywood Avenue at its northern end and Grand Avenue to the south.
North Lake Shore Drive is between 60 and 80 years old in different sections, and overall it is reaching the end of its useful life, according to transportation officials with the city and the state.
South Lake Shore Drive was rebuilt in 2001-05, from 23rd to 67th streets.
The official name given to the North Lake Shore Drive redesign and reconstruction project offers promise: "Redefine the Drive." It is a joint project by the Illinois and Chicago departments of transportation.
"The really big part of this early public outreach effort is helping us to find what the needs are among transit, bike, pedestrian, park access and highway," said John Baczek, project and environmental studies section chief at IDOT.
Today's Lake Shore Drive doesn't meet the needs of everyone who uses the lakefront, said Lee Crandell, director of campaigns at the Active Transportation Alliance, which is part of a coalition of civic groups advocating major changes.
"Coming out of the public meetings that will be held, we want IDOT and CDOT to adopt an aggressive mission that makes the road more people-friendly and doesn't just serve faster traffic," Crandell said.
Three preliminary public meetings on the project design are set for Aug. 6-8.
Seven task forces, which will include public input, will also be established during the planning phases, and the task forces will continue to be involved in the process through 2016, when more public hearings will be held and IDOT is expected to select a final design, officials said.
Construction could begin as early as 2018 or 2019, depending on funding, officials said. The cost is expected to total in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but estimates will not be made until the design is well underway, Baczek said.
So far, more than $19 million has been budgeted, using state funding, for preliminary design work, officials said.
Fifteen civic groups are making joint recommendations for the reconstruction project that they say are intended to help make Chicago a more livable city by reducing barriers between neighborhoods and the lakefront.
Proposals in the platform include reducing the drive's maximum speed limit to 35 mph with no increase in the number of lanes; introducing bus-only lanes on North Lake Shore Drive and possibly expanding the city's experiment with bus rapid transit to the drive; building boardwalks along beaches and a new path on the lakefront trail to separate different types of trail users, such as cyclists and walkers; and increasing green space, especially between Ohio Street and North Avenue, and widening lakefront access points while also reducing conflict points between cars and trail users.
"We drafted the statement in a way that does not make specific design recommendations," said Tim Jeffries, director of planning and policy at Friends of the Parks. "We want to see the process include as many opinions as possible so that the result is improving the road and livability without sacrificing the drive's utility as a transportation corridor."
Daily traffic along North Lake Shore Drive ranges from about 70,000 to 155,000 vehicles, depending on the section, according to IDOT.
Transportation engineers as well as advocates for people who prefer to ride mass transit or cycle or who enjoy walking, running or skating along the lakefront all seem to agree that it's time to hit the brakes on Lake Shore Drive's slide toward becoming a superhighway.
About 70,000 transit commuters using nine CTA bus routes travel on North Lake Shore Drive each weekday, and the lakefront trails are used by more than 25,000 people daily, IDOT said.
The north section also ranks among the top 5 percent of roadways in the state for serious injury-causing crashes, according to IDOT statistics. An average of three crashes a day, or more than 1,100 annually, has occurred over the last five years, IDOT said.
Officials at IDOT and CDOT have previously provided ideas that are on their priority list for reconstruction. They include adding lakefill to reconfigure the Oak Street curve to prevent spinouts and crashes; improving traffic flow at pinch points, such as the Hollywood and Belmont Avenue exits, where traffic frequently backs up; and possibly consolidating some of the ramps to reduce dangerous merge and weaving patterns, said Luann Hamilton, CDOT deputy commissioner. New ramps elsewhere might also be added, she said.
But as the preliminary engineering and environmental assessment process kicks off, officials are now saying that they will look at many options to solve the complex problems.
Those options could include dedicated lanes for CTA buses and bypass lanes on the ramps to give buses priority to exit the drive; and new lakefront paths that provide safer, more comfortable options for both recreational users as well as bicycling commuters who are in a hurry, officials said.
"We won't pre-determine what the solutions will be," Hamilton said. "There are certainly going to be folks who already know what they want to see out there, but we need to take a neutral position and let the process unfold."
From the perspective of the civic groups, Chrissy Mancini Nichols, a director at the Metropolitan Planning Council, said: "The No. 1 thing we can do is to stop the movement toward a superhighway. This is about livability and attracting more economic growth to our neighborhoods."
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North Lake Shore Drive public meeting schedule
Three public meetings will be held about how to improve travel on North Lake Shore Drive and enhance access to the lakefront. Each meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m.:
On Aug. 6 at Gill Park, third-floor meeting room, 825 W. Sheridan Road
On Aug. 7 in the atrium of Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson Ave.
On Aug. 8 in the South Gallery of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2340 N. Cannon Drive