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.