Lower Wacker Drive to reopen soon

Lower Wacker Drive, the best shortcut through downtown Chicago, will reopen to traffic at the end of November, while other changes are set for this week as the $300 million Wacker Drive reconstruction heads toward completion in December, officials said.

Crews will reopen the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Wacker Drive on Thursday, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. The reopening should make getting around a lot easier for drivers, pedestrians and taxicab customers, as well as CTA riders in the West Loop whose buses have been detoured off Jackson east of Canal Street for many months.

The Wacker-Van Buren Street intersection will remain closed until Nov. 30, CDOT said.

Nov. 30 is also when traffic will be restored from the Congress Parkway interchange, the Eisenhower Expressway (Interstate 290) and Harrison Street to Lower and Upper Wacker, officials said.

It means drivers will again be able to make the connection from Lake Shore Drive to Harrison and to the Congress interchange, said Michelle Woods, CDOT's Wacker project manager.

"We're very pleased that we are winding down the project, and for drivers coming into downtown from the west, the shortcut through the Loop on Lower Wacker will be restored," Woods said.

In connection with the Wacker-Jackson reopening Thursday, a semblance of normalcy will return to crowded Canal Street between Jackson Boulevard and Adams Street.

The city will reinstate the southbound "contra-flow" lane for CTA buses on the west side of Canal in front of Union Station, officials said. Other traffic will continue northbound on Canal between Jackson and Adams, officials said.

On Nov. 19, CTA bus routes No. 1 Indiana/Hyde Park, No. X28 Stony Island Express and No. 151 Sheridan will return to their original routing and serve the bus stop along the "contra-flow" lane for the first time since last year, officials said.

A handful of other CTA bus routes will remain detoured until the Wacker-Van Buren intersection reopens, CTA officials said. But on Nov. 19, a dozen CTA bus routes will undergo partial changes. Details will be posted at transitchicago.com.

Meanwhile, the taxicab stand that was temporarily relocated to the west side of Canal outside Union Station during the Wacker project will return to its regular location on the east side of the street effective Thursday, officials said.

And Amtrak, which owns Union Station, will continue a pilot project at the new taxicab stand location. It involves a more organized queuing system for taxi customers and employs uniformed cab starters to offer assistance between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

"The other function of having the cab starters there is to discourage street hustlers who have been intercepting people trying to use the cabs and soliciting them for tips," Magliari said.

Ticketing and arresting the hustlers hasn't worked, so this is another effort to help passengers, Magliari said.

The cab starters, which coordinate the taxis, are each dressed for winter in a long wool coat, a hat that says "Chicago Union Station" and a badge, he said.

"Unlike the hustlers who tend to have their hand out, our guys and gals will not," Magliari said.

Most elements of the double-decker Wacker reconstruction will be completed by Nov. 30, said Oswaldo Chaves, CDOT's construction manager for the project. The work replaces a badly deteriorated viaduct structure that opened to traffic in 1955 between Randolph Street and Congress.

Many drivers have waited, admittedly impatiently, for the full reopening of Lower Wacker, portions of which were reduced to one lane in each direction or closed entirely except for service drives starting in May 2010, officials said.

As part of the full Lower Wacker reopening, a new and improved ramp from the lower level to Congress and the expressway system will also open Nov. 30, officials said.

Traffic engineers have reconfigured the Congress interchange to improve sight lines and create longer lane tapers at so-called suicide merge lanes to cut down on accidents.

The Lower Wacker entrance ramp onto westbound Congress and the eastbound Congress exit ramp at Franklin Street have been moved below ground. The Lower Wacker ramp will have a longer acceleration lane to make it easier for drivers to find an opening in traffic, officials said.

The Franklin ramp onto westbound Congress has been removed, eliminating the double-merge with the Lower Wacker ramp onto westbound Congress.

"That was a big accident location," Woods said. "It's going to be a much safer transition from Lower Wacker on to the Eisenhower."

Previously, "you came out of the cloverleaf and you just kind of had to punch it to merge into traffic," she said. "Now we've got a nice long taper lane, and you don't have to worry about other traffic coming from Franklin, so it's going to be a very easy transition."

Replacing cloverleaf ramps with tunnels also provided space for three acres of new parkland that's accessible to the public, officials said.

During the first week of December, Franklin, which during reconstruction has been a two-way street from Wacker to Van Buren, will revert back to one-way northbound, officials said.

As part of the change, a bicycle lane will be added on Franklin, officials said.

"We think the bike lane is going to be very well received," Woods said.

As the two-year north-south leg of the Wacker project wraps up, except for landscaping scheduled for the spring, officials said drivers and others are already benefiting from improvements on Upper Wacker from Randolph to Congress.

Ramps to Lower Wacker at Jackson, Adams and Washington Street have been removed and replaced with landscaped medians. Upper Wacker Drive was decorated with sidewalk planters and outfitted with decorative light fixtures.

The ramp at Monroe Street was replaced with a new one-way ramp to Lower Wacker.

The east-west section of Wacker from Michigan Avenue to Randolph was rebuilt in 2001 and 2002, restoring the historical limestone elements of Wacker's original 1920s appearance. The project also widened the road, raised lower-level ceiling clearances and carved out space for expansion of the Chicago riverwalk.

Meanwhile, construction is scheduled to begin next year on a new transportation center across the street from Union Station.

The Chicago City Council last month approved the plan, which will provide a sheltered staging area for CTA buses. Goals include easing traffic congestion and improving pedestrian safety along the Canal corridor and creating a staging area for a future CTA bus rapid-transit network to serve the central Loop, officials said.

The transportation center will replace a parking lot that is south of Jackson between Canal and Clinton streets, officials said.

The facility will include a connection to an existing Amtrak underground passageway so commuters can go between Union Station and the transportation center without crossing Canal and Jackson at street level.

The project is estimated to cost $14.2 million, said officials, adding it is 80 percent federally funded. Completion is slated for 2014.

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