Lake Shore Drive seeking road to the future

Congestion, deficient infrastructure plague road never meant as superhighway, IDOT reports

Proposals for Lake Shore Drive's improvement include building landfill into the lake between Ohio Street and North Avenue to soften the S-curve at Oak Street. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune / April 5, 2014)

North Lake Shore Drive is a mess for many of the quarter-million drivers, bus passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists who use it each day, according to new research from city and state transportation officials who are planning an overhaul of the aging boulevard.

The drive, the heavily used trails and parks that parallel the eight-lane roadway and the Inner Drive that provides access to neighborhood streets have fallen victim to their popularity. The increase in traffic has been compounded over the years by the absence of comprehensive renovations, a new Illinois Department of Transportation study has concluded.

The study, which was released ahead of a public meeting this week on the roadway's future, paints an unsettling picture:

•An average of three crashes a day occur along North Lake Shore Drive.

•When congestion is not bogging down traffic, up to 95 percent of motorists violate the 40 mph speed limit, often by 30 mph or more, on a boulevard that has no emergency shoulders or even guardrails or barrier walls in some locations and never was intended for highway driving.

•Structurally deficient bridges; dilapidated pedestrian tunnels, many of which do not meet requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act; and roadway flooding caused by high waves add to the headaches.

The overall cost is unclear at this early stage, say officials. Rebuilding the roadway as is, which is considered unlikely, would cost several hundred million dollars, and the timeline for construction has been delayed, with the first spade of dirt set to be overturned no earlier than 2019.

The Metropolitan Planning Council and other civic groups say one of their top priorities is to reverse the trend of the drive — which is used as a major commuting route — becoming a superhighway.

Away from motorized traffic, increasing numbers of people are avoiding the lakefront trails during the busiest times of the day and on weekends simply because they fear for their safety due to the chaotic mix of bicyclists, pedestrians and joggers — all moving at different speeds and often coming and going unpredictably in different directions, the study noted.

"There absolutely are a lot of problems. CTA buses are all stuck in the same traffic as the cars. The Oak Street curve needs to be straightened out. Some of the intersections on the drive are too closely spaced and the bridges and pedestrians tunnels are 80 years old," said John Baczek, project and environmental studies chief at IDOT in the Chicago area.

The complexities of North Lake Shore Drive — as well as opportunities for the public to offer potential solutions — will be the focus of a meeting Tuesday in downtown Chicago. It's one step in a process aimed at reaching consensus over the next three years on a modernization plan that preserves the historic lakeshore corridor while serving the needs of today and future generations, officials said.

"We want to get the brainstorming going. There may be ideas that we haven't thought of yet,'' Baczek said.

Proposals that already have been received include designating a buses-only lane during rush periods, tunneling under the drive to add an extra level to the roadway and building landfill into the lake between Ohio Street and North Avenue in order to soften the S-curve at Oak Street and create more green trail space in the place of concrete slabs, officials said.

Transportation officials, meanwhile, have pinpointed safety and congestion problems, including chronic tie-ups at Belmont Avenue, around the Chicago Avenue intersection and on the north end of the drive near Hollywood Avenue, as well as crashes that occur around closely spaced exit and entrance ramps.

Officials are considering consolidating or improving some of the ramps, but the drive itself will not be widened because the land beyond the curbs is protected by a lakefront protection ordinance.

The city and state transportation departments are talking to the Chicago Park District about building new paths on the lakefront trail, possibly including boardwalks along the beaches, to separate different types of trail users.

"This is an exciting time of the project, a time to concentrate on the big picture and be creative," said Jeffrey Sriver, director of transportation planning and services at the Chicago Department of Transportation.

When informed that improvements are coming, Lakeview resident Kristin Goebel said they are long overdue, adding that sections of the lakefront trail are in "horrible shape."

The 29-year-old office manager said she has cut back on bicycling along the lakeshore because "you put your life in jeopardy.'' She limits her bike workouts to very early in the morning, sometimes midday, and her one hard and fast rule is "never on summer weekends."

A survey summarized in the IDOT study echoed Goebel's sentiments, noting that, "Many stated they avoid the lakefront trail during the busiest times because it is unsafe.''

"The heavy user demand combined with inadequate sight distances in some areas, the variety of user speeds and lack of awareness of other users ... often results in collisions on the trail,'' the study said.

CDOT is working with IDOT on the North Lake Shore Drive/Inner Drive project, which runs between Grand Avenue downtown and Hollywood on the North Side. IDOT has jurisdiction over the drive, which is officially signed as U.S. Highway 41.

The study period, which began in 2010, was originally intended to be completed in 2015 and was later pushed back to 2016, but the process has proved to be extremely complicated, Baczek said. The revised schedule is focused on continuing to collect ideas from the public and interest groups, conducting a follow-up public meeting in the summer of 2015 in which the assortment of proposals will be whittled down to "something that is more manageable'' and then wrapping up the study process in late 2017, Baczek said.

Construction, which would be done in phases over years, could begin in 2019 at the earliest, depending on funding, he said. The work would be done in phases over perhaps a decade, starting by addressing the most deteriorated infrastructure — bridges and tunnels.

More than 160,000 cars, 970 CTA buses carrying 69,000 riders and as many as 31,000 trail users each day are drawn to the roughly 7-mile lakefront stretch between Grand and Hollywood, according to data contained in the draft study on the drive that will be presented at Tuesday's public meeting.

The study cites an opportunity to improve accessibility to Lincoln Park and between the park and Lake Michigan. About 20 million people a year visit the park, according to IDOT estimates.

Those soaring numbers could not have been predicted early last century when city planners set in motion a boulevard through Lincoln Park — "where grass and shrubs and trees assert themselves."

By 2040, bus ridership on the drive is projected to increase 23 percent, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Car counts are expected to increase minimally, from about 155,000 vehicles per day to 161,000 vehicles in the most heavily traveled sections, because the drive is already beyond its capacity to efficiently move traffic, officials said.

North Lake Shore Drive is 60 to 80 years old in different sections, and it's no longer cost-effective to keep resurfacing the road because the subbase is crumbling, officials said.

South Lake Shore Drive, from 23rd to 67th streets through Jackson and Burnham parks, was rebuilt in 2001-2005. A 2-mile extension from 79th to 92nd streets, through the site of U.S. Steel Corp.'s old South Works plant, opened last year.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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