Rolling out new route to O'Hare; State to holds talks with municipalities on western access

Talks between the state and two dozen municipalities are scheduled to begin this week on extending the eastern portion of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway now that the Chicago-versus-suburbs fight over expanding O'Hare International Airport is at least somewhat settled.

The benefits of finally addressing long-delayed plans to extend the Elgin-O'Hare are attractive to drivers as well as to the communities near the 6-mile expressway -- even the two remaining villages battling new runways at O'Hare.

With the launch of a new state-sponsored study on the Elgin-O'Hare, attention will switch to where to route the expressway extension to the western edge of the airport, a process that, like the war over O'Hare expansion, can be expected to go on for years.

Foremost among the eventual potential gains is reducing traffic congestion by building a western-access road into O'Hare and a north-south bypass highway connecting the Northwest Tollway (Interstate Highway 90) and the Tri-State Tollway (Interstate Highway 294) for non-airport traffic.

Opportunities also exist to improve other nearby roads; augment mass transit services with a possible extension of the Chicago Transit Authority's Blue Line to the west side of O'Hare; enhance the concept of Metra's proposed suburb-to-suburb STAR Line; and for Pace to offer express buses to lure people out of their cars.

Safe and appealing travel routes for bicyclists and pedestrians also could be created along rights-of-way abutting the extended Elgin-O'Hare.

The potential upside is huge, but no one is downplaying how difficult it will be for state officials to broker a regional consensus on extending the Elgin-O'Hare into the airport from its current eastern terminus at the Eisenhower Expressway (Interstate Highway 290) and Thorndale Avenue.

The governments involved in the process are Cook County, DuPage County and 24 municipalities that are members of the IDOT corridor planning group.

"We are looking to put the past behind us and make a fresh start," said Pete Harmet, bureau chief of programming for the Chicago area at the Illinois Department of Transportation. "There is no one answer out there. The purpose of our study is to walk hand in hand with the transportation stakeholders and come up with a preferred set of solutions by 2010."

No timeline has been set for any construction, IDOT said. Even preliminary cost estimates also have not been developed, although conservative estimates peg western access to O'Hare and the bypass road at well over $2 billion.

The driving force behind the IDOT-led study getting under way is reducing the traffic bottleneck on the only roadway into O'Hare, Interstate Highway 190, by building the western-access road.

Western-access to O'Hare is among 25 projects that Congress placed on a list of national and regional transportation infrastructure priorities. The number of jobs in the O'Hare area is second only to the Loop in northeastern Illinois.

A study that DuPage County commissioned last year stated western access would add $10 billion annually from businesses along the corridor and 44,000 jobs in the county by 2030. The federal government has provided the state $140 million for environmental studies and some land acquisition.

Several possible routes for western access were proposed through the years. It largely was a hypothetical exercise in the face of the reality that nothing would be built during the decades-long standoff between Chicago and the communities represented by the former Suburban O'Hare Commission over building new O'Hare runways.

The 2001 deal on O'Hare expansion reached between Mayor Richard Daley and then-Gov. George Ryan changed the political landscape, although two suburbs, Bensenville and Elk Grove Village, and religious groups trying to save a cemetery on the other side of an airport fence continue to challenge O'Hare expansion in court.

The route most often mentioned is to extend the Elgin-O'Hare via a corridor aligned with Thorndale Avenue, where it intersects the Eisenhower in Itasca.

Preliminary discussions also at the conceptual stage portray the north-south road as being a toll highway that bypasses the airport and connects I-90 and I-294. Officials at the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority have been involved in the talks on the Elgin-O'Hare extension and the bypass highway.

Chicago has preserved a 300-foot-wide corridor on the west side of airport property for the bypass road, but no specific proposals have been made to route the bypass to I-90 on the north or to I-294 on the south.

The state last year fueled tension over the potential route. IDOT apologized to Bensenville and Elk Grove Village after a map was made public that depicted the bypass highway slicing through the suburbs.

IDOT officials said the map was erroneous. It showed the bypass route following a straight line through the two suburbs about a half-mile west of Elmhurst Road, which becomes York Road. Officials later said that the map did not reflect a precise route, and that the proposed highway actually would run along O'Hare's western edge east of York.

The Elgin-O'Hare, which had been on the drawing boards since the 1960s as a way to link Fox Valley communities with towns to the east and the tollway system, opened in 1993. By then, most of the open space in the corridor had been developed.

Previous proposals included extending the Elgin-O'Hare using York Road west of O'Hare into the airport, including via Irving Park Road and Mannheim Road in Schiller Park. Vacant airport property in the southwestern section of O'Hare -- not suburban lands -- would have been used.

But Chicago, hoping to one day build more runways, opposed those plans, and the city eventually took control of hundreds of suburban acres for O'Hare expansion.

A major controversy is whether more homes and businesses will be bulldozed to extend the Elgin-O'Hare and link up the bypass highway to the Northwest Tollway and the South Tri-State.

The Elgin-O'Hare and western bypass corridor planning group will hold its kickoff meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the DoubleTree Hotel, 1200 N. Mittel Blvd., Wood Dale.

The meeting is open to the public, but IDOT said public participation will not be allowed until an informational meeting set for 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Oak Meadows Golf Club, 900 N. Wood Dale Rd., Addison.

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