By Ted Schnell • BocaJump
Even as the state prepares to break ground later this year on the beginnings of a massive realignment of Route 20 and McLean Boulevard, the city of Elgin was poised to begin a $97,000 study that some hope will lend support to a proposal to make it easier to get across the divided highway.
But on Wednesday, the Elgin City Council stopped the six-month traffic study dead in its tracks – at least for now – by tabling the matter during its committee of the whole meeting at the recommendation of City Manager Sean Stegall, who said a number of councilmen had questions about the issue.
The motion to table carried 6-0, with Councilman Robert Gilliam absent.
The proposed study would be conducted by the engineering firm Hampton Lenzini and Renwick to evaluate the viability of changing Route 20 from its expressway-like configuration to an “urban arterial corridor” from Shales Parkway on the city's East Side to Randall Road on the West Side.
What that means, Stegall said Monday, is that the city would like to see intersections and traffic lights added along Route 20 to better enable traffic to move off and onto the highway, as well as to improve north-south access over 20 for both vehicles and pedestrians.
The study is planned to last about 26 weeks, and Stegall some of preliminary work for it already is in place. Prior to Wednesday's meeting, he said the engineering firm was expected to begin the during the spring and summer.
He said such a project would have to involve the entire stretch of Elgin's Route 20 bypass, but the main focus area would be the stretch from Shales to McLean Boulevard.
“Think of (moving east to) Hanover Park … you're still moving at a higher rate of speed, but there are intersections, controlled access,” Stegall said. “But it's not a giant thoroughfare moving people along at 55 miles per hour.”
Stegall said Monday the proposed change was advocated in a white paper (www.cnu.org/elgin) by the Chicago-based Congress of New Urbanism (www.cnu.org/), which proposed a number of suggestions for generally improving mobility around the city for pedestrian and vehicle traffic. One of those suggestions was the change to Route 20.
During the regular council meeting that followed, Mike Robins, who is among the candidates seeking Elgin City Council posts this election season, urged the council to stop spending money, particularly the $97,000 that would be used to pay the costs of the Route 20 study.
Calling the study “fluff,” Robins said the Illinois Department of Transportation already has conducted its own studies of the route. Further, he said there is no proof that the recommendation of the Congress of New Urbanism would resolve the congestion and related issues along the bypass.
On Monday, Stegall said the key selling point of the plan is reducing congestion by creating more access points to the highway to funnel off traffic. And while IDOT officials' initial reaction to the proposal appeared skeptical, Stegall said if the traffic data support the plan, it could prove very appealing to a cash-strapped state faced with a growing need to relieve traffic congestion.
The Route 20 bypass obstructs dozens of street connections, barring homeowners from park land and other amenities that in some cases, the Congress of New Urbanism says, is just blocks away. Stegall pointed to one example: The Elgin Sports Complex is just south of a residential area to the immediate north, which is blocked from Route 20.
Route “20 totally cuts off that part of Elgin from the rest of the world,” Stegall said Monday.
Rebuilding Route 20 would be an incredibly massive undertaking, Stegall admitted.
“You're talking about doing something that other communities have done, but not many,” he said. “Milwaukee has torn down expressways.”
The Congress of New Urbanism, he said, has pointed out that bypasses like Route 20 are a product of a pro-automobile-oriented time in U.S. History, “and now, it's understood, that they've created more problems than they've solved,” such as dividing neighborhoods.
“And they actually create more traffic problems than they solve, because when you concentrate traffic, traffic can't disburse,” Stegall said.
The city staff report on the matter to the City Council pointed out that the Congress of New Urbanism's suggestions about Route 20 were received with some skepticism by Illinois Department of Transportation, but Stegall said if the traffic data supports the proposal, IDOT officials likely will eventually embrace the project, which also would require Federal Highway Administration approval, since Route 20 is a U.S. Highway. But changing attitudes in federal and state bureaucracies can take time.
“This is kind of very similar to the (Dundee-Summit) traffic circle, although (IDOT) embraced that,” Stegall said. “This is like taking that concept to a whole other level … It's like asking them to consider something they're not quite ready for.”
Specifically, Stegall said it is costly to maintain a bypass, and then to expand it as traffic increases. He said it appears likely that those costs are substantially more expensive than getting rid of the bypass in favor of an arterial urban highway.
At this point, the Route 20 proposal is speculation. The city, he said, hopes the study will support its contention that an arterial urban highway will prove not only more economical, but more sustainable.
“Part of the existing maintenance is that the state has to widen the existing interchanges, he said. “So they have to spend millions and millions of dollars changing the current design and adding more capacity.”
And Stegall said that adding capacity to highways has proven to provide only short-term benefits that fade because the increased capacity attracts even more traffic.
Stegall said that ultimately, if the traffic study supports the conversion of Route 20 from an expressway to an urban arterial highway but IDOT rejects the idea, the city would still want IDOT to pursue added capacity for the bypass.
IDOT has been pursuing the idea of increasing the highway's capacity via the acquisition of land from adjacent property owners.