To ensure that traffic along Interstate 80 becomes safer, one local group is looking to make a difference.
Residents United for Safer Highways, a group whose intent is to explore short- and long-term solutions for transportation issues impacting commuters on Interstate 80, brought together a number of representatives for transportation organizations, business professionals, state and municipal officials from across Will County, residents and other community members to hold a community town hall meeting, moderated by Scott Slocum of WJOL.
Industrial and warehouse developments have contributed to Will County’s growth over the years, bringing with it its share of positives and negatives.
From 2001 to 2016, there have been 37 fatal crashes along Interstate 80.
A petition circulating on the web at www.change.org shows more than 6,400 signatures urging elected officials to formulate and execute a plan to make Interstate 80 safer.
Mary Craighead, transportation policy analyst at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, referenced a study that shows 72 percent of the bridges along Interstate 80 are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and said it’s crucial to understand the existing roadways, the maintenance that is needed, and the benefits to the local economy.
The stretch of highway in question is approximately 16 miles and consists of two- and three-lane roadways.
Traffic along Interstate 80 hovers around 120,000 vehicles per day, of which about 70,000 of them flow through Joliet.
To date, the roadway utilizes 39 bridges and 82 percent of them have trucks accounting for more than 20 percent of the total traffic volume.
The issues commuters face is not exclusive to those who travel the highway near Joliet and New Lenox. Compared to other stretches of Interstate 80 in Tinley Park and Interstate 57 between Sauk Trail and 183rd Street near Matteson, this roadway between Ridge Road and Route 30 near Joliet has a history of more consistent concentrations of crashes per mile.
“We have had for the second year in a row over a thousand deaths on our [Illinois] highways,” said Randall Blankenhorn, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation. “A thousand families didn’t have someone come home, and that’s just tragic. Sometimes when we talk about numbers like that, they just become statistics and they’re more than statistics. They’re real lives; they’re real people; they’re real families. We have to work together to figure how to get that under control and make it so that we can get people home every night.”
To date, $111 million of short-term improvements have been identified and budgeted for to address some bridges and shoulder work near Joliet.
Blankenhorn said the reality is long-term work is also needed to address the problems plaguing the remaining stretches of the roadway.
“We’re talking about a project that is over a billion dollars,” he said. “Big numbers, not that we should shy away from them, but somehow together, we’re going to find a way to find the revenue to make those projects happen.”
New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann said the community town hall meeting had a strong turnout, which was nice to see.
“The statistics, they’re shocking,” he said. “The roads are in bad shape, and the traffic is excessive. It’s bad news upon bad news.”
Baldermann said residents of New Lenox have reached out to him in the past expressing concerns for Interstate 80 transportation infrastructure.
“We’re fortunate that most of our people are going east from Route 30 toward Indiana than if you go west,” he said. “A lot of them go on Interstate 355 through Route 6, if they’re moving west. Our people don’t like it. I hear complaints. Fortunately, we have other options.”
Slocum said information presented during the town hall meeting is to be taken to Springfield or Washington, in hopes of making a difference.
Potential short-term solutions raised by those on hand for the community town hall meeting included increases to signage, restrictions to lane changes and modifications to speed limits.
Several speakers on hand for the meeting spoke of the challenges that funding creates.
What’s more is some local municipalities are contributing to the congestion on I-80, in terms of the frequency at which they are allowing industrial and warehouse developments to come on line.
Baldermann acknowledged that there are towns that play a significant part in the problem.
“We have one business park,” Baldermann said. “We’ve had requests for additional industrial growth and rejected all of them. We’re a fast growing community, and we add to the number of cars. Only a portion of that business park is New Lenox.”
When asked if the communities should be instituting measures, such as a moratorium, to reduce the frequency at which they’re contributing to the concerns people have for Interstate 80, Baldermann said that’s for each town to consider.
State Rep. Margo McDermed, though she could not be in attendance for the event, issued a statement outlining her remarks concerning the problems with Interstate 80 transportation infrastructure.
“Since taking office my constituents have made it clear that road and transportation problems are important issues to them,” it read. “It is why I hosted a town hall last year dedicated to discussing transportation needs in the district and why I worked hard to become the Republican Spokesperson on the House Transportation Committee. In Springfield, I am working with other legislators on a capital bill that will contain the much-needed assistance for highway expansion and road safety. Rest assured, I will continue to be vigilant on these concerns and am making them my number one priority for 2018.”