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Jon Hilkevitch
A bumpy ride to highway safety

Published April 4, 2005

Drivers want to know why there often isn't a cop around when you need one.

Q--After attending last week's hearing in Chicago about all that is being done to reduce highway deaths in our state, I came away with precious little to reassure me that we are taking back the roads from the drunks and the speeders. Am I alone here?

An Illinois driver since 1962

A--Unfortunately, not at all. The consensus based on four public hearings statewide aimed at strengthening highway safety is that speeds of 70 m.p.h. and higher are common and the biggest fear is getting hit by alcohol-impaired drivers, state officials said.

"People just don't believe there is enough of a police presence. They want to see stronger traffic-safety laws and for judges to crack down on offenders," said Michael Stout, director of traffic safety in the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"More people believe they will lose their life to a car crash than to terrorism," he said.

IDOT held hearings in Chicago, Orland Park, Peoria and Rock Island to solicit ideas from the public on lowering the highway death toll, which exceeds 240 so far this year and totaled 1,356 in 2004. The next hearing for the public to voice concerns and recommend solutions will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. April 21 at IDOT's offices, 201 W. Center Ct., Schaumburg.

State spending on highway safety and Illinois State Police patrols of Chicago-area expressways has been cut. Roadside safety checks aimed at catching people driving under the influence are stepped up only over holidays.

And saturation enforcement of speed limits and other laws is restricted mainly to one-day events, such as the March 4 effort in which the state police put several dozen squad cars on the entire Tri-State Tollway (Interstate Highway 294) to write tickets.

"We will go to the federal government with evidence from these hearings that more money is needed for law enforcement," said Stout, who oversaw the hearings. "We will also make the case to the General Assembly and the governor's office."

Q--Wabash Avenue has disappeared north of the Chicago River. Do you know if it will be restored post Trump Tower?

Andy Atlass, e-mail

A--Although the Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago will take three years to build on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times, Wabash between the river and Kinzie Street is scheduled to reopen in late November after a complete reconstruction of the 75-year-old viaduct, said Brian Steele, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

In addition to new pavement and sidewalks, the $8 million project includes ornamental streetlights, landscaped medians and a new traffic signal on Wabash north of the bridge. The Kinzie and Lower Wabash intersection is set to reopen in early June, CDOT said.

Q--Are there any plans to rebuild or resurface North Lake Shore Drive between Irving Park Road and Hollywood Avenue? That stretch has been incredibly bumpy for years, especially compared with the smoother section from Irving Park south to the river.

Geoff Hanson, e-mail

A--Yes, there are long-range "plans" to eliminate the minefield of potholes by rebuilding that section of the drive--which has never undergone a complete reconstruction--but so far no funding is available, according to city and state transportation officials. The city is responsible for day-to-day maintenance of Lake Shore, while major improvement projects on it fall under state jurisdiction.

The best that drivers can hope for is that IDOT will scrounge up money for some resurfacing work and extensive patching this year, said state Transportation Secretary Tim Martin.

"The city has been ragging on us to repave North Lake Shore Drive," Martin said.

Until then, the city will continue to repair potholes. CDOT recently began deploying pothole crews overnight, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., on Lake Shore and other high-traffic areas.A six-mile section of the drive between Montrose Avenue and Monroe Street was resurfaced in 1999 under the now-expired Illinois FIRST program. But North Lake Shore reconstruction is not listed on the state's multi-year highway program or on Illinois projects competing for funding in the federal transportation bill before Congress.

Q--If the Chicago Transit Authority is in such a financial crisis, why doesn't Frank Kruesi [the CTA president] offer to forgo pay raises until the mess is straightened out? I fail to understand why loyal CTA customers are being punished [with threatened service cuts and fare hikes] while management's blunders continue to eat at the budget.

Jeannie Sanke, Evanston

A--The CTA handed out no pay raises in 2004 to non-union workers, and Kruesi said a decision hasn't been made whether to defer increases in compensation this year too.

In the last several years the CTA switched to performance-based raises for non-union employees instead of giving cost-of-living increases.

It was the correct move. But it is also an example of the poor job the CTA has done to inform the public--and state lawmakers who are weighing a transit funding increase--about what the agency is doing right.
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