Many years ago when I lived in my very first apartment in South Pasadena in California, my house was just 1/2 block away from a street that was destined to become an extension of the Long Beach Freeway. The street was called Meridian and those of us who traveled the area knew it was long overdue but also a shame since the street sliced through a nice leafy suburb with pretty homes. To this day, the extension has not been built because of strong, vehement actually, opposition to it.
Fast forward to today and the scene is repeating itself in the struggle over what ultimately happens to Willow Road as it slices through Northfield, a nice leafy suburb with pretty homes. Again, locals are not exactly thrilled to have this heavily traveled route expanded to accommodate the huge number of cars that use this popular east-west thoroughfare. I moved here from Los Angeles in 1986 and it's been a bottleneck almost every day of the year.
The section in question is a 1 1/4 mile strip that stretches from Happ Road on the east side to Sunset Ridge at the west end. As two lanes pinch into one, traffic comes almost to a standstill guaranteeing long waits even at non-peak periods. Throw in a left turn driver and you might as well get out and walk.
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Over the past 30 years the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has made several proposals at reconstructing the street, including the most recent in 2005. The plan then was to construct a less invasive three-lane road and was widely supported by Northfield residents because it did not drastically alter the character of the village. Villagers wonder why that plan, estimated at between $6-7 million was not built and why yet another (tax funded) study has been proposed.
Northfield officials were dismayed when the 2005 plan was scuttled and believe that larger interests in Glenview and Northbrook helped bring it down. Glenview developed the Glen and Northbrook is developing the Techny area, both of which depend on a free flowing Willow Road.
But IDOT is indeed going back to the drawing board. But this time the strategy incorporates the idea of "context sensitive solution" which involves holding public meetings, selecting stakeholders and offering designs that make sure that the concerns of residents for safety are addressed. Stakeholders are, as the term suggests, representatives from various sectors such as schools, PTA, parks districts, etc. from the four villages that are directly affected: Northfield, Winnetka, Glenview and Northbrook.
State senator Jeff Schoenbeg (D-Evanston) who had previously opposed the widening, now throws his support behind the new effort. He has said "probably 98% of the people support the four-lane concept" while "there is a very small segment of the Northfield political community who will never change their decades-old opposition to widening Willow." He also claims that Northfield has used lobbyists to block efforts to address the problem.
Finding common ground is the goal here. Balancing the character of the village and it's stated need for safety against the concerns of congestion and access to businesses is what the context sensitive design process should address with fairness to all.
This will not be a quick process: the first stakeholder meeting is scheduled in October, by 2011 the various plans should be winnowed down to one that everyone can live with, and barring no further lawsuits, construction could begin in 2013. The upcoming two-year period is a time for any interested parties to attend meetings and offer public comment.
Here is the link to keep up to date on the progress of Willow Road: