SOUTH LOOP — As a light mist fell Thursday evening outside the Harold Washington Library, two young girls helped Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein flip the switch to light the Congress Parkway Streetscape for the very first time.
Emanuel plucked 7-year-olds Kalaya Sriver and Seda Curvey from the crowd to help make the metal trellises and glass pillars stretching down Congress begin to glow brightly in an array of purples, blues, reds and greens.
About 200 people assembled for the ceremony, which officially marked the completion of the two-year, $24 million roadway improvement project.
The lighted streetscape stretches a half mile from Michigan Avenue to Wells Street and helps show off the widened sidewalks, landscaped medians and a narrowed, better engineered and safer roadway. A full lane of westbound Congress was eliminated and the street was streamlined to rid Congress of its weaving traffic lanes.
"When I was passing President Obama's stimulus bill, I didn't know it would end in a light show," Emanuel joked about the $9 million in federal stimulus dollars that helped fund the project. "Congress Parkway now provides a beautiful and innovative gateway into the heart of downtown Chicago."
Project Director Janet Attarian said the city actually had been planning the project since 2004.
"There are all new signals, all new fiber, complete roadway resurfacing, widened sidewalks, all medians new, new water mains — this was a major, major project," said Attarian. "This is what it means to be a complete street which is fundamental to our philosophy at CDOT."
Klein said the project caused some pain for motorists, "But it was worth it.
"Much to the chagrin of some people we worked on Congress at the same time as the Wacker Drive and Congress interchange, but it was worth it because we got so much more done more quickly. Thanks to the public for bearing with us."
The programmable lighting system uses more than 600 LED lights and boasts a color palette of 16 million combinations. It can even be programmed in the colors of the Cubs, White Sox or other local teams.
"There is no other streetscape in America like this," Klein said. "There's just nothing like it."