CHICAGO — There’s a battle raging between an Illinois state senator and the Illinois Department of Transportation on raising the speed limit to 70 mph on Illinois expressways — and Chicago’s expressways are ground zero.
A bill to increase the speed on expressways was signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn in August and is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1. But there seems to be some confusion about how the law should be interpreted when it comes to Chicago's expressways.
State Sen. Jim Oberweis (R-Sugar Grove), the law's sponsor, said Public Act 098-0511 is supposed to apply to all state expressways, including any that run through Chicago.
But IDOT, while allowing the speed limits on expressways in rural areas outside Chicago to increase from 65 to 70, is refusing to raise the posted speed limit on the Kennedy, Dan Ryan, Edens, Stevenson or Eisenhower expressways, according to documents obtained by DNAinfo Chicago.
“I think they are thwarting the will of the people and the intent of the law,” Oberweis said. “They are setting speed limits at a point where law-abiding motorists are going to cause an accident. Do you tell them to follow the law and risk an accident or break the law and be safer?”
But according to spokeswoman Jae Miller, IDOT is just following the law, and the agency has the authority to set the limit at any speed up to 70 mph and not just at the maximum.
"Illinois State law requires the department to establish reasonable and safe speed limits, and Public Act 098-0511 allows the maximum speed limits on Illinois interstates to be increased to 70 mph," said Miller.
James Walker, executive director of the driver advocacy organization National Motorists Association Foundation, said a higher speed limit set to established traffic engineering standards is a safer speed limit because it reduces conflicts between those drivers who follow the law and faster-moving motorists.
Armed with a speed gun and a pad of paper, Walker and fellow activist Steve Doner have been performing their own speed studies of area expressways. Based on their data, most drivers in free-flowing traffic are exceeding the posted 55 mph speed limit by 10 to 20 mph.
"It's a safety issue, and it's about fairness," Walker said. "How do you justify a posted speed limit that makes 91 to 99 percent of drivers defined as violators or criminals? How does this make any logical sense?"
Walker, Doner and Oberweis all point to a method used by most traffic engineers for determining speed limits, called the 85th percentile.
Traffic speed studies are conducted on roadways by sampling the speed of vehicles when there’s a free flow of traffic. According to this method, a speed limit set closest to the speed of 85 percent of the vehicles that are traveling on a stretch of roadway is safer than speed limits set above or below that number.
Miller said IDOT agrees with using the 85th percentile when establishing speed limits, but he believes other factors should be considered as well.
"If there are hazards of which the driver is unaware, this speed may be too high, and adjustment factors may need to be used," she said. "A safe speed limit is based on these additional considerations which may be applied due to various roadway and traffic conditions."
Oberweis scoffed at what he called the excuses IDOT has been giving him for not raising the speed limit and said IDOT is compromising safety by keeping speed limits on expressways at 55 mph.
“They [IDOT] want to adjust for how many exits there are and other factors," he said. “But in virtually all cases, the studies show the safest speed is the flow of traffic.”
Doner said the majority of accidents per mile don't occur on expressways but on streets with lower speeds.
"On a per-mile basis, expressways are safer to drive than all other roadways," Doner said.
Oberweis said the intent of the law is to raise the speed limit on every expressway in the state — including those within Chicago's city limits.
Oberweis has met with IDOT twice to try to work out a compromise on speed increases on Chicago expressways, but so far the agency has refused to budge. Despite his belief that the law calls for Chicago expressway speeds to be at 70 mph, Oberweis said he'd accept a 65 mph limit.
“We are still negotiating,” Oberweis said. “We are hoping to do it in a more friendly fashion, but we are not there yet. They’re only giving us 55 [mph], and I’m not satisfied with that."
While Oberweis is guardedly optimistic about a compromise with IDOT, he said if no progress is made, he’ll go back to Springfield and force IDOT to set the posted speed limit at 70. He points to the overwhelming majority votes this law got in both houses of the General Assembly, passing 44-6 in the Senate and 85-30 in the House — both veto-proof majorities.
“I’m hopeful that IDOT is in the process of reconsidering their position and hoping they come up with a compromise solution,” Oberweis said. “I think they're hoping this will go away — but it won't. If we don’t get any compromise, we’ll need to go back and get added legislation — short, simple, clarifying legislation saying the law applies in the Chicago area."