GLADSTONE PARK — A plan to improve the flow of traffic and reduce crashes along Milwaukee Avenue in Jefferson Park and Gladstone Park could include the removal of one lane of traffic in each direction, city transportation officials said Monday at a community meeting.
The removal of the traffic lanes could allow for protected bicycle lanes along the 2-mile stretch of Milwaukee Avenue between Lawrence and Elston avenues, engineers with the Chicago Department of Transportation told a packed community meeting at St. Tarcicuss Catholic School.
But that idea was met with catcalls, boos and jeers at the meeting hosted by Ald. John Arena (45th), who was forced to call for order often during the raucous meeting.
"Traffic flows just fine in this area, and we love it," said Rose Niedorezo, whose family runs Artorium, a children's art school on Milwaukee Avenue in Jefferson Park. "One lane in each direction? I just don't see how that can work."
The meeting was designed to allow traffic engineers to gather information about how best to spend $1.5 million along this stretch of road, which about 20,000 drivers use every day. Eighty percent of the project is being funded by federal grants.
The project should improve traffic along Milwaukee Avenue, and bring some amenities to the area, Arena said, adding that the goal was to give residents more choices in how they travel, whether by car, bike or by foot.
But most of the residents and business owners who spoke at the meeting said the plan would cause gridlock, slowing emergency vehicles and hurting businesses who depend on the smooth flow of traffic to bring customers to their doors.
"I like the neighborhood the way it is," said Susan Belcastro, who has lived in the area for 22 years, prompting loud applause and cheers. "I like the way Milwaukee opens up after the Jefferson Park" Transit Center.
Other residents — many saying the city should focus on the basics of street maintenance such as snow plowing before worrying about bicycle lanes — said they were worried that delivery trucks would find it impossible to drop their loads at Milwaukee Avenue businesses.
However, Ryan Richter said he would welcome any effort to make Milwaukee Avenue safer for pedestrians. A father of two daughters, 4 and 1½, Richter said crossing the street is "scary" — but necessary if the family wants to go to the closest park.
"I don't like to do it alone, but I especially don't like doing it with my daughters," Richter said.
During the last five years, there have been 970 crashes, including one fatal incident, and 17 that caused serious injuries along this stretch of road.
The project is part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Complete Streets project, which is designed to "ensure that everyone — pedestrians, transit users, bicyclists and motorists — can travel safely and comfortably along and across a street," according to the city.
To achieve that goal, Milwaukee Avenue, which is now five lanes — including a turning lane in the center — may need to go on a "road diet," said Rosenberry. That could mean the elimination of one lane of travel in each direction, he added.
That could reduce crashes by 30 percent by forcing drivers to slow down, making it easier for pedestrians to get around and making it safer for bicyclists by giving them a protected lane to travel in, separated from vehicles, Rosenberry said.
Milwaukee Avenue now has white bike lane pavement markings between Lawrence and Elston avenues but no buffers or barriers between cyclists and cars.
Emanuel has vowed to build 100 miles of protected bike lanes in Chicago during his first term as part of his Chicago Streets for Cycling 2020 plan, and Milwaukee Avenue is a key path from the Loop to the Northwest Side of the city, Rosenberry said.
In New York, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland, Ore., stores along streets that have slimmed down thanks to a road diet have seen sales increase, Rosenberry said. That statement was greeted with shouts of disbelief and derision, forcing Arena to call for order.
Another community meeting will be held in the spring, once the scope of the project has been finalized, Rosenberry said. The earliest construction could start would be late fall 2014 or early spring 2015, he added.
The project also could include more high-visibility and shortened crosswalks along Milwaukee Avenue, as well as pedestrian refuge islands that would give those on foot a safe place to wait if they were unable to make it all the way across the street. Such changes would also result in fewer parking spaces along Milwaukee Avenue, Rosenberry said.
Other possibilities for the project include road resurfacing, new traffic signals coordinated to smooth the flow of traffic and new turning lanes, Rosenberry said. In addition, spaces for buses to pull out of the flow of traffic could be built to reduce backups while passengers board and disembark, he added.
Pace, which operates buses in suburban Chicago, also is planning an express bus that could take travelers from the Jefferson Park Transit Center to Golf Mill Mall in Niles. It could begin operations in late 2015.