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Gold Coast Upgrades Sought for Lake Shore Drive, Lakefront Trail

By Quinn Ford | August 4, 2014 5:31am
 The " Redefine the Drive " project, led by the Illinois and Chicago transportation departments, targets long-standing Lake Shore Drive infrastructure problems.
Redefine the Drive
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GOLD COAST — Much of the Gold Coast neighborhood is known for its historic homes, fascinating history and monied gentility. But its front yard — the lakefront — is nothing short of chaotic when it comes to  transportation.

A study released earlier this year noted:

• The lakefront trail, where runners, bicyclists, skaters and walkers jostle for position, can see more than 31,000 users a day.

The Oak Street tunnel that leads to Michigan Avenue can be used by about 22,000 people a day.  But the tunnel, according to the report issued by the city and state's departments of transportation and the Chicago Park District, is in "poor condition" and considered "functionally obsolete."

One forecast predicted that by 2040, usage will increase by 19 percent.

• For drivers, the Lake Shore Drive curve at Oak Street beach is one of its most dangerous parts. Between 2007 and 2011, there were 753 accidents there, about half of them collisions with barrier walls.

The maximum safe operating speed is 30 mph, but drivers have been clocked at 68 mph. Adding to the problem is that the lanes are narrower than typical, measuring only 10 feet wide.

Quinn Ford said city and state transportation officials want ambitious ideas:

Now, though, changes may be in store, though they won't come quickly. Heavy use and aging infrastructure, some of which is nearly 80 years old, means the northern portion of Lake Shore Drive needs comprehensive improvement. 

The "Redefine the Drive" project, led by the Illinois and Chicago transportation departments, targets long-standing problems for the Gold Coast area in particular. 

Gail Spreen, president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, said residents have high hopes for the project. Citing 19th century urban planner Daniel Burnham, Spreen said, "You have to have big plans, and this is a big plan.

"When you look back at the history of Lake Shore Drive, you have to do it right, and this is a great opportunity," she said.

The project is in the first of three phases, which will identify changes needed on the stretch and ultimately select a plan. That selection is not expected to be made until late 2016, said IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller. Construction is tentatively projected to begin in 2020, after funding for the project has been secured and right-of-way has been obtained, Miller said.

The price tag for the entire project is still unknown, but it will cost at least "hundreds of millions of dollars," Miller said. A portion of those dollars is expected to come from federal coffers.

Today, North Lake Shore Drive is a major commuting route, a departure from what city leaders originally envisioned as a "boulevard through a park" at the turn of the last century. About 161,000 cars use the route daily.

Community groups say straightening the Oak Street Beach curve is the best way to deal with accidents on the Drive there. SOAR is backing an ambitious plan released this spring to straighten the roadway as well as extend the shoreline eastward, which the group says will prevent waves from crashing onto the roadway during bad weather.

"Anything to lessen [the number of crashes] I think would be a huge benefit to all of our resources, from the police to everybody who is dealing with an accident per day there," Spreen said.

In addition to the Oak Street curve, the project should address what the group said is the biggest issue for the area: a lack of green space.

Currently, the Near North community area, which includes the Gold Coast and Streeterville neighborhoods, has fewer than 2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, falling short of the standard the city set for itself in the 1990s.

By extending the shoreline east and submerging Lake Shore Drive underground at Oak Street Beach, the group's proposal would add roughly 60 acres of parkland to the lakefront.

"It doesn't feel like we can ever get enough green space to kind of soften the 'concrete-ness' of a lot of the area, so we are always working for more of that," Spreen said.

Creating more open space in the area would have the added perk of alleviating some of the congestion on the lakefront trail, another priority of the project.

Since 2007, nearly 150 pedestrians or cyclists have been struck by cars along the lakefront trail, the study found. Figures on the number of collisions of pedestrians and cyclists were not available, but the study cited a number of anecdotes shared at public forums.

Civic groups say one of the best ways to address the problem is to create separate trails for cyclists and pedestrians along the entire stretch of North Lake Shore Drive and improve directional signage.

Not surprisingly, a recent survey of lakefront trail users found dissatisfaction overlapped with the most crowded stretches of the trail. Users rated the stretch between North Avenue and Oak Street among the worst areas, according to the survey conducted by the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Area Runners Association.

"There's just all the demand to be on the path or near the path that creates that conflict, so the more they can do to add additional space to allow for additional trails and potential segregation between users ... I think would help," said Wendy Jaehn of the Chicago Areas Runners Association.

Ron Burke, executive director at the Active Transportation Alliance, said while the project will ideally fix congestion issues for good, the city should not wait to address problems on the trail. He said things like increased pavement markings or boardwalks along beaches could improve safety on the path in the interim.

"The issues that we see on the lakefront trail today are just going to be compounded over time, so we just can't wait five more years to address some of these problems," Burke said.

The Active Transportation Alliance is part of a coalition of 15 civic groups that published a platform last year of what the final design of the project should include. Among other things, the platform called for more access points to the lakefront trail.

Groups like the Active Transportation Alliance also want to see increased access to public transportation along North Lake Shore Drive and have called for a rapid transit component to the project, in the form of something like dedicated bus or rail lanes on the Drive.

State and city officials will spend the next year continuing to gather public input and whittle the ideas to a number of "feasible alternatives" to be presented at a public meeting next year, officials said.

But until those plans are unveiled, city and state officials say their ears are open to any and all ideas.

"Nothing has been ruled out," said Peter Scales, spokesman for the city's Transportation Department. "Everything is still on the table."

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