1 weekend down, 1 to go on Kennedy

Third weekend is canceled, but next phase poses a bigger challenge amid shutdown of outbound, reversible lanes

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Crews were in a clean-up mode Sunday afternoon around the downtown portion of the Kennedy Expressway, after demolishing two of the three sections of the old Ontario Street bridge far ahead of schedule.

It took a community to raze a bridge over the Kennedy Expressway this past weekend without the sky falling.

And state transportation officials said it required a bridge demolition crew that shifted into overdrive to not only lop off one weekend from a planned three-weekend project laced with traffic-jam fears but also to wrap up the first batch of work more than a day before the Monday morning commute.

All relief aside, the upcoming weekend will pose an even more formidable challenge, with the total shutdown of the outbound Kennedy and the reversible express lanes in the downtown area, and potentially thousands of cars and trucks spilling onto detours along city streets until they are able to re-enter the Kennedy.

The inconveniences are necessary to create another safety zone to complete the demolition of the 55-year-old westbound Ontario Street bridge over the eastbound Kennedy (I-90/94), according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which is heading the $16.5 million project to tear down the bridge and replace it with a steel-girder and concrete span that had been under construction next to the old one since August and was in service Sunday.

The first weekend went smoothly, in part, because many Kennedy drivers did what state transportation officials spent weeks asking them to do: They stayed away.

"I am blown away that people did listen to our warnings this weekend, that about 33 percent of drivers who normally use the Kennedy found other ways to get around and they made the commutes of other people driving into the city good,'' said Tony Quigley, IDOT's lead engineer on the Kennedy's Ohio-Ontario streets interchange project.

That traffic dropoff equals about 85,800 fewer vehicles daily on the Kennedy, which averages about 260,000 vehicles a day, by IDOT counts. Officials added that they had hoped for a 15 to 25 percent reduction in vehicles.

Preliminary feedback from downtown merchants and restaurants indicated that the Kennedy project did not create a drag on weekend sales.

"No one told me anything was out of whack. People seemed to get into the spirit of things,'' said John Chikow, president and CEO of The Magnificent Mile Association. "But we still have one more weekend to go."

And while transportation officials are no longer mentioning the worst-case scenario — carmageddon — they still want help from drivers.

"We have not crossed the finish line. The race is still going on," Quigley said, adding, "Yes, I do have fears people won't listen next weekend."

As a result of this past weekend's community effort involving the public, IDOT, the city of Chicago and the CTA and Metra, reductions from five lanes to two lanes along the downtown stretch of the inbound Kennedy were lifted late Saturday — a day early — after failing to live up to some predictions that traffic would be squeezed to a standstill.

And the Kennedy was back to normal operations by about 4 p.m. Sunday, with the opening of the new bridge onto the Kennedy at Ontario and the off-bound bridge at Ohio, many hours before the Monday morning rush-hour deadline.

Earlier, because of the warnings about Kennedy gridlock, Mary Degroot and a group of friends tweaked their driving plans to downtown from Milwaukee to attend the Chicago Blues Festival.

"They were even covering the closures in Milwaukee (news media)," she said.

Degroot said they picked up a friend in Lake Bluff, then avoided the expressway system in favor of arterial streets into the city. It was a smooth trip, she said.

Johnnie Grace said he drove to the blues fest from Kouts, Ind., and did not encounter any traffic problems.

"I was really afraid of it," he said. "I was afraid it would get backed up to Indiana."

A transportation infrastructure expert said IDOT likely was much more efficient than it expected to be.

"I suspect IDOT overestimated how long it was going to take to do the demolition, which, if you think about it, probably was the right strategy," said Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil engineering and transportation at Northwestern University.

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