Joe Orr Road project may pave way for south suburban economic boon

$40 million expansion designed to benefit Illinois, Indiana

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A $40 million roadway expansion is under way in southeast Cook County that will culminate in a new connection between Illinois and Indiana, and officials say the project provides a possible template for marrying transportation and economic development priorities across the two states.

The realignment and reconstruction of Joe Orr Road is designed to benefit commuters in both states who endure daily traffic congestion while traveling to their jobs across the border, regional planning officials said.

And south suburban towns are counting on receiving an economic boost from the road project, which is being conducted by the newly reorganized Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways.

Local officials describe the Joe Orr expansion as an example of the type of decision the county should be making with its limited resources to link transportation improvements with economic development.

"There is no real downtown in Lynwood, and the new Joe Orr Road will help us develop one,'' said Eugene Williams, the mayor of the town, which is in the path of the roadway that will be widened and extended several miles east to Munster, Ind.

The road work will create three new intersections in Lynwood, and Williams is optimistic the traffic pattern that results will create "islands of opportunities'' that attract businesses.

"There should be 12 businesses — large retailers, we hope — that would want a corner spot. People here in Lynwood have been pushing for the project for about 20 years. To get it started, we had to convince Cook County that it would be an excellent opportunity,'' Williams said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the highway agency's new mandate is to "shape roadways to promote regional economic growth.''

It's the right approach and long overdue, said Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.

"In the past, the county tried to build projects to satisfy the many road needs without really looking at whether it could maximize economic development opportunities,'' Paesel said.

"There are very few east-west connections south of I-80 connecting Indiana and Illinois. Every day thousands of drivers meander their way from Indiana to Illinois, and vice versa, to access jobs. This extension will make that bi-state connection that we desperately need in the south part of Cook County, and it will also serve Munster and Dyer.''

The project's initial phase went from east of Stony Island Avenue to Torrence Avenue in Lansing, with Joe Orr moved and rebuilt farther south and expanded to five lanes, officials said. Torrence was widened to three lanes from the new Joe Orr intersection to the old one. The work was completed in November for $7.1 million, said Jennifer Killen, bureau chief of transportation and planning in the county highway department.

Joe Orr begins in Olympia Fields and currently dead-ends at Torrence. In 2015, the road will be extended from Torrence to Burnham Avenue at an estimated cost of $10 million, Killen said.

The final segment, which is in the early engineering phase, could begin construction as soon as 2017, depending on the availability of funding, she said. It runs from Burnham to Calumet Avenue in Indiana. Joe Orr would become Main Street in Munster. The cost is estimated at $15 million to $20 million, Killen said, and completion is tentatively slated for 2019.

Total cost of the project is an estimated $40 million, officials said. Illinois and Indiana officials are working to secure federal and state funding for the final portion.

"We are going to see this through and not let it falter,'' said Steve Strains, deputy director and director of planning at the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. "Many of the roads between the two states don't actually meet. This project will provide better access between the communities and the shopping area in Highland near Main Street and Indianapolis Boulevard. The area would be in line for some further economic development too.''

It boils down to "if you build it, they will come,'' said John Beissel, Cook County's assistant superintendent of highways. "This project equates to jobs, better services and an economic engine for the area."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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