I-57/74 interchange: Hearing postponed

Editor's note: From the Illinois Department of Transportation:

The Illinois Department of Transportation announced today that due to the threat of severe winter weather, the public information meeting originally to be held from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at the Champaign County Highway Department has been rescheduled to Wednesday, February 19, 2014. The location and time of day for the meeting has not changed. The Department wants to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to review and comment on this project and the inclement weather forecasted for this week would have likely detered or limited public involvement.

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Years from now — maybe after a new Champaign high school is up and running, a whole different president or two from now — the interchange between interstates 57 and 74 might be rebuilt.

There will be road closings and detours and tens of millions of dollars spent — the range right now is $105 million to $135 million.

If you want to see what it might look like, go to the Champaign County Highway Department, 1605 E. Main St., U, at 3 p.m. Feb. 19 (this date was changed from its original scheduled date of Feb. 5). There, the Illinois Department of Transportation has scheduled a hearing for the public to review four or five design ideas for the interchange just west of Champaign. (Click here for a summary of the project from IDOT.)

Here are 10 things to know about the project:

Accident-prone

In the six years from 2007 through 2012, 249 accidents happened at the I-57/I-74 interchange. That’s the most of the six I-74 interchanges in Champaign-Urbana and 50 percent higher than the next-highest, the Prospect Avenue interchange.

Fatalities and injuries

Between 2007 and 2012, five people died in traffic crashes at the interstate interchanges in Champaign-Urbana. Two of those deaths happened at the 57-74 interchange. Two happened at the Lincoln Avenue interchange. One happened at the Cunningham Avenue interchange. (Another fatal accident happened at the 57-74 interchange happened on Saturday.)

In that same span, 68 people were injured at I-57/I-74. The next-highest injury total was at the Lincoln Avenue interchange, where 59 injuries were recorded.

Busy roads

The accident figures don't tell the whole story. Traffic volume makes the risk for an individual driver relatively low. In 2012, there were 33 crashes on the 57/74 interchange. There were also about 11 million vehicles passing through that interchange that year.

Blame the design

"The size of the cloverleaf is what causes the problem at 57-74," said Craig Emberton, program development engineer for the state transportation department. "If the radiuses aren't so tight, it makes it a lot better."

"The embankment of the interchange will flip a truck," said state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet. "I hear complaints about this all the time."

That was then, this is now

The interchange dates to 1965.

Construction "standards have increased," said Emberton. "Cars are faster."

Passing through

The 57-74 interchange is just that, an interchange. It's not an exit.

"Let's say (the exit at) Lincoln Avenue," Emberton said. "You've got to slow down and stop" at the end of the ramp. That ramp "lends itself to people slowing down and stopping, because they know they have to at the end."

Passing through II

Emberton thinks that many of the drivers passing through the 57-74 interchange aren't from here. He thinks they're probably "out of county, out of state — cross-country travelers who haven't been through there before." That lack of familiarity with the area may contribute to crashes.

"Sign clutter"

There's no shortage of signs warning drivers as they approach the interchange.

But "sometimes, when you put signs out, people ignore them," Emberton said. "It's called 'sign clutter.' One sign is going to stick out," but numerous signs may not.

Years in the making

The reconstruction at this point is a gleam in a contractor's eye. Several steps occur in a years-long process before construction ever begins.

The normal process:

— Year 1: A feasibility study develops a purpose and need for the project, and estimates its initial cost.

Because this interchange would be a reconstruction, there's no feasibility study needed, Emberton said.

— Years 2-3: "Phase 1 engineering." Public and private entities can speak up about alternatives, impact and other issues. Studies and inspections, including impact studies, can involve as many as a dozen state, federal and other organizations. Public hearings are held. (This is where things are now; this project study began in May 2012.) Emberton expects this to be completed late this year or in 2015.

— Year 4: Start work on construction contracts, land acquisition as needed, utility locations and local agreements.

— Year 5: Solicit bids, sign contracts, put traffic-control measures in place and begin construction. Construction could take two to four years, Emberton said, depending on the final design.

For a detailed look at the state construction process, see this page on the transportation department's website: http://bit.ly/mondayng.

Where's the money?

The biggest single problem: There isn't any.

The work leading up to now is covered, paid for with Illinois Jobs Now money. But no money exists for final design, let alone construction. And no source of money has been committed to the project.

A capital bill in Illinois — legislation authorizing funding for public works projects like highway construction — could provide the money, but there isn't a capital bill right now.

Some federal programs pay 90 percent of the cost of highway projects if they enhance safety, Rose noted. The state would have to prove that the reconstruction would improve safety, and the funding is in the form of reimbursement after the fact.

"I don't think this is Illinois taxpayers' burden to bear" alone, Rose said.

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Number of crashes within I-74 interchanges in Champaign-Urbana, 2007-12:

Interchange Accidents Injuries Fatalities
I-57 249 68 2
Prospect 166 39 0
Neil 141 38 0
Lincoln 144 59 2
Cunningham 149 42 1
University 87 23 0

* For 2007 and 2008, these are crashes with at least $500 in damage; the threshhold rose to $1,500 beginning in 2009. Source: Illinois Department of Transportation.

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