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Columnist
We don't bypass the bypass issue
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/26/2009 12:00 AM

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Whew! Can you believe that we're going with Alternative 203 and Alternative 402 for the western bypass around O'Hare Airport? I could have sworn Alternative 501 would make it and Alternative 401 seemed like a shoo-in.

Sorry, I'm talking IDOT, or Illinois Department of Transportationese.

Behind the technical names is a drama involving billions of dollars, political shifts and hundreds of people's homes and businesses.

Although it seemed Elgin O'Hare Expressway was fated never to reach Elgin or O'Hare in our lifetimes, the airport end of the equation inched closer to reality late last week.

State planners have already decided to extend the expressway east along Thorndale Road into O'Hare but the other part of the plan - a western bypass around the airport linking I-90 and I-294 was a toss up.

On Thursday, IDOT engineers announced they had picked its Alternatives 203 and 402. That means four bypass design options are now in play out of an original 15. For the north leg of the bypass connecting to I-90, the options are to build an expressway on airport property or to widen York Road. For the south leg linking with I-294, the two plans are to build an elevated road west of County Line Road in Bensenville or a road east of the Union Pacific tracks in Franklin Park. Expect a decision on the finalists late this year or in early 2010.

IDOT's thunder was stolen by Elk Grove Mayor Craig Johnson who declared earlier Thursday the village was dropping its opposition to O'Hare expansion because the state had eliminated widening Route 83 through the town's business park - one of the ideas previously under consideration.

Truly a historical day in the annals of the suburbs surrounding O'Hare and the region. Which meant I wasn't able to include everything in the stories I wrote when the news broke, so I'm playing makeup here.

Sticker shock

Estimates for the entire project range from $2.5 billion to $3.6 billion in 2009 dollars, so paying for it is a whole other challenge. Of course in Illinois, whenever questions about funding big road projects pop up - the knee jerk reaction is "what about the tollway?" (Just look at plans to extend Route 53 north in Lake County or to build the Prairie Parkway out in Kane and Kendall counties.)

To that point, state House lawmakers passed a resolution Wednesday encouraging the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority to pick up the tab for the western bypass.

Tollway spokesman Joelle McGinnis said the agency's position on the resolution is neutral. Right now, tollway staff is attending IDOT meetings on the plan.

"We want to be part of the regional transportation solution," McGinnis said, "(but) we haven't committed to doing anything at this time, especially since IDOT is still in planning stages."

The other source of funding is the federal government. Asked Friday whether the feds will steer any dollars in the direction of the Elgin O'Hare Expressway or O'Hare modernization, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was upbeat, saying it was "incumbent on us to be helpful on O'Hare expansion and the road expansion." Congress is starting work on reauthorizing some major transportation funding bills so the support of LaHood, a Peoria native, is significant.

Not just roads

IDOT is also planning for public transit. IDOT engineer Pete Harmet notes that a 40-foot space is being set aside as part of the expressway extension that could accommodate bus rapid transit or commuter rail. Plans are in the works for enhanced bus service on the west side of O'Hare, bike trails and park-and-ride facilities.

Flotsam and jetsam

• When I talked to LaHood, the former congressman was getting a first-time tour of Argonne National Laboratory with U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Hinsdale Republican. Not sure if Biggert took LaHood to see any of the space aliens (which I know they've got somewhere) or white deer that roam Argonne, but they did look at some of the transportation research projects being conducted at the lab in southeast DuPage. Argonne scientists are studying lithium batteries, seeking to develop a version for electric cars that last long, are smaller than current models and don't have that tendency to explode. "We have to make something that costs less and weighs less," Biggert said.

• And speaking of LaHood, the Federal Aviation Administration also backed down this week on plans to prevent the public from accessing the Bird Strike Database. Going in the opposite direction, the agency opened its entire database on Friday. If you wonder why this is important, just think back to January when a US Airways jet landed in the Hudson River safely after striking birds right after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport. For info, visit faa.gov, the link is posted on the home page.