Feb. 5, 2002
Decades of potentially lethal injections did not kill the "Hillside Strangler

Decades of potentially lethal injections did not kill the "Hillside Strangler."

Billions of cars have raced through its veins, creating a dangerous dosage

Decades of potentially lethal injections did not kill the "Hillside Strangler

Decades of potentially lethal injections did not kill the "Hillside Strangler."

Billions of cars have raced through its veins, creating a dangerous dosage of chance. Finally, the governor of Illinois set what many thought was the most decisive of execution dates—October 2001. Yet, to this day, the Hillside Strangler is still living off the taxpayers’ money.

A powerful study conducted by the American Highway Users Alliance, titled Unclogging America’s Arteries: Prescriptions for Healthier Highways, ranked the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) at the interchange of I-88 and I-294 the 13th worst bottleneck in the nation. The Hillside Strangler, where three eastbound lanes of traffic on I-88 reduce down to one lane before returning back to three on I-290, has indeed taken on a life of its own.

Frequently, I’m approached by out-of-towners who believe this constricted piece of highway is an actual murderer on the loose.

Our leader at the Illinois state capital—George Ryan—actually convinced himself the deed was done at a ribbon-cutting ceremony a couple of months ago. Of course, politicians can smile their way through anything, especially when its tied to a campaign promise.

Back in 1999, Ryan took a whiff of his new office, slid into his governor’s chair and quickly directed the Illinois Department of Transportation to make the Strangler their top priority. The two-year results of the $97.5 million project were supposed to be as follows:

  • Doubling the number of access lanes from I-88 and I-294 to I-290;
  • Construction of a two-lane "collector-distributor road" built alongside I-290 to move traffic headed to Mannheim Road directly there, avoiding the need for cars and trucks to merge onto, and then weave across, the mainline of I-290;
  • Widening Roosevelt Road from I-294 to Mannheim and Mannheim from Roosevelt Road to I-290; and
  • Widening of the Illinois Central Railroad and Darmstadt Road bridges over I-88 ramps to the Eisenhower.

I would like to single out the word "doubling." Chicago commuters traveling eastbound on the new Hillside Strangler still slow down for the most famous engineering blunder in state history—cutting three expressway lanes down to one.

IDOT’s solution is a little fuzzy. A new lane was built and allows I-88 motorists to merge onto I-290 from the right and either exit at Mannheim Road or continue eastbound on the Eisenhower. But what the state has done is designate this "new lane" as a primary truck and local traffic route. That’s the impression, anyway. The sign hanging overhead reads "ALL TRUCKS."

With congestion raging nationwide effective long-term planning is a tool states always need to carry in their hip pocket.

For an interchange facing an estimated 290,300 average daily traffic in 2020 installing an extra lane works about the same as plugging a leak with your finger—it’s only temporary.

In a time of massive infrastructure expansion, I was expecting engineers to attack the Strangler like an aggressive surgeon. Soon, the neck obstruction would be gone and the cries for help would cease. This project deserved more building power. If you’re going to provide an answer, make it last for generations—even if it will take a significant amount of time and money. The Strangler has that middle seat in this interchange, there’s little room to stretch out.

So should Illinois parade around for public support behind a massive bridge project which would expand traffic capacity vertically even if it takes another five years and $1 billion to complete?

Absolutely. A long-term deal would put more sizzle into the economy, add fluff to the safety cushion and, in the end, filter out more emissions.

IDOT faced a Sears Tower-tall order, and I commend Gov. Ryan for being the first to pull together funds to attack—but perhaps he shouldn’t have stamped "express" on the marching papers. As it turns out, the hands of the Hillside Strangler are staying warm.

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