Decades of talks, plans and politics to launch the 12.5-mile expansion of I-355 into the Southwest Chicago suburbs have finally come to fruition.
The new Veterans Memorial Tollway, a $730 million slab of concrete which runs from I-80 in New Lenox north to I-55 in Bolingbrook, opened Nov. 12 to 54,000 daily commuters.
"If you think about the system as a whole, it's connecting neighbors with neighbors," Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Director Brian McPartlin said.
Tollway officials said the extension is expected to cut motorists' commute times by 20% and is sure to expand the pace of development along the thoroughfare.
The extension was first discussed forty years ago as a means of providing commuters an alternative to taking side roads and sitting in traffic. In 1993, state lawmakers directed tollway officials to do a preliminary construction study.
In 1996, the project was delayed when the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit claiming an environmental study was incomplete. And funding didn't come until 2003, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich came up with a plan to double 40-cent tolls for cash-paying tollway users. Consequently, the first earthwork on the new roadway didn't begin until 2004.
While tollway authorities said construction of I-355's south extension was completed on time and within budget, the roadway did pose some unique challenges for planners.
The cornerstone of the Veterans Memorial Tollway is a 1.3-mile, six-lane concrete bridge where DuPage, Will and Cook counties converge near Lemont. The area that lies underneath is home to the Hine's emerald dragonfly, a federally protected endangered species.
To avoid disrupting its flight pattern, the bridge rises as high as 90 ft above ground as it spans the Des Plaines River, two canals, railroad tracks, an industrial area and a forest preserve.
Another major obstacle associated with the project involved building the I-55 interchange in Bolingbrook, a project that had a portion of construction taking place over open lanes of traffic.
"Unlike the Dan Ryan Expressway, which shuts down to one lane during construction, the tollway's policy is to maintain the same number of lanes during construction," spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said.
Woodridge Mayor William Murphy said the road will provide another major thoroughfare for companies in the town's business park.
"We're very excited about the opening," Murphy said. "We've seen much the benefits of the North-South Tollway and the new extension will only help."