JOLIET – The Interstate 80 interchange at Route 53 might be the most dangerous in Will County.
The aging interchange was built in the 1960s as a tight cloverleaf to accommodate an already crowded urban landscape in what was a simpler time. It now is a major access point for cars and semitrailers trying to get to and from downtown Joliet and the rapidly expanding distribution centers on the south end of the city.
When traffic is heavy, it’s not unusual for drivers trying to get onto I-80 to find themselves blocked by a long line of cars and trucks backed up trying to get off the interstate at the nearby exit ramp.
When an opening appears, drivers accelerate from a stop to merge into traffic with vehicles moving 60 mph or faster.
“That interchange was not built for this kind of traffic,” said John Greuling, CEO for the Will County Center for Economic Development. “The on-off ramps for that intersection are dangerous.”
Could it be the most dangerous interchange in Will County?
Greuling didn’t say for sure.
But he did say that a newly initiated freight mobility study, aimed at documenting the heaviest spots of congestion in Will County for the sake of seeking federal funds to improve local roads, should provide an answer.
“We think the study is probably going to put an end to that discussion. I think it’s going to be yes,” Greuling said.
The study is to be completed by April so local officials can be equipped with information to support their requests in the next round of federal highway funding, which will include money designated to improve the movement of freight traffic.
“It’s a pretty complete overview of where is freight coming, where it’s going, and what’s happening to it while it’s here,” Greuling said of the study. “We don’t have good, current information outside of traffic counts here and there.”
I-80 and Route 53 won’t be the only area under review. New interchanges are proposed along Interstate 55, and local officials also want more lanes added to I-80.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this study is to provide more background when we go for the freight funding,” Greuling said. Will County is not alone in the pursuit of federal funding for Interstate 80 improvements.
The Illinois Department of Transportation has long-term plans for more than $1 billion worth of improvements on a 16-mile stretch of I-80 that runs from Route 30 in New Lenox to Ridge Road in Minooka.
“No decisions have been made on exactly how that will look,” IDOT spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said in an email.
But it will include plans for interchanges and bridges.
One major project in the plan is replacement of the Des Plaines River bridge near the Route 53 interchange. That project alone would cost $300 million.
IDOT plans to hold several public meetings next year on the I-80 project, Urgo said.
“We hope to have a plan with federal approval in 2018 to improve the entire corridor,” she said.
The proposed overall IDOT project would include improvements at the Route 53 interchange, Urgo wrote in an email.
A final plan has not yet been defined.
But rebuilding the interchange could be a challenge, as it fits into an area between railroad tracks and the Des Plaines River that contains houses and businesses.
“You’ve got a lot of major constraints,” Joliet Public Works Director James Trizna said. “It’s your basic little cloverleaf, but it’s pretty tight. It’s pretty marvelous how they squeezed it all in there.”
One of the chief goals of the upcoming Houbolt Road bridge project is to divert trucks away from Route 53.
A memorandum of understanding recently was approved for that project between Joliet, Will County, the state of Illinois and CenterPoint Properties. CenterPoint is building the bridge while the state will fund a new I-80 interchange at Houbolt Road designed to accommodate increased truck traffic.