A group of people in neon vests trudged through a late April snow Monday morning to observe traffic on one of the busiest and most controversial roads in the northern suburbs -- Willow Road.
Members of the Willow Road Community Advisory Group (CAG) toured a section of the road in Northfield that narrows to two lanes. Villages close to the Willow, including Northfield, have been calling for a redesign for years. In all, the two-lane stretch is 1.2 miles long, beginning at the I-94 onramp. That stretch causes traffic delays during rush hours. Though studies by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) have presented a handful of design options, the villages have yet to reach a consensus. Northfield is fighting for a 3-lane road, while other communities favor a 4- or 5-lane road. Additionally, Northfield is concerned about safety because the road divides two village parks and passes by two schools and a church preschool.
For more information on Willow Road, click the links to the right.
CAG representatives from Glenview, Northbrook, Winnetka joined Northfield residents and officials for the tour.
Though there weren't many pedestrians out in the slush besides the CAG procession, Northfield Village Manager Stacy Sigman pointed out Sunset Ridge School and Middlefork School to the group. Intersections near the schools are monitored by crossing guards before and after school, but Sigman stressed the need for safety on the road.
"These are two of the critical intersections [on Willow]," she said.
Sunset Ridge School District has sought school speed zones around Middlefork and Sunset Ridge Schools, but IDOT said they do not qualify under the state standards. Board President Phoebe Raymond, who requested the zones last June, said the tour was important for CAG members.
"We want people to actually see where they walk, where they ride bikes," she said.
Sigman led the group east on Willow and stopped close to Bracken Lane. Water flooded the sidewalks and ditches beside the road. Northfield Police Chief William Lustig took over the bullhorn and spoke about Friday's fatal car crash. Lustig pointed to the nearby ditch where Silvia Seguar-Garcia's car landed after she apparently crashed head-on into a car driving west.
"I think it's our responsibility to design a roadway that's as safe as possible," Lustig said.
Sigman said it was the first fatal traffic crash on that stretch of Willow Road in the last 15 years.
The tour also highlighted the curve where Willow Road merges with Old Willow Road, an intersection Sigman described as "particularly awkward." CAG members walked along Old Willow Road back east to Willow Park. As the night's snowfall melted in earnest, CAG members saw the extent of the flooding in the area, which complicates a plan for a pedestrian underpass connecting Willow and Clarkson Parks. Sigman said the underpass is not a sufficient solution to keep students safe while crossing the road because Middlefork School is relatively far away from the parks.
"I think the underpass would be useful for people using the two parks, but we think it's unlikely kids would use it to get to school," Sigman said.
Many options have been proposed, including a median down the middle of the road. CAG member Pat O'Donoghue said he favors that option, if it doesn't pose too much of a burden for residents turning off the road into their driveways.
"If there was a way to balance the two interests, I would want that," he said.
Jim Patterson, a CAG member and Glenview village trustee, said he's ready to hear a case for each of the design options but favors the four lane option.
"The solution, which is very apparent from what has been presented, and the most logical solution when you look at everyone else who weighs in, it's obvious that it should be two and two," Patterson said. "This meeting should be focused on, how do you make this thing adapt to the community and the community adapt to it."
Don Owen, Glenview's capital projects director, said the walking tour was informative and would be helpful in future CAG meetings.
"You can often drive down a road and because you're moving faster, you can miss some of the components that might be key in our decision making process.," Owen said.
"My perspective is, as IDOT is providing us with the data, our goal is trying to figure out which plan is a lot better or a little better and why," he said." At this point in time, it does appear that the four lane is a better option because if the safety issues are fairly equal [with the two lanes], improving mobility is preferred."
The next walking tour will be at 6 p.m., April 26. All 17 options for Willow Road will be presented at a public meeting at New Trier's Northfield campus on May 16.