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Willow Road Project Stretches On

Northfield leaders losing patience over long-delayed state plans for 1-mile section of road.

The project to expand Willow Road continues to fill Northfield residents with confusion, anticipation and rage as community members and the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) deliberate on a solution. 

The project has become a shared headache for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and residents in Northfield and neighboring villages. It also was a bone of contention at the latest meeting to discuss the matter.

"We don't have all the answers yet, but it's been a very thorough process," said Pete Harmet, a member of the IDOT project team.

IDOT is trying to wrap up its latest Willow Road study before it can design a plan to alleviate a traffic bottleneck by expanding the 1.2-mile segment of road that narrows from four lanes near Waukegan Road to two lanes until approaching Interstate Highway 94.

Despite recent rumors that the Willow Road project has entered an engineering phase to widen the two lanes to four, a state-mandated Community Advisory Group (CAG) is still plowing through the most recent study commissioned by IDOT last September. The group, made up of 18 community leaders and residents from Northfield as well as seven from Glenview, Northbrook and Winnetka, has been meeting with the IDOT project team and consulting firm TranSystems once every two months since January.

Harmet said the current study was the most comprehensive one to finally tackle Willow Road, which has been studied since the 1940s. He said the first phase of the project--going over all design options and identifying all the needs of the community--should be finalized by the end of 2011. 

But among Northfield members on the panel, there has been less satisfaction with the proceedings. While members from Glenview, Northbrook and Winnetka have all expressed interest in expanding the road by one or two lanes to alleviate congestion, Northfield representatives have been pushing for adding just one lane.

Safety concerns also arise because there are no signs limiting the speed near the three schools, three churches and community parks along Willow Road.

Northfield Village Manager Stacy Sigman, a community advisory group member, said community members have not had much input, except for commenting on the studies IDOT and TranSystems present at the sessions.

"I'm a little perplexed," Sigman said. "I'm not sure what the role of CAG members is."

On Wednesday night, Harmet opened the fifth CAG meeting with praise for the advisory group's feedback. However, the gathering at New Trier Township High School's Northfield campus quickly derailed into impassioned arguments and attacks as the Northfield members condemned IDOT for producing questionable data in its 600-page traffic analysis, which was presented during the previous meeting.

Sigman countered IDOT's findings with an analysis by the traffic and transportation planning and engineering firm of Kenig, Lindgren, O'Hara, Aboona (KLOA), which reviewed the state's study and came up with contradictions. Among the contradictions was that the severity of crashes on the targeted stretch of Willow Road were far less than state averages and that traffic volume had declined since 1990.

Member John Birkinbine of Northfield argued that the highlighted injury crashes in the IDOT report--three each month--and the congestion problems were inflated.

Birkinbine told the panel that "it's a good thing it's a draft because for the most part, it's flat-out wrong." He added, "This thing ought to be condemned. How can we be sure the next draft isn't a bunch of hooey?"

"Because [the numbers are] not worse, it doesn't mean we should not do anything," Harmet contended. "There are times when Willow Road is congested and there are crashes. On one level, it is at overcapacity."

Harmet also asked members to keep in mind that both studies were conducted using different methods.

After two hours of arguing over numbers, members began attacking IDOT for not addressing the issue of implementing school speed zones along the road, which has been brought up at every meeting.

"We're just getting pushed down river again," said Bob Hayward of Northfield. "School started last week; I want a guy in an orange jumpsuit [to] hammer school signs on Willow Road tomorrow."

After the meeting was opened to public comment, a few Glenview residents accused their Northfield neighbors of behaving as though they own the public road.

One resident, who has lived in Glenview for 17 years, said he has seen traffic increase dramatically near his home on Wagner Road and blames the bottleneck on Willow for pushing traffic onto Sunset Ridge Road.

"This is not a local road," the father of four said. "It's a regional road, and it's strategic in its nature. So while I appreciate safety as being a No. 1 concern, I'm as concerned about the safety of the children in Northfield as I hope Northfield residents are as concerned about the safety of our kids."  

In November, IDOT and the community advisory group will revisit these issues and begin identifying potential designs for an expansion, whether or not community members are on board.

"The advisory group was put together to have a thorough communication link," Harmet said. "But their role is only advisory. In the end, we use it to make the most informed decision possible."

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