Column: IDOT to close Interstate 80 lanes, ramp on weekends as massive rebuild project enters third year
Southland motorists traveling Interstate 80 through central Will County should brace for a fresh round of disruptions as a massive project to rebuild the highway enters a new phase.
Lanes and a ramp will close for four weekends beginning at 10 p.m. Friday, the Illinois Department of Transportation said in a news release. Eastbound I-80 will be reduced to one lane while the weekend work occurs.
“Eastbound I-80 motorists traveling through the region should consider alternative routes to avoid the area,” IDOT said. “Local streets are unable to accommodate heavy or wide trucks, so other interstate routes are encouraged.”
The lanes and ramp will reopen by 5 a.m. on Mondays following the weekend closures, weather permitting, IDOT said.
The interstate is a vital transcontinental route that serves the booming warehouse and logistics industry in the south and southwest suburbs. Trucks account for about 25% of the 80,000 vehicles that travel I-80 daily through central Will County.
Cars and trucks typically zip along the expressway through Country Club Hills, Tinley Park, Mokena and other towns where the roadway has been widened to three lanes in each direction. West of New Lenox, however, driving on I-80 is like taking a trip back in time.
Travelers can revisit the 1960s, when I-80 was two lanes in each direction when it opened to traffic in Illinois. The stretch between Interstate 55 in Joliet and the Tri-State Tollway near Hazel Crest and Markham was the last to open, in 1968. Motorists can marvel at mid-20th century safety standards, when narrow bridges were built without shoulders to save money.
Westbound I-80 is particularly treacherous nowadays. IDOT diverted one of two westbound lanes onto the shoulder, meaning there is nowhere to pull over at the moment if a vehicle breaks down.
IDOT plans to spend at least $1.2 billion over six years rebuilding 16 miles of I-80 between Route 30 in New Lenox and Ridge Road in Minooka. Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other officials warned in 2021 that construction would disrupt many commutes and other travels before work is completed in 2027.
“It’s going to be a long six years, let’s realize that,” state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr. said at the time. “But let’s be patient.”
Engineering and building the new roadway east of the Des Plaines River is intricate, complex work. In addition to the two large bridges over the Des Plaines River, crews must rebuild 10 other bridges, five in each direction, along a relatively short stretch between the Des Plaines River and Rowell Avenue.
Workers in 2021 began building new eastbound bridges over Richards Street, Hickory Creek and a set of Canadian National railroad tracks. Work continued throughout 2022 on a new bridge over Rowell Avenue and on new pavement sections between the bridges.
The eastbound exit to Richards Street has been closed for more than a year, but the rebuilt ramp is nearing completion and is expected to open within a matter of weeks.
Once the new eastbound lanes are ready to open, IDOT plans to shift traffic in order to tear out and rebuild the westbound lanes. Then focus will shift to a massive project to rebuild the I-80 interchange at Chicago Street/Illinois Route 53.
Trucks have obliterated the pavement, which is why IDOT is closing the ramp from Chicago Street to eastbound I-80 for four weekends beginning Friday. The weight of heavy loads has carved deep ruts in the pavement.
“The work consists of bridge joint repairs to keep the structures in acceptable condition until the larger corridor project can begin,” IDOT said. “By scheduling the work over multiple weekends this spring, the unplanned, emergency closures that have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years can be minimized.”
Chicago Street is pocked with potholes and dangerous bumps. Also, because the interstate was built more than 50 years ago when there was much less traffic, vehicles going north on Chicago Street must stop and wait for a break in southbound traffic to turn left onto the ramp for eastbound I-80. There is no traffic signal.
Fully loaded trucks are slow to get moving from a complete stop, so the situation often creates long backups and delays that snarl traffic.
South of I-80, in quick succession, Chicago Street crosses Hickory Creek, intersects with Patterson Road and passes under two viaducts supporting separate sets of railroad tracks before intersecting with Doris Avenue.
Concrete retaining walls near the viaducts have crumbled to the point where steel rebar is showing. Rebuilding this relatively short stretch of roadway will be a massive undertaking that involves improving drainage and pedestrian access.
A huge volume of truck traffic uses Chicago Street/Illinois Route 53 to access facilities operated by Amazon, Dollar Tree and others. Traffic is often snarled where Route 53 intersects Laraway Road as trucks access the CenterPoint Intermodal Center, North America’s largest inland port.
Truck volume on Route 53 is bound to increase now that the first structures of the NorthPoint project are being built. Officials from Will County, Elwood, Manhattan, various townships and public school districts opposed the controversial development, but Joliet officials gave the project a green light.
A new, privately funded Houbolt Road toll bridge over the Des Plaines River is about to open and should provide some relief by offering a direct link from CenterPoint to I-80. Work continues on a new diverging diamond interchange at I-80 and Houbolt Road.
Meanwhile, IDOT recently closed median shoulders where Wolf Road crosses I-80 in Mokena as crews rebuild the bridge over the interstate. Similar work is getting underway where Wheeler Avenue crosses I-80 west of the Des Plaines River in Joliet.
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The Briggs Street bridge over I-80 between Joliet and New Lenox also is slated for replacement.
By 2026-2027, IDOT expects to be ready to replace steel girder spans that carry I-80 over the Des Plaines River. The bridges gained notoriety for their poor safety rating that prompted construction unions to help fund billboards warning about potential collapse.
Public concern about I-80 safety broke through a political logjam in Springfield and led to bipartisan support for the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois infrastructure program in 2019.
The much-needed work to rebuild I-80 is underway, but the highway remains a dangerous route through central Will County for the time being. Speed limits are lowered through construction zones, and impatient drivers risk lives by recklessly switching lanes and tailgating.
Southland drivers traveling I-80 west of New Lenox should slow down and use caution through work areas. When completed, the rebuilt highway will offer improved access and safety, but work will continue for at least four more years.
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.