Traffic Is Back In Illinois. Are Repair Crews Prepared For The Stress On Roads?

cars travel down the interstate in Chicago
Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
cars travel down the interstate in Chicago
Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Traffic Is Back In Illinois. Are Repair Crews Prepared For The Stress On Roads?

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Illinois’ roads, which were graded one of the worst in the country, are seeing an increase in traffic as the state continues to lift coronavirus restrictions. Are maintenance crews prepared?

Nationwide, vehicle travel last month largely reached prepandemic levels, according to data from the analytics company INRIX. And traffic in 34 states has exceeded prepandemic numbers from the end of February. In neighboring Indiana, vehicle travel is up 10% from February.

In Illinois, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said traffic has been increasing on the inbound Eisenhower Expressway, inbound Kennedy Expressway and inbound Dan Ryan Expressway.

Nick Jarmusz, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association–The Auto Club Group in the Midwest, said he expects traffic will also increase in Chicago as more businesses open up.

Imad Al-Qadi, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the stopping and accelerating of thousands of vehicles at intersections could result in a road condition called “rutting,” a wavy depression in the pavement. As for those pesky potholes, Al-Qadi said they’re mostly caused by weather and seasonal changes, not the number of cars on the road.

As Chicago returns to one of the most traffic-congested cities in the country, that means more costly repairs.

However, both the city and the state had already increased their budget for road maintenance.

IDOT budgeted $3.76 billion this year for the highway program, which includes improving or constructing highways and traffic safety projects. That’s an increase from the $2.2 billion from 2019 and $1.9 billion from 2018.

And Chicago also has millions of dollars dedicated to road repairs.

The Chicago Department of Transportation allocated $11.9 million to the Division of Infrastructure Management, up from $11.1 million in 2019, according to the city of Chicago’s 2020 Budget Overview.

But it remains unclear whether the allocated budgets will cover any additional damage from a potential increase in traffic if commuters choose to drive instead of taking public transportation.

When asked about a potential sudden traffic increase, the IDOT spokeswoman said they’re looking to continue ongoing road maintenance projects and encourage drivers to maintain safe driving practices.

CDOT did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding traffic increases.

Illinois’ roads were already “poor,” so what’s being done about it?

The problem of deteriorating roads in Illinois isn’t new. The American Society of Civil Engineers graded Illinois’ road conditions as a D in 2018, with 19% “in poor condition.”

And a previous method of calculating deterioration estimated 4,238 miles of roads in IDOT’s jurisdiction are in need of immediate improvement by 2020. IDOT has since adopted a “worse-first” philosophy to proactively preserve and maintain roads before they need total replacement and projected a “decrease over the long term” of roads in poor condition.

Jarmusz, from the American Automobile Association, said congestion can be dealt with proactively, with relatively low-budget solutions like optimizing traffic signals through a centralized system to allow for a better flow of traffic.

Businesses could also consider staggering work times to avoid a condensed rush hour when huge masses of cars are entering and leaving downtown areas, he said.

“If right now, more people are opting to drive instead of taking the train, we need to figure out how to make that work as best as possible,” Jarmusz said. “You got to meet people where they are.”

CDOT did not respond to requests for comment on Jarmusz’ ideas.

Ultimately, Al-Qadi said the underlying issue of degrading roads needs to be addressed through an increased focus on research, innovation and long-term solutions, which he said can only be achieved through increased funding.

Minju Park is a news intern for WBEZ.