The engineering firm behind North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction

December 10, 2014 at 2:30 pm

I’m writing a case study on the North Lake Shore Drive Reconstruction project for an assignment. When digging through the project’s Stakeholder Involvement Plan, I found a little-publicized piece of information: the engineering firm behind the project.

Few media articles about the project – and there were a lot of articles when it was announced – made mention of the firm. IDOT has not really publicized it. The only mention I found was in a slideshow about the first meeting in the Sun-Times:

Ignore the clickbait headline.

Ignore the clickbait headline.

I’m not too familiar with what sort of relationship Civiltech Engineering has with IDOT throughout this project. But a quick overview of Civiltech’s projects reveal their expertise: Roads.

Capture d’écran 2014-12-10 à 11.52.08

Civiltech also engineered the LaSalle Drive Reconfiguration, an out-of-human-scale, suburban-style roadway leading to Lake Shore Drive from Clark St in Lincoln Park:

LaSalle Drive heading west through Lincoln Park. Image: Google.

LaSalle Drive heading west through Lincoln Park. Image: Google.

There are a few non-roadway projects in Civiltech’s portfolio, such as a playground and the Des Plaines River trail improvement, but it’s still mostly roads. Perhaps this is symptomatic of our society’s over-investment in roadways (i.e., of course their portfolio is mostly roads, that’s where we put all of our money).

What I worry about is Civiltech’s ability to balance the public’s Top 20 Ideas to Redefine the Drive, which are:

  1. Separate bike/pedestrian users on Lakefront Trail (263 Comments)
  2. Improve Transit Service (185)
  1. Improve east-west pedestrian/bike connections and facilities (134)
  2. Grade separate Lakefront Trail at junctions and pedestrian tunnels (104)
  3. Add trees and natural landscaping areas (101)
  4. Add green space east of NLSD (Grand to LaSalle) (81)
  5. Separate Inner and Outer Drives (64)
  6. Add green space between Inner and Outer Drives (61)
  7. Realign the Oak Street curve (61)
  8. Reduce/enforce speed limit on NLSD (56)
  9. Expand lake fill to improve shoreline flood protection (55)
  10. Relocate and/or expand Oak Street Beach (51)
  11. Add more pedestrian/bicycle access points to the lakefront (53)
  12. Improve signage and wayfinding including path mile markers (44)
  13. Reconfigure NLSD (41) [by tunneling it, or restoring it to a boulevard]
  14. Add a west side bicycle highway (33)
  15. Expand park space at Oak Street & Michigan Avenue (32)
  16. Improve storm water management/add bio-swales (31)
  17. Construct a Chicago Avenue junction (30)
  18. Narrow the Inner Drive (22)

In other words, the top things on people’s minds are improving safety and “level of service” for people walking, biking, and taking transit, improving parkland, reducing the speed limit, or narrowing some roadways.

There is very little recorded input for expanding the roadway, improving the roadway’s level of service, and other things that roadway engineers and IDOT uniquely specialize in.

From the beginning, pro-active transport groups in the city have been pushing hard to ensure this doesn’t become another standard-issue IDOT project, where the public input process is a farce: decisions are made, announced, and carried out without regard for the public. Small victories have been won: the Purpose and Need Statement, the driving document behind all future planning interventions for the project, was originally pages of engineering jargon dealing almost exclusively with automobile movement, with a few paragraphs regarding the experience of the 70,000 bus passengers or tens of thousands of trail users. The professional training and focus of the people writing it was evident. After pressure, it was revised to prioritize non-motorized travel and safety and included numerous other revisions that balanced the document.

I’m not sure if this is symbolic of change at IDOT (I doubt it). I have issue with IDOT overseeing the project in the first place, as this is a roadway which is contained entirely within a large, incorporated city, affects the hundreds of thousands living in its adjacent neighbourhoods, and would be perfectly managed by CDOT, which is more responsible to the city administration and (ostensibly) the public. It is not a roadway that travels across jurisdictions or affects the state. In an ideal world, IDOT’s jurisdiction over Lake Shore Drive would have ended before this project began.

Regardless of the ideal, it’s important to keep in mind that IDOT should not be trusted to take into account the public’s input, especially given their own history and the past experience of the engineering firm they selected. I wonder why the firm was not chosen in a more transparent way after the public’s input was thoroughly solicited, given that no engineering plans really needed to be done to gather input on what Lake Shore Drive’s problems are. Ideally, the firm would have been selected based on a firm’s proven ability to balance the needs of people on foot, bike, or transit first – since those are the recorded public’s priorities.

Keep in mind who is helping run the show behind the curtain while the planning process continues. It would severely disappointing to see the public’s input ignored – Chicago deserves a lakefront planned for and by its residents, not engineers.