Temporary traffic changes at Elgin intersection could become permanent
By Dave Gathman email@example.com August 11, 2012 4:18PM
The different configuration at the intersection of Dundee Avenue, Rt. 25 and Liberty Street in Elgin. August 8, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 13, 2012 6:11AM
ELGIN — Physically, the barriers closing off all traffic flow along South Street where it intersects with Walnut Avenue are obviously meant to be temporary.
Made of lightweight orange plastic, they got their massive weight by pumping hundreds of pounds of water into them after they were lifted into place in March. Drain plugs at their bottoms allow the water to be drained away, and those barriers carted away, just as easily at any time.
But those supposedly temporary traffic changes — put into place along South Street to deal with an expected onrush of traffic due to a state construction project a mile away — may soon become permanent.
It that happens, South and Walnut would join a growing list of oddly shaped Elgin-area intersections that have gotten major makeovers — increasing safety but sometimes at the cost of driver convenience.
Elgin officials decided to put the changes along South Street into effect on March 2 after the Illinois Department of Transportation announced that, as part of the three-year-long remodeling of the interchange between Route 20 and McLean Boulevard, ramps connecting Route 20 with McLean would be closed periodically. City officials feared that huge numbers of drivers who normally use Route 20 would start using the combination of Walnut Avenue, South Street and Lillian Street as a detour.
As the streets have been arranged for decades, east-west Walnut Avenue runs into the northeast-to-southwest artery South Street at about a 30-degree angle. A stop sign forces westbound traffic along Walnut to stop and yield to any traffic from either direction along South. Then, three blocks to the west, traffic going in either direction along South must stop again at a four-way intersection between South and Edison Avenue.
Fearing those two stop signs would create long traffic backups during the Route 20 construction, the officials ordered removal of the stop signs on Walnut at South and on South at Edison. They also put up those orange barriers along South Street at Walnut and added stop signs along South Street at Wilcox Avenue, which became the new way for westbound drivers to get from South to Walnut.
Decision this fall
Mayor David Kaptain said that although the new arrangement was a hastily-cobbled-together response to that Route 20 construction project, the city’s safety committee will talk this fall about whether the new arrangement should be made permanent.
“I think people are getting used to it,” Kaptain said. “With the old setup, if you were westbound on Walnut and stopped at the stop sign for South Street, you’d have to turn your neck practically behind you to check whether anybody was coming (from the right) along South Street.”
Most residents of the immediate neighborhood said they think the new setup is great.
“When the road was open, there were always accidents up there (at South and Walnut),” said Curt Wells, who lives three blocks to the northeast. “The traffic on South Street (east of Wilcox) is a lot calmer now, because people farther east know they can’t get through anymore. So they drive down Walnut instead of South.”
“Kids can get out and ride their bikes on this block again,” said a man who identified himself only as “Big Red.”
One business is affected by the change. Since opening along South Street in 1961 between Wilcox and Walnut, Gary’s Automotive car repair shop has had thousands of cars passing by its door every day. Now, because of the barriers, its block has become a dead-end cul de sac with no through traffic.
“This has cut my business a little,” said owner Todd Nohl, who has lived next door to the garage all his life and whose father, Gary Nohl, started the business. “Most of my customers are repeats or referrals, but some people would notice us while driving by.”
“I understand his concern,” Kaptain said. “Perhaps we could add signage pointing out how to get to his garage.”
Nohl admitted that “if I didn’t have a business here, I’d say this is a great idea. I like how it has cut down traffic.”
But for people who live a little farther from the shut-off area, the new setup can be inconvenient, said Joel Brumbaugh, who lives two blocks to the north. Brumbaugh said he used to be able to just drive down Wilcox to South Street, then make an easy right turn.
Now he has to drive an extra block to Walnut, where it is much harder to turn either left or right, because Walnut has more cross-traffic and cars parked in front of businesses there make it hard to see traffic coming from the sides.
Jose Corona, who lives three blocks to the north, said he also has a tough time turning onto or crossing Walnut from Wilcox. “Maybe the city should put a four-way stop sign at Walnut and Wilcox,” he suggested.
East side parallel
A very similar geometric problem involving two major Elgin thoroughfares was addressed in a somewhat similar way on the city’s northeast side about 30 years ago.
Instead of South Street, the diagonal street that continued on was Dundee Avenue. Instead of Walnut, the street that ran into Dundee Avenue at a shallow angle was Liberty Street, which at that point is also Route 25. And instead of Wilcox, the side street that was called on to connect the two at a 90-degree angle was Page Avenue.
This intersection is even busier than South and Walnut. Instead of having just one stop sign at the corner, Dundee and Liberty has traffic signals, and there’s a third arterial street, Congdon Avenue, that also crosses the intersection.
When the area was remodeled in the 1980s, city officials decided traffic would flow more smoothly and safely not by completely closing off one of the street connections (as at Walnut and South) but by turning the intersection into three pieces of one-way street. Dundee between Liberty and Page (a three-block stretch) became one-way southbound. Liberty between Dundee and Page became one-way northbound. And Page between Dundee and Liberty became one-way eastbound.
The new arrangement seems to work well, but the cost and bother of all those traffic lights and street changes is far beyond what anybody has suggested doing at Walnut and South.
Some other area intersections that have had awkward, obtuse angles turned into right-angle turns:
In the old country crossroads known as Starks Crossings, which is now part of Pingree Grove, Routes 20 and 72 used to cross Route 47 close to each other, then cross what is now the Canadian Pacific Railroad, then intersect with each other at an obtuse angle.
In the mid-20th century, that was all reworked into an odd layout in which Route 20 and Route 72 seem to swap identities. A bridge was built to carry the railroad over Route 47. Routes 20 and 72 both were rerouted to share the roadway with Route 47 under the railroad. The old grade-level rail crossings were shut off and some new road connections were built.
Now, if you start out on Route 72 going either direction and keep going straight at Starks, you’ll suddenly find yourself driving on Route 20. And if you start out driving in either direction along Route 20 and just keep going straight, you’re suddenly driving on Route 72.
But look at a map or an aerial photo, and you’ll see that the two sides of Route 72 line up with each other, and so do the two sides of Route 20. Nobody on any of the three highways ever has to wait for a train to cross the road at a surface crossing. And all the movements from one road to another are right-angle turns protected by traffic signals.
The most extensive realignment in recent years came in 2006-2010, when the Stearns Road extension and bridge were built.
Until that project, Dunham Road ran into Route 25 at about a 45-degree angle along the Bartlett-South Elgin-Wayne border. Stearns Road ran into Route 25 at about the same place and ended at that point. Until a few years ago, only stop signs kept these intersections in order.
As part of the Stearns Road extension project, the existing roadways were moved so that Dunham now intersects with the east leg of Stearns at a 90-degree angle; the north leg of Route 25 comes in directly opposite the north end of Dunham; Stearns and Route 25 share the same pavement for about a quarter mile; the new west leg of Stearns intersects with the south leg of Route 25 at a 90-degree angle; and all these crossings are protected by traffic signals.
In the old country crossroads known as Udina west of Elgin, which is now part of Elgin, Plank Road used to run into Route 20 at about a 45-degree angle. Coombs Road ran into Route 20 at a right angle about half a block away. A few years ago, the intersection was rearranged by tearing down a tavern at the corner, adding traffic signals, and making both Plank and Coombs run into Route 20 at 90-degree angles, directly opposite each other.
In downtown “Old Carpentersville,” Wisconsin Avenue used to run into Washington Street at about a 30-degree angle, protected only by a stop sign. About 20 years ago, the layout was changed so that Wisconsin now ends a block farther north, at Spring Street. Southbound drivers on Wisconsin now must turn left onto Spring Street and go one block to intersect with Washington at a 90-degree angle.