Updated 1/17/12 1:05 p.m.
The Illinois Department of Transportation sent the village of Riverside and Riverside-Brookfield High School an early Valentine last week, announcing it would install left turn signals on eastbound Ridgewood Road and westbound Forest Avenue at First Avenue this summer in an attempt to alleviate maddening traffic backups immediately before and after school.
In addition, IDOT officials Diane O’Keefe and Steven Travia told members of the Riverside police Traffic and Parking Review Committee that dedicated right turn lanes would be added to westbound Forest Avenue and southbound First Avenue by as early as 2015, an improvement that would include a full replacement of signals at the intersection, which is crossed by scores of high school and grade school students daily.
According to Travia, work to install the left turn signals will begin during the spring with the expectation that they’ll be ready by summer.
“There will be four new signal heads put up on existing infrastructure,” Travia said. “We’re pretty confident we can get that much done. Other improvements with the larger job will come along [later].”
The change should improve traffic flow near the high school at drop-off and pickup times, when cars routinely back up on Forest Avenue and Ridgewood Roads. With large numbers of students crossing First Avenue, there is little time for making left turns from Ridgewood or right hand turns from Forest Avenue onto northbound First Avenue.
As left turn traffic backs up, it also impedes the flow of eastbound traffic, resulting in long waits through multiple light cycles before cars can make it across. Some motorists, frustrated with the waits try to squeeze through as lights change, drive over sidewalks and violate the center line.
While there have been no serious pedestrian incidents at the intersection, school and police officials say it’s inevitable.
“When there’s such a huge back-up here, people get impatient, and people who are not familiar with the area get tied up in this and get impatient, and that’s when people do stupid things,” said Riverside Police Sgt. William Gutschick, who is the chairman of the traffic and parking committee. “And it’s only a matter of time before someone ends up getting hurt.”
The news that IDOT will change the signals this spring was a surprise to members of the committee, who had called on the area’s state representatives to appear at their meeting Thursday in order to put some pressure on IDOT to do something. State Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) and Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero) were present at the meeting.
But IDOT apparently came to the meeting ready to start accommodating Riverside’s request for improvements to that intersection, and O’Keefe said IDOT is committed to the other improvements, such as pedestrian countdown signals, down the road and has assigned an engineer to the project.
“We are committing that we are going to bring this into the program one way or another,” said O’Keefe, who is IDOT’s regional engineer.
Michelle Ryan, a Brookfield resident who is a citizen member of the committee, agreed that the change will improve traffic flow. She was not convinced the change would improve safety dramatically.
Ryan is a member of the Riverside-Brookfield Bike/Pedestrian Bridge Steering Committee, a group of citizens organized by Riverside resident Randy Brockway to lobby and seek out funding for an overpass/underpass at First Avenue.
That group will meet again in February to discuss its plans for linking the Salt Creek Bike Trail to the intersection of First and Forest avenues. The group will continue to press for a solution larger than adding right turn lanes and new signals.
On Thursday, Ryan pointed to a study IDOT completed in 1997 in which the agency itself called for an overpass at the intersection. Traffic has increased in the 15 years since that study was completed. Last year, IDOT estimated that nearly 40,000 vehicles pass through that intersection each day.
With such heavy traffic volume, Ryan reiterated her group’s call for a second crossing guard at the location, especially since the addition of a right turn lane would make the trek across First Avenue even longer for pedestrians.
Meanwhile, Riverside Village Manager Peter Scalera urged IDOT officials to consider including traffic medians on First Avenue in the longer-range plan as an additional safety measure.
Scalera also said that the village is looking to see if Riverside can acquire forest preserve property the two eastern corners in order to beautify that entrance to the village and install way-finding signage.