Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider (left) listens as RBHS school board member Mike Welch voices safety concerns.Bob Uphues/Staff

More than a year ago, an Illinois Department of Transportation official announced that significant improvements were coming to the intersection of First and Forest avenues in Riverside, and expedited to be completed in 2015.

Then a funny thing happened. The official retired and the project disappeared from IDOT’s radar. No mention of it was made in the agency’s road project schedule for 2013-18 and as late as this spring, IDOT officials said they didn’t know when the project would move ahead.

But last week, IDOT promised again to fast-track the improvements, which would include two new right-turn only lanes and digital countdown signals. Lending a little leverage to the promise is that it came from one of Gov. Pat Quinn’s cabinet members, Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider, who attended a meeting of local and state officials at Riverside-Brookfield High School on June 20.

“It looks like we’ll put this on a fast track and see what we can do for [construction bid] letting,”
said Schneider.

If school officials, Riverside officials and local residents can come to an agreement on the scope of the improvements in the coming months, IDOT officials said the project could be put out to bid in June 2014, with construction taking place in 2015.

“We have to identify the need, come to an agreement and show alternatives,” said John Fortmann, IDOT’s deputy director of highways and one of six IDOT officials to attend the June 20 meeting.

“By and large, these are pretty straightforward improvements,” Fortmann said.

State Rep. Michael Zalewski was instrumental in getting the proposed improvements to the attention of high-ranking officials within IDOT.

Zalewski was present at the meeting and argued that the project be given priority.

“There’s a compelling need to attend to these matters now,” said Zalewski, a Riverside resident. “To make this situation a little bit safer, it would mean a lot to me personally.”

Funding for the improvements, about $900,000 in all, is coming from federal and state sources. The vast majority of the project will be funded by the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program.

The Illinois Department of Transportation estimates it will spend about $200,000 for land acquisition related to the improvements. For example, IDOT likely will need to purchase land from Riverside-Brookfield High School on the northwest corner of First Avenue and Ridgewood Road to accommodate a right-turn lane there. The school’s electronic sign will also need to be relocated, a cost to be borne by IDOT.

“The trickiest part is buying property from the local school district,” said Fortmann.

However, IDOT is making no promises for additional improvements that some local residents and school officials would like to be made — a sidewalk or bike path down the west side of First Avenue from Ridgewood Road to at least 31st Street and potentially as far as 26th Street — to allow North Riverside students who aren’t driven to school a safer way of getting there.

A bike path is central to the push a group of Riverside and Brookfield residents, led by Riverside resident Randy Brockway, has been making since 2011. Brockway, in particular, has led the charge for a path connecting Riverside with the Salt Creek Bike Trail and for taking measures to increase safety at First and Forest avenues.

Brockway has called for an overpass at the intersection to keep pedestrians and bicyclists away from the roughly 40,000 vehicles per day that traverse the state highway. So far, there has been little support for an overpass. But Brockway considered the June 20 meeting a success.

“The vision is a little less grand, but it’s not that we couldn’t expand on it in the future,” said Brockway.

As far as getting a bike path or sidewalk built along First Avenue, he acknowledged that it would take fine-tuned coordination between several governmental agencies, including the Cook County Forest Preserve District, Riverside-Brookfield High School and the village of Riverside.

He’s wondering if the state might not be able to take on the project.

“I was thinking of going back and seeing if we can’t get the state to step in and build that path, instead of piecing it together over time,” said Brockway.

In the meantime, Schneider said IDOT would be meeting soon with village and high school officials to work on initial steps for moving the intersection improvements ahead.