Kids on bikes cross First Avenue on their way to Riverside-Brookfield High School in June.Bob Uphues/Staff

Planners for the Illinois Department of Transportation will complete preliminary engineering for improvements to the First Avenue/Forest Avenue intersection in Riverside by November with an eye toward construction in 2015.

That timeline was reaffirmed July 26 at a meeting that included officials for IDOT, Riverside, Brookfield, North Riverside, Riverside-Brookfield High School, Riverside School District 96 and the Pace Suburban Bus Service.

“This has been moved to IDOT’s front burner,” said Riverside Village President Ben Sells. “We want to make sure it stays there.”

IDOT presented three alternatives for the intersection, two of which included an 8-foot-wide raised median, to serve as a pedestrian safety area, in the middle of First Avenue.

However, both of those alternatives would have involved acquiring property from the Cook County Forest Preserve District. In order to keep the project moving and avoid protracted negotiations with the forest preserve district, officials overwhelmingly favored an alternative that did not include a raised median and didn’t impact forest preserve property.

“Dealing with the forest preserve is going to add about a year,” said John Baczek, section chief for IDOT’s project and environmental studies. “It’s a grueling, grueling process for us.”

Baczek said that IDOT had broached the subject at a recent meeting with forest preserve officials, but they weren’t enthusiastic.

“We did talk about this one, kind of as a prelude,” said Baczek. “At first blush, they weren’t really supportive of the impacts. From a pedestrian perspective, they thought we should leave it as is.”

As a result, the plan that is moving ahead at this time involves adding a dedicated right-turn from westbound Forest Avenue to northbound First Avenue and a dedicated right-turn lane from southbound First Avenue to westbound Ridgewood Road.

New road striping would narrow the traffic lanes approaching the intersection on northbound and southbound First Avenue from 12 to 11 feet as a traffic-calming measure.

In addition, new traffic lights with countdown signals and pedestrian pushbuttons would be installed at the intersection and concrete pads for Pace bus stops would be poured near the northeast and southwest corners.

According to IDOT, the right-turn lanes would reduce the likelihood of rear-end crashes and give pedestrians a better sense of how long they have to cross the intersection before the lights change.

While the crossing on the north side of the intersection will be increased from 65 to 76 feet due to the new right-turn lane on First Avenue, the proposed crossing is shorter than either of the alternatives featuring the raised concrete median.

But Randy Brockway, a Riverside resident who has been pushing for intersection improvements for two years, remains unsatisfied with the plan. He continues to maintain that a raised median is critical for pedestrian safety and convinced IDOT to request what’s known as a road-safety audit — an examination of the intersection by an independent group — to identify safety issues and possible solutions.

That process will run parallel to the IDOT planning effort and is not expected to delay the timeline. Sells said he wouldn’t support the audit if it delayed construction of the proposed improvements.

“If you balance the possible safety impact of the median versus at least a year of pushing this project down the road, I’ve got to say, from my standpoint, I can see where that scale tips,” said Sells. “I would hate to get bogged down in a protracted negotiation with the forest preserve district.”

Due to the right-turn lane on the west side of First Avenue, IDOT must acquire some property from Riverside-Brookfield High School to allow for the lane and the construction of a multipurpose path, which will run north along First Avenue from Ridgewood Road for about 250 feet.

That path, officials hope, is the beginning of a path that one day will continue north to 31st Street and possibly as far as 26th Street, providing a way for North Riverside residents a safe approach to RBHS.

However, completion of the path, which would require the cooperation of the forest preserve district and Brookfield Zoo, is likely years off. The high school and the village of North Riverside would likely need to lead the charge for extending the path in the future.

As for the school district ceding property to IDOT for construction of the turn lane and path, that discussion will be taken up by the District 208 school board in the coming months.

According to Baczek, that issue needs to be resolved prior to the end of preliminary engineering in November.

“It’s definitely something important to get worked out before the end of phase one,” Baczek said.

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