Despite some last-minute calls to delay the project, Riverside trustees voted 5 to 1, Friday, to enter into an agreement with the Illinois Department of Transportation and move ahead with improvements to the intersection of First and Forest avenues.
Work should begin late in the summer of 2014, following the completion of a sewer-line project at the intersection, which is expected to snarl traffic there throughout the summer.
Trustee Doug Pollock was the lone “no” vote to going forward with the IDOT project, which will include right-turn lanes on southbound First Avenue at Ridgewood and westbound Forest Avenue at First Avenue.
Pollock, along with several of the 25 or so residents who turned out for a special meeting of the village board on Feb. 28, objected in particular to the right-turn lane on First Avenue, which will widen the pedestrian crossing there by 6 feet.
“I’m sensing that this intersection is being primarily designed for cars, and I’d like us to work a little harder to make it safer for students and residents in general,” said Pollock. “This intersection needs to be a model for pedestrian safety.”
Theresa Pelletier, an IDOT project engineer who is also a Riverside resident, fielded several questions from Pollock at the meeting, in regard to safety features he suggested be included in the project — among them, moving the stop line further away from the crosswalk, placing bollards at the corners, flashing lights approaching the intersection, lowering the speed limit and placing portable pedestrian crossing signs in the middle of the intersection.
In almost every instance, Pelletier explained that the features Pollock sought either made the intersection less safe or didn’t conform to federal standards. Bollards, for example, might obscure the vision of both motorists and pedestrians (especially children), and portable crossing signs could become projectiles if hit by passing cars or trucks.
Pelletier rebutted arguments that widening First Avenue by 6 feet made it more dangerous and that the design took into account vehicle flow rather than pedestrian safety.
Rather, she said, the planned improvements would do just the opposite.
“I can unequivocally say this intersection will be safer after these improvements are done,” Pelletier said.
In addition to the turn lanes, the project will include new lighting at the intersection, new LED countdown traffic signals and the installation of an 8-foot-wide bike/pedestrian path that will run along the west side of First Avenue from Parkway Road to a spot about 615 feet north of Ridgewood Road.
The path is the first leg of what may become a much longer path that could link the area to the Salt Creek Bike Trail and would provide a safe route for students walking or biking to and from Riverside-Brookfield High School from North Riverside.
Riverside President Ben Sells said at the meeting that he had met in late February with Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski (D-16th) and representatives from RBHS, Riverside School District 96 and the Cook County Forest Preserve District about such a path.
“It looks like this project may well be in our grasp,” said Sells, who also supported the IDOT improvements at First and Forest. “This [IDOT] project enables us to build the first part of the path.”
In all, the improvements to the intersection will cost about $1.2 million. Riverside’s vote on Feb. 28 authorized the village to spend up to $50,000 for improvements to the traffic signals at the intersection. The remainder is being funded through a grant from the Federal Highway Administration.
Residents who spoke out at the meeting about safety concerns called for an underpass or overpass for pedestrians to be built, an idea that stretches back many years and which was the catalyst for the present attention to the intersection.
The improvements planned by IDOT this year will not preclude such an option in the future, said Pelletier.
“A bridge or tunnel is possible but not as part of this plan,” said Pelletier. “It’s not going to jeopardize [a tunnel or bridge] project, but there is a limit [to the funding].”
Trustee Jean Sussman cautioned those who oppose the project not to throw away an opportunity to make improvements and seek perfection in the form of a grade separation.
But Riverside resident Randy Brockway, who has spearheaded efforts to address safety at the intersection since 2011, disagreed.
“We’re not striving for perfection, we’re settling for a mediocre project,” Brockway said.
However, Police Chief Thomas Weitzel called the project “a drastic improvement.
“The improvements outlined will make the intersection safer, undoubtedly,” said Weitzel. “There’s no ‘perfect,’ but this will be a dramatic improvement for both pedestrians and vehicles.”