The community got a sneak peek Thursday into how the state might overhaul the Veterans Parkway/Empire Street hub, one of Bloomington’s busiest and most dangerous intersections.
The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) hosted two virtual information sessions. Both offered preliminary findings of The Veterans Parkway at Empire Street (Interstate 55 Business/Illinois 9) Feasibility Study.
“It has the highest potential for safety improvements in District 5,” said Jake Hohl, project manager with Wight and Company, a consultant group working with IDOT and Quigg Engineering on the study. Bloomington is part of the seven-county district, based in Paris, Ill. IDOT divides the state into nine districts.
In a 2013-2017 study, 160 accidents were recorded at the Veterans/Empire intersection, Hohl said. And, in 2019, an 18-year-old pedestrian from Bloomington was killed when he was hit by a vehicle while crossing there.
It’s early in the project, so no timeline for possible design or construction was available Thursday. Projects floated during the meeting varied tremendously in possible cost, ranging from $11.1 million to $51.2 million. The higher end prices, partly reflected a need for right-of-way land purchases, organizers said. Making no changes to the intersection also was presented as an option.
Sessions featured 3-D animated traffic models for seven possible reconfigurations. Afterward, participants were polled on their favorite model. No overall favorite emerged after both sessions ended.
Brian Hogan, an IDOT engineer and one of Thursday’s panelists, said about 100 people registered to attend the virtual event.
He said the public can view the roughly one-hour program online, and take the survey, at the project’s website, www.VeteransParkwayOutreach.com, until mid-February. Public input will be part of the project’s record.
The study considered several factors, including possible costs, right-of-way factors and patterns for through-traffic, left turns, and right turns. It also examined congestion during peak drive times, and areas it considered conflict points, for safety performance, within each of the two strategic route’s five controlled intersections.
Possible modernizations include designs of Veterans Parkway having the "continuous flow," model over a bridge, while Empire Street passes under at street level. Two others create systems where Veterans passes under Empire -- one with a circular, "center turn overpass" model, and another with a complex "diverging diamond" model. Yet another offers up the "throughabout" model, an urban high-flow version of uptown Normal's roundabout.
All these alternate versions of the current Veterans/Empire setup include an east-west pedestrian/bike path along the northern edge of Empire Street. The path would have crosswalks for traveling over Veterans Parkway. Hohl said an Empire Street project that’s already in a Phase 1 study calls for that pathway. So, IDOT’s engineers presumed any future intersection work would incorporate it.
The Empire Street project is expected to be in early planning for another year, and then will move to the engineering study phase, said IDOT’s Scott Neihart.
He said none of the seven designs presented Thursday exist in any District 5 roadway, as of now. A few of the designs are part of interstates 80 and 90 in northern Illinois, he said.
Hohl said the need to address Veterans at Empire stems from a 2009 IDOT road safety assessment that found a confusing landscape for drivers: Highway-style signs overhead create a perception of a high-speed area, while close intersections and high congestion convey a slow-speed area, he said.
Veterans’ Parkway handles about 45,000 vehicles each day. The combined east and west branches of Empire Street account for about 40,000 vehicles, according to Thursday’s presentation.
The new feasibility study finds revamping this high-traffic hub is needed for two main reasons: Regional planners predict continued population growth that, in turn, will mean higher traffic congestion; and the area already has one of District 5’s highest crash rates.
Of those 160 crashes recorded in the four-year 2017 study, about half were rear-end crashes, many involving vehicles running red lights. All but three were at main center intersection; the rest were on the turn ramps. Three of every 10 accidents there resulted in injuries, Hohl said.
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