TRANSPORTATION : Big Overhaul Has Chicagoans Facing Havoc on the Highway


O'Hareaphobia, as many a well worn air traveler can attest, is the dread of having to navigate through this city's sprawling and overstuffed international airport, the world's busiest.

Starting this week, however, getting through O'Hare might seem like a breeze compared to the freeway nightmare of getting to or from it.

That's because the main route between the airport and the Loop or other downtown locales is being overhauled. Repair crews have begun tearing up concrete for a three-year, $450-million project that will totally rebuild a 7.5-mile, axle-busting stretch of Interstates 90 and 94, better known here as the Kennedy Expressway.

The Kennedy is also the major artery between the central city and the northern suburbs. State highway officials estimate that the road carries 250,000 vehicles a day. What's more, they say, more than half the 58 million travelers who fly to and from the airport each year end up taking some portion of the Kennedy to their final destinations.

There is no plan to shut the road down, but taking even a few of its 10 lanes out of service could create the kind of chronic highway havoc that Southern California drivers might experience if, say, such a monumental reconstruction job were attempted on the San Diego Freeway. Rush hour snarls on the first weekday of construction Monday were heavy but not horrendous, although the severity of backups was expected to worsen as the work progressed.

It's not that the moonscape surface of the Kennedy doesn't need a major face lift. Like other roads in northern cities, the pavement shows the many effects of rain, road salt, snow scrapers, freezing, thawing and baking.

"The cold and hot, back and forth, that's why you wind up with all these cracks and potholes," explained Ed Nash, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation. "This expressway was built to last only 20 years, and it's now been more than 30."

For weeks, motorists have been warned to add at least 15 or 20 minutes to their commuting times and implored to consider detours or public transportation.

Still, despite some apprehension about the impact on Chicago's economy, tourism officials seem to believe that (with apologies to Kevin Costner) if you tear it up, they will still come. "People will complain, there's no doubt about it, but there are so many great things going on here that they'll just adjust," insisted Dorothy Coyle of the Chicago Office of Tourism.

Many businesses that rely on the highways have literally mapped out battle plans. John McCarthy, president of an airport shuttle service, said that anticipated Kennedy tie-upshad forced his firm to hire 30 extra drivers and add 10 vans.

Andrea Lafever of Federal Express said her company sends more than 100 shuttles over the Kennedy each night, and a delay of even a few minutes could affect on-time next-morning deliveries of as many as 20,000 customers and 60,000 packages. "Ten minutes, you may think that's not too bad, but in the express business every minute counts," she said. "Ten minutes is quite sizable."

And what about the commuter train that runs from the Loop to O'Hare? The fare is only $1.50. The drawback: The trains have no luggage racks, but do transport many light-fingered passengers.

"You'd have to be right there (with the luggage) if you're smart," said a rail spokesman. "You couldn't leave it at the end of a car."

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