Commuters, Businesses Bedeviled by Suburban Road Closing Might Soon Get Relief
June 27, 2011
By Gerry Smith
Nearly 50 years ago, John Saban Sr. opened a restaurant, feeding hungry motorists along a bustling thoroughfare linking Chicago's southwestern suburbs — a stretch of the fabled Route 66.
But then the earth began to move, turning the road outside his McCook restaurant into a dead end for motorists and slowing business to a trickle.
Saban, 82, now struggles to keep his restaurant alive. Where once 20,000 cars a day passed his restaurant on Joliet Road, the through traffic these days consists mainly of dump trucks entering a nearby quarry. Most of his patrons, he said, are regulars who know how to get there.
"When this road closed, it just devastated us," Saban said.
He was not the only one affected. The 1998 shutdown of a milelong stretch of Joliet Road sparked a nine-year legal battle between the state and the quarry owner, widespread road rage and a struggle for survival among some local businesses.
On Monday, state officials hope to move beyond this fractious history. The Illinois Department of Transportation is hosting a public meeting at Lyons Township High School in Western Springs to unveil new ideas to alleviate traffic snarls caused by the closing — more turn lanes and better signals among them.
To those who commute through the area, remedies can't come soon enough.
"We've been sitting here for how many years now waiting to see if this going to be resolved?" McCook Mayor Jeffrey Tobolski said. "People just laugh because this has gone on forever."
The shutdown has affected a range of suburbs, including La Grange, Western Springs, Lyons, Countryside, Hodgkins, Brookfield, Indian Head Park and Lyons Township, according to IDOT.
The closing of Joliet Road — which was once U.S. Highway 66, the famed route from Chicago to Los Angeles — created a detour that adds a half-mile to motorists' travel by pushing them onto side streets that remain choked by the traffic.
At 47th Street and East Avenue, for example, the glut of cars caused by the detour is compounded by a railroad crossing that can leave traffic backed up for nearly a mile, Tobolski said. In response, impatient motorists speed through surrounding neighborhoods to get around the tracks, he said.
In 2009, a woman was struck and killed by an SUV as she crossed 47th Street near Eighth Avenue in La Grange with her young daughter in a stroller and her 4-month-old son strapped to her chest. The children survived.
The 47-year-old Chicago woman accused in the accident received two traffic tickets.
Tobolski blamed their deaths on a driver frustrated by the detour.
"Everybody is in a hurry to get through and not paying attention to what they're doing," Tobolski said.
The closed roadway sits atop a narrow, pillarlike ridge that divides a deep, century-old limestone quarry operated by Vulcan Materials Co. For years, the quarry has supplied crushed stone and gravel for construction and road projects in the area.
Then IDOT workers spotted strange cracks on Joliet Road. The cracks grew into dangerous dips and buckles, continuing to shift slightly and dropping more than a foot in spots. In 1998, IDOT closed Joliet Road between 55th Street and East Avenue.
In 2001, IDOT sued Vulcan, contending the company mined too close to the road, causing the pavement to buckle.
Vulcan, based in Birmingham, Ala., denied responsibility, saying the cracks that buckled the road extend much deeper than the company mined.
Last year, Vulcan settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay IDOT $40 million with no admission of liability. Vulcan continues to mine at the quarry, according to a company spokesman. The settlement money has been distributed to communities affected by the closing.
On Monday, IDOT officials plan to update the public on studies they have conducted on alleviating congestion. U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., called the plans "a very important step forward" and said even minor improvement to turning lanes "can make a big difference."
"The next step is to give people in the community their say," Lipinski said.
One frustrated motorist, Robert Musil, 81, of Burr Ridge, said it is important to restore Joliet Road to its original path. He suggested building a "sturdy, pontoonlike bridge" on the now-closed section.
Musil said the detour is "horrendous," but said he sympathized most with local business owners.
"I really feel sorry for the businesses because (the closing) just destroyed them," Musil said.
Saban said his restaurant has not been destroyed, but the kitchen is much quieter now.
Saban's Place is set back from the highway and almost invisible to motorists on nearby East Avenue.
The son of Yugoslavian immigrants, Saban opened his restaurant in 1962 next to his parent's house. At first, it was "a tiny hamburger and beer joint" where he raised seven kids "with a baby in one arm and a spatula in the other," said son John Saban Jr.
With stained-glass windows, exposed-brick walls and fireplaces, Saban's Place was modeled after a Wisconsin supper club. Over the years, the restaurant became so busy that two additions were added.
But after Joliet Road closed, drive-by customers disappeared. To keep the restaurant open, Saban has acquired bank loans using his house as collateral and has tried to lure customers by posting signs at a nearby intersection — Joliet Road and East Avenue.
"We're just going day to day," Saban said. "I don't want to lose the restaurant. I want to give it to my kids."
Standing behind the bar, Saban Jr., 50, suggested that IDOT use some of the settlement money to spruce up their section of Joliet Road, which is sometimes coated with a layer of limestone dust from the nearby quarry.
"Make it look nice," he said. "Right now, it looks like a dead-end street in Iraq."
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