Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Amstutz Expressway: Lake County's "Road to Nowhere"

Freeway proposals don't always work out, as this site has discussed with both New York City and Chicago's abandoned expressway proposals. Still many others are built, but not in the entirety their planners originally envisioned them to be. Such is the case of Lake County, Illinois' Amstutz Expressway, one of the shortest and least traveled limited access freeways in the Chicago area.

Image: Amstutz Expy under Grand Ave. Google Maps
A Lakefront highway proposal had been planned since the very early part of the 20th century in eastern Lake County. Generally, early proposals had the road continuing to near or even beyond the Wisconsin State Line.

During the early 1970's, the North Amstutz was completed between Greenwood Ave and Sheridan Rd, where it remains to this day.

So how exactly did we get here, and what is the future of this road?

Looking south at the north end of the Amstutz. Image: [jonrevProjects]
Planning and Design:

The main purpose for the road existing in the first place was to facilitate traffic from the Tri-State (I-94), about three miles west of the plan area, to Naval Station Great Lakes, industrial areas in North Chicago (such as Abbvie Pharmaceuticals), and downtown Waukegan.


One page of a 1985 IDOT planning document showing three different proposals for the facility. "The Buckley Road Alternative" was chosen. Well, sort of.
Plans in favor of the expressway noted the safer and more efficient access to the industrial areas of North Chicago and Waukegan, something that remains an issue to this day. 

The plan chosen was to reconstruct Buckley Rd (IL-137) as a 6 lane arterial corridor between I-94 and the eventual location of the Amstutz, just immediately west of Sheridan Rd. To help facilitate traffic along the chosen plan, the Amstutz would be a northerly extension of IL-137, making it a "J" Shaped route, with both east-west and north-south cardinal directions. 

Unfortunately, right as development of the Amstutz gained traction, economic downturns in both cities invalidated the benefits the expressway was to provide, and thus the Amstutz we know today is a tale of two unconnected limited access north-south freeways both carrying the IL-137 designation, separated by downtown North Chicago. In 2010, the South Amstutz was renamed the Bobby Thompson Expy. The link between these two freeways was described in the 1985 plan, but never built.



I've made a map of this plan below. In Crimson is the never built east-west 24th St Fwy, in Pink is the current Bobby Thompson Expy, in Red is the unbuilt connection between the Amstutz and the Bobby Thompson, in Green is the current Amstutz Expy, and in Periwinkle is the never built north extension to Wadsworth Ave.



The Road Today:
Now sealed up, this is what the north end of the Amstutz looked like at Greenwood Ave. This was known as "The Batcave" Image: [jonrevProjects]
Today, as stated, the Amstutz is actually two different highways. Illinois 137 turns north from Buckley and becomes the Bobby Thompson Expressway, which runs between Buckley and MLK Jr. Dr, about a mile in length. 137 then continues along Sheridan Rd through North Chicago and Waukegan.

Interestingly, depending on which signs you're looking at, you'll see Sheridan Rd if it's an IDOT sign and Genesee St if it's a Waukegan sign, as the road is aligned closer to Genesee in Waukegan's grid system, even if Sheridan Rd makes more sense to thru travelers.


Genesee St sign put up by Wauekgan. Image: Google Maps
IL 137 Sheridan Rd sign maintained by IDOT. Image: Google Maps
Finally, at an intersection with Genesee St (confusing things further), IL 137 becomes a limited access freeway with an interchange at Grand Av and Greenwood Av. And that's how it gets the moniker of "Road to Nowhere". The lack of interchanges does allow it to be closed for filming movies, such as Groundhog Day.



In addition, Batman Begins was also filmed here, specifically the location of the Batcave, which is how the never built section under Greenwood Av got its name. 
"The Batcave" the unbuilt area under Greenwood Av at the Amstutz's north end. This was sealed up in recent construction. Image: [jonrevProjects], 2011




That's about it. The road completely bypasses downtown Waukegan to the east, cutting off access to the lakefront as well as the Waukegan Harbor. You can see the entirety of both the Amstutz and the Bobby Thompson in the video below. Combined, it takes less than three minutes to drive the entire length of each highway in one direction.




I will say about the Amstutz; even in its present form, it's far from useless. Those referring to it as a "massive purple wart" are hyperbolic, even if their ultimate point is correct. In 2017, when the road was being used as a set for Chicago Fire, it was closed for three days. During those rush hours, Sheridan Road, its parallel surface street, had huge backups in both directions. While it only handles 15,000 cars per day, that's still about six times as many cars as I-180 in Central Illinois serves.

The Bobby Thompson Expressway also prevents Sheridan Rd traffic from getting caught at the very busy Union Pacific North line railroad crossing at MLK Jr. Blvd, and helps facilitate traffic into the Naval Station, which can back up significantly during graduation days.

Future:

That being said, it unquestionably makes it difficult for the City of Waukegan to fully take advantage of its lakefront. It's a difficult and unsafe walk over the highway and the adjacent railroad tracks.

However, the road was recently repaved, with reconstruction eliminating the ghost ramps that were built to facilitate a future north extension, not that it was ever going to be extended north anyway. Thus, I wouldn't expect any major changes to the alignment or grade anytime soon. Connecting to the Bobby Thompson and completing the Lakefront Expressway as planned is all but dead.

But in the longer term, perhaps a conversion to an at-grade boulevard, similar to what was once I-895 in New York becoming NY-895, might help connect downtown Waukegan to the rest of the lakefront, along with a realignment of railroad tracks in the area. Such a boulevard could easily handle the Amstutz's current traffic volume.

What do you want to see as the future of this facility? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks as always for reading!

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