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Article updated: 3/18/2013 6:57 PM

$126 million roadwork plan biggest ever for Lake County

By Mick Zawislak

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Lake County Division of Transportation, and the agency is in a giving mood.

So much so that it is about to unleash what will be by far the single largest road improvement season in its history, with an approximate construction value of $126 million. The timing is coincidental, but the pending onslaught represents the evolution of a strategy that is hitting its stride.

While the number of planned projects is about the same as in a typical year, the value is more than double that of an average season ($55 million in 2012, for example). That means there are several large jobs in the mix.

Four of those are considered complex and potentially disruptive enough to prompt a first-of-its-kind action by transportation officials: The $43 million untangling of the Rollins Road/Route 83 intersection, the $11.8 million reconstruction and widening of the Fairfield Road/Route 176 intersection, widening Washington Street from Cedar Lake Road to Hainesville Road for $7.4 million, and rebuilding and widening the intersection of Wadsworth Road and Route 131 (Green Bay Road), a $7.5 million project.

"This will be the first year we have websites dedicated to the construction stage of individual projects," said Al Giertych, assistant county engineer. "These projects are large enough and complex enough we felt it warranted to go to the individual websites."

With 32 projects planned by LCDOT -- not to mention state and local initiatives -- motorists will be hard-pressed not to run into interference at some point.

But for the county work, they will have an opportunity to voice their feelings, ask questions and receive real-time information. Another first will be the use of a webcam for the Rollins Road work to capture the action for the entire 18-month project.

"We're trying to get more interactive," said Glen Petko, engineer of construction for LCDOT. "We realize people have to live with this during construction."

Travelers should get used to it as the county plans to invest $557 million toward transportation during the next five years.

How did this happen? Essentially, it's that a county strategy is kicking into high gear, with several big projects becoming ready to build simultaneously.

Before 2008, LCDOT programmed about $25 million to $30 million in projects each year. A regional sales tax authorized that year by county officials and dedicated to transportation added $25 million annually.

To speed up things, county officials authorized $100 million in overall borrowing through bond issues to be repaid with sales taxes.

"The whole idea was to do something about the congestion in Lake County," Giertych said.

To date, about $51 million in bonds have been issued, including $31 million for the ongoing widening of Milwaukee Avenue at and beyond the intersection of Route 137 in Libertyville. Both are state roads.

The other $20 million was targeted for engineering and other advance work associated with four "challenge" projects, some of which are ready to go in 2013.

"That challenge bond program is coming to the construction stage with some very large projects," Giertych said.

The most extensive is the Rollins Road Gateway in Round Lake Beach. It involves lowering Rollins Road beneath a bridge to replace the at-grade Canadian National Railroad crossing just 35 feet west of Route 83. The crossing is used by about 50 commuter and freight trains daily and results in frequent traffic jams in the heavily commercial area.

Associated work includes relocating Hainesville Road and the Mallard Creek shopping center entrance to the west, shifting Round Lake Commons north and south shopping center entrances to the east, and widening the intersection at Route 83. Temporary sections of Rollins and Route 83 will be built so there will be no lane closures for the bulk of the project.

Construction is estimated at $43 million, with property acquisition, utility relocation, engineering and other work bringing it to about $61 million.

The project is so expansive that LCDOT officials accepted an invitation to host a booth on at the recent Round Lake Area Chamber of Commerce Expo.

"The scope of the project is so large, it's going to impact a lot of people," said Round Lake Beach Mayor Richard Hill, who is also the chamber's treasurer. "The more information they have, the more comfortable they'll feel."

Vicky Stavrou, owner of the free-standing Mrs. V's restaurant just east of the intersection, said she's "very much aware" of what is coming this summer. While the improvement will be good in the long run, she said she fears area businesses will suffer during the 18 months of construction.

"People aren't going to fight traffic. They'll find a different place to go," Stavrou said. "I'm hoping our clientele has been so faithful to us for so many years, they'll support us and come back."

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