Wet week begs question: Are flooded roads inevitable?

Sitting in traffic along with every other detoured driver in Downers Grove whose usual Highland Avenue route onto I-88 was flooded, I had to wonder — can we do better?

Up to 7 inches of rain Wednesday and Thursday drowned our highway, tollway and arterial road systems. From the Bishop Ford Freeway and I-55 in the South suburbs to I-290 near Elmhurst and the Edens Expressway to the north, Thursday was a soggy nightmare for commuters.

And that's just the highways. Essential roads across the region were still inaccessible during Thursday's afternoon rush-hour. The Illinois Department of Transportation listed more than 50 major closures of roads that are the heart and soul of suburban commuting: Route 59, Route 31, Route 83, Mannheim Road, Willow Road, Ogden Avenue, Route 176.

One frequent and disturbing refrain from the public works and transportation community has been how so-called 50-year or 100-year flood events are becoming two-year and three-year occurrences.

In truth, the 5.48 inches of precipitation recorded at O'Hare International Airport from last week's storm wasn't as much as the 8.4 inches that fell July 22-23 in 2011, another flooding disaster, state Climatologist Jim Angel said.

But all the water falling on already sodden surfaces led to a situation where “the flooding was extraordinary,” Angel said. “There is a trend we've been seeing — the Chicago area has been in a wetter period over the last couple of decades with more of these really big storms. There's been quite a bit of discussion about updating the benchmarks for a 100-year storm.”

Asked if costly and disruptive transportation chaos is inevitable, Josh Ellis, a stormwater expert with the Metropolitan Planning Council, offered some rays of hope.

“We can definitely do better. I'm not sure we're willing to invest the amount of money needed to have an infrastructure that truly withstands a 100-year storm. When we built most of our infrastructure it was for a five- to 20-year storm standard.”

What's slightly depressing is that current Metropolitan Water Reclamation District infrastructure and projects under way, including tunnels and reservoirs, will provide about 17 billion gallons of storage, Ellis calculates. Compare that to the 70 billion gallons or so that roiled Cook County alone in storms Wednesday and Thursday.

“Even when the Deep Tunnel is complete, the numbers don't add up in our favor,” Ellis said. “We can do better, but I'm not sure we can ever solve this and have zero problems.”

So what can we do?

As individuals, it can come down to reducing the impermeable pavement on your property or cultivating a rain garden that holds stormwater temporarily.

On a wider level, it's going to take expanding municipal stormwater systems, creating stream-side ponds to store rainfall and investing in green infrastructure, Ellis thinks.

“It's about finding other places to put the water other than in big pipes ... that's what green infrastructure is,” he said. “It's about finding ways for natural vegetation to prevent water from entering the storm system.”

Likely candidates for ad hoc stormwater storage include public entities with a lot of land — from schools with athletic fields to park districts.

“We talk about (flooding) and worry when it's raining or when the rain has finished and we're still dealing with the water,” Ellis said, “but these are solutions we need to be thinking about on sunny days as well.”

Got some thoughts on flood control or want to share a commuting nightmare from last week? Drop me an email at

Your voice

Mark Lehmann of Bartlett offered his expert opinion on legislation to ban handheld cellphone usage while driving. “My background includes 38 years of handling automobile insurance claims in the Chicago area and driving thousands of miles in the seven-county area,” Lehmann wrote.

“I have interviewed thousands of people involved in auto accidents and listened to their stories of why there was a loss and witnessed countless drivers and the things they do while driving. People: read papers and books; shave; put on makeup; change CDs; eat bowls of cereal using both hands; hold a cellphone in one hand and coffee in the other while steering with their knees at 70 mph during rush hour; text; use laptops; eat and drink beverages, including alcohol; smoke dope; change their clothes; comb their hair; use computer printers; look at pretty girls walking on the sidewalk; read maps or use a GPS; look for addresses without looking straight ahead; have sex; light their pipes and cigars; urinate in a cup or bottle; sleep; look for things they dropped; and probably many other things that I have been told but just can't remember.

“The problem is anything in the car can and will be a distraction if you let it be one. Just having a conversation with a passenger can distract a driver. We can ban cellphones but what are we going to do about all the other crazy things drivers do? How do we get people to just slow down, not tailgate, use turn signals, and drink and drive?”


Speaking of the Metropolitan Planning Council, it's hosting a round-table discussion titled “Tough Stuff: Resilient Infrastructure in a Changing World.” The event is from noon to 1:30 p.m. May 15 at 140 S. Dearborn St., Chicago. For more info, go to

You should know

IDOT is casting a bigger net when it comes to possibly widening the Eisenhower Expressway. The state is considering how to fix the highway bottleneck at Oak Park where four lanes become three. Officials just announced the study area will expand from Mannheim Road to Racine Avenue, instead of the original Cicero Avenue eastern limit. To learn more about the Ike's future, check out

One more thing

The Illinois Department of Transportation released its 2014 to 2019 project list last week. The breakdown of spending is: $9.53 billion for roads, $1.8 billion for public transit, $1.12 billion for rail and $159 million for airports. While a chunk of change — $475 million — is reserved for the Circle Interchange redo, a lot of cash is heading downstate for some significant projects. These include: $56 million to repair I-74 in eastern Illinois, $76.2 million for a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Moline, $40 million to fix bridges on I-55 in Logan County and $83 million for bridge improvements on I-57.

Turbulence ahead

May the Force be with you if you're heading to O'Hare International Airport this week. Furloughs for air traffic controllers kicked in Sunday, and there's predictions it won't be pretty. Fewer controllers means those on the job give aircraft greater spacing to ensure safety, and that translates into delays, union officials said. The furloughs come courtesy of the so-called sequester — federal government budget cuts — once thought to be unthinkable.

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