The anticipation has been like waiting to get an aching tooth pulled.
Work to dispel decades of frustration with a traffic bottleneck is about to get under way, and the public is watching to see how things play out during the next 16 months or so.
"It's just crazy the level of interest," Lake County Board member Pat Carey of Grayslake noted as she left a packed public open house last week to kick off construction of the Rollins Road Gateway project. "It's huge. It's impactful. It's important."
Within two weeks, orange-vested workers will take root near Rollins Road and Route 83 in Round Lake Beach to begin the complex process of lowering Rollins beneath the Canadian National/Metra railroad tracks to unsnarl one of Lake County's worst traffic hot spots.
The project is considered so important and potentially disruptive that unprecedented steps are being taken to involve and engage the public, such as a consistently updated website with live images. Four public meetings, newsletters and brochures, email lists, electronic road signs and door-to-door contact have been part of the process. Also, a separate task force met five times during the planning stages to receive feedback and to address concerns of area businesses.
"This is the largest and most complicated project we've ever undertaken," said Al Giertych, assistant county engineer for the Lake County Division of Transportation. "It warrants that outreach."
The most complex aspect will be to keep traffic flowing without reducing the number of lanes. That will be done by building temporary sections of Rollins and Route 83. Both roads will remain open, except for two weeks when the intersection will be closed and traffic detoured.
"I've always thought of it as rebuilding your house while you're living in it," Giertych said.
With 481 visitors signed in, the Rollins Gateway open house was the best attended event of its kind hosted by transportation officials.
"It's a very good turnout," said Luke Catullo, a 23-year resident of Round Lake Beach. "I think people realize it's going to happen now."
Visitors lined up to get brochures and look at project exhibits on display at the Cultural & Civic Center of Round Lake Beach a half-hour before the scheduled opening.
"I've got lots of residents asking lots of questions," said Sue Butler, a Round Lake Beach village trustee who attended on behalf of the Williams subdivision west of Hainesville Road. "They're happy it's going to be fixed, but how is it going to affect them during construction?"
No one has disputed the need for a solution, which has been a topic of conversation for 20 years or more.
At issue is the Canadian National tracks just west of Route 83, where 24,000 vehicles using Rollins each day have to cross. About 40 freight and 10 commuter trains per day use the at-grade crossing in the dense commercial area. Traffic jams up on Rollins and Route 83, and signals that have been pre-empted by the trains take a few cycles to re-coordinate.
The official planning process began in late 2008, with the thought of getting the project ready to go if funds became available. In the interim, the Rollins Gateway was selected by the Lake County Board as one of four "challenge" projects to be funded with proceeds from a sales-tax increase for transportation projects.
Construction costs are estimated at about $31 million. But land acquisition, utility relocation, construction supervision services and other expenses bump the total to an estimated $61 million. The acquisitions involved nearly three dozen parcels, including eight to 10 homes and commercial buildings that will be demolished.
The Rollins/83 intersection will be lowered, rebuilt and widened to include turn lanes at all legs. A new railroad bridge will be built over the road. Nearby Hainesville Road will be shifted about 500 feet to the west and shopping mall entrances will be consolidated.
Doing all that without reducing lanes of traffic is considered the most complex part of the job.
"I've been doing this for 28 years, and I've never seen a plan like this to help the public," said Daniel Gross, senior vice president and construction services manager for Alfred Benesch & Co., the Chicago firm overseeing the project on the county's behalf.
Round Lake Beach Mayor Richard Hill says there shouldn't be that much of an impact on travelers if the plans are followed, although the village expects sales-tax revenues to drop 15 percent to 20 percent during construction. Hill contends the resulting improvement will make the commercial areas more valuable, particularly a largely vacant center that once housed a Walmart store.
The trickiest part will involve a two-week period in late October or early November when the Rollins/83 intersection will be closed and traffic is detoured. During that time, crews will excavate for the underpass and build a temporary crossing for Rollins over the tracks, as well as a temporary railroad bridge.
Train traffic will not be detoured because commuter trains don't run on weekends, so activity will be concentrated then.
"We're going to be working 24 hours around the clock building that temporary crossing," Gross said.
Like many of the visitors to the open house, Wendi Sears and Sue Neumuller eyed the exhibits to determine how their daily lives might be affected by the project. They're neighbors in the Lakewood Hills subdivision near Route 83 north of the intersection.
"It's confusing, if indeed we're going to have problems. I guess we won't know until it starts," Sears said.
"It sounds like they've got it planned out for the least amount of problems," Neumuller added. "We shall see."