The arrival of the spring equinox and construction on the Kennedy expressway arrived simultaneously yesterday evening, and I can only assume the latter was timed to mock the former. Unlike spring, which in three months will yield to summer, the Kennedy congestion mess will continue on for three years, and if that seems an impossibly long time, consider this: I was writing about this the last time they tore up the Kennedy. The article below ran in the Sun-Times exactly 30 years ago tomorrow. I can't imagine either paper will, as I did, buttonhole construction workers as they work on the highway and quiz them. But if they did, I wouldn't expect the construction perspective to have changed much. Some things are eternal.
Who are these people, anyway, doing this to us?
Scrambling over our besieged, vital Kennedy Expressway, with their orange vests, spanner wrenches, work boots, bandannas and heavy machinery. Raising dust. Committing clatter. Gazing at us as we inch miserably by, inscrutable behind their Ray Bans, welder's goggles and safety glasses.
Meet Fred Williams.
Williams lives in Country Club Hills with his wife and three kids. When he is driving with his family, he sometimes shows off sections of the expressway he has worked on.
"I'll point to something and say, `I did that,' " said Williams, whose son Theis, 13, is suitably impressed. "He'd love to get into this line of work."
The Midwest Fence crew's current project underscores an opinion held by almost everybody working on the Kennedy. The crew is installing a guardrail along the Chicago Avenue overpass so that cars will not damage the bridge supports should they veer out of control and crash.
The opinion is this: Commuters are insane.
"The Kennedy is the worst for drivers — these guys are crazy," said Dorie Hodal, pausing from her work with the crew. "You never know what may happen; some crazy might run over you. You have to be alert all the time."
"It's scary, scary, scary," Olga Alvarez shouted. She struggles to hold her orange "SLOW/STOP" sign and orange flag against the hurricane blast of a semi-trailer truck. "Especially the semis. They go fast, blow me and my stop sign away."
"This morning, three cars missed the exit and cut through the barricades and cut across (the construction area)," said Refujio Puente. "We always have to watch out."
At the peak of activity this summer, about 400 workers will labor over the expressway.
Much of their complex feelings about the traffic can be expressed in two words: slow down.
Senerchia worries that drivers think some sort of malice motivates the construction workers.
"Drivers act like we're out to get them, like the reason we're here is to slow things down and cause a mess," he said. "We're just trying to fix the road."
Not everybody thinks the Kennedy is a special case. To John Panieri, operating a Gradall, an all-purpose piece of heavy equipment with a telescoping arm, the Kennedy is no better or worse than any other highway job.
"It's always like this," he said. "All expressways are the same. It's just the nature of it."
Rick Andryske, of Directions Metropolitan, is laying down temporary pavement markers - using a thick white paint-like substance, made of thermo-plastic with shiny glass beads.
"This job has a lot more hectic time frame," he said, comparing the Kennedy to other projects. The scariest thing that ever happened to him in three years of working on the Kennedy was "mountains of ice breaking off from the bottom of a truck and sliding toward me, knocking me into traffic."
But you can't worry about accidents, only watch out for them.
"It's dangerous, but you don't think about it," he said. "You have a job to do."
But there are good things, too.
"You do get a few people who know you beeping the horn and saying hello," said Raymond Dorgam, 47, also of Directions.
If appeals to safety do not get motorists to slow down, another consideration might: heavy, fast traffic delays the work. Without a gap between cars, trucks cannot scoot onto the roadway and, if traffic is crawling, construction equipment crawls, too.
"Our trucks get stuck in traffic," said a Palumbo Brothers construction foreman. "The first two days, when traffic was light, we nearly got two days of work done in one. Tell people: If they want this done faster, find an alternate route."
— Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 22, 1993