Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Flashback 1993: `Crazy' Commuters Scare Road Crews

     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, 48, is a foreman at Midwest Fence Corp. He and his crew will be working the Kennedy all summer. They are ironworkers, installing guardrails.
     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.
     "If motorists would just obey speed limits and watch for signs, there would be less accidents," said Jim Senerchia, raising a huge orange sign with three curving arrows.
     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


  1. My, how little things have changed. I retired from traffic reporting after a 34 year career, and it only got worse leading up to my retirement five years ago.
    We never had expressway shootings, now, they are a almost nightly event. Speed limit of 45 mph? Ha-ha-ha. Take the speed limit signs down and take them to a scrap yard for cash. No one is paying attention to it, nor is it being enforced. I genuinely feel sorry for the road workers, as they are literally a sitting target. But, enforcement through construction zones is also a joke. If a bunch of 18-wheelers are rumbling down the highway, guess what? I’m going to keep up with them or get run over. When there is next to zero enforcement, why not speed?

  2. I missed this one the first time. Glad I was able to see it now.

  3. File this carefully. It will be just as relevant in 2053.


  4. There's a kind of comfort in being reminded that drivers were just as bad thirty years ago.

  5. Looks warm in the photos. I wonder if summer or spring in the air affect driving habits? Recklessness? Feeling immortal and speedy? I had to drive to an appointment in Evanston today and the driving I saw was shocking. Lack of turn signals, cars pulled over in car and bike lanes, speeding. tailgating, racing down Sheridan where the speed limit is 25 near the university, sidewalks peppered with pedestrians. I wanted to honk and let others know how I felt, and I did once or twice, then recalled that I was taught to be a defensive driver. I had not left extra time, thus it was my fault I was feeling harried. Be the change, I guess?

    I will NOT get on the Edens or Kennedy unless I have to. The last time was coming to hear you and Dilla at Printer's Row Lit Fest; it was a rainy day and I had not left enough time to take LSD. The Kennedy was terrifying with low visibility and maniacs careening around. I'm glad I made it, but would not have embarked on the journey if I knew what I was in for.

    When I moved back to Chicago in '21, I accidentally rolled onto the Dan Ryan. It was a racetrack. I had no idea it would be that bad. I white-knuckled it onto 55 and got over to LSD. My Honda Civic's windows are tinted and my visibility could be better; I am sure that has something to do with it. I have a back up camera, but visibility when I am backing up is not great when I throw my right hand over the back of the passenger's seat and turn all the way around, old school style, which I prefer to do.

    Lake Shore Drive is doable these days, but I stay in the right lane and just watch cars whiz by tens of miles over the limit every time.

    When I drive anywhere I do my best to leave extra time and take often nicer back roads. I can weave in a stop at Trader Joe's, a brief (or long) forest walk, a beach jaunt, a coffee shop or a bookstore here and there. Living in the journey, not the destination.

    When I lived in Austin Texas I swore I-35 off except if 100% necessary for road trips, and generally stuck with the quieter Farm to Market and frontage roads. I-35 looked like an action movie full of accidents and wild things happening most days. It was deemed the deadliest Austin highway in '21. No thanks.

    My heart truly goes out to road workers. In Austin when road work happens, they do it late at night whenever possible, and night or day they have one or more police SUVs or pick-ups supporting the road crews with very bright neon signage.

    Anger and impatience abound, and driving brings out the worst in us if we are not careful. Good luck out there!

  6. Austin road workers have to work at night. It's just too dangerously hot to work in the heat of the day,Summers in Austin see average July and August highs frequently reaching the high-90s or above. Highs reach 90 °F on 123 days per year, of which 29 days reach 100 °F. For half the year, May through October, daytime temperatures reach the mid-80s or higher. So the road work has to be done at night because of the heat, not just the traffic.

    I drove on Chicago-area expressways and tollways last summer, and I found them to be too much for me now. I'm just not used to them anymore. Three decades of living in Cleveland have spoiled me. There are only about 1.2 million people in the metro area, but our highway system was designed to accommodate three times that number. Planners never envisioned that we would become The Incredible Shrinking City. And distances and travel times have never been a problem. The entire city of Cleveland could easily fit into Chicago's South Side.

    The harsh winters take their toll on our roadways. Orange barrel season now lasts about nine months a year. But the biggest problem here is not construction or traffic congestion--it's the increasing lack of civility, which has only gotten worse since the advent of the Plague. Reckless driving, speeding, tailgating, fatal drag racing, packs of dirt bikers, road rage incidents, police chases, and the occasional gunfight. We're becoming more like Chicago every day.

    When I moved here in the Nineties, I was astounded by the courteous behavior of Cleveland motorists. Nobody ever tried to kill you. Hell, nobody even used their horn. Those happy, golden years are gone, and they're not coming back. I miss them.

  7. I think Caren hit on the most important consideration when navigating the highways and byways of a major metropolis.
    Leave yourself enough time to get there on time, even if it takes longer than you think it's going to.
    When I'm not feeling stressed by the various activities of other drivers affecting me negatively, I don't dislike driving so much. I try to stay in one lane, not tailgate and use my turn signals.
    My family's always pleased to get somewhere 10 minutes early. Have time to find somewhere to park. Maybe go to the bathroom and still be on time. I'm not sure what I missing out on by always shaving it too close doesn't seem like anything. It's just easier to give yourself enough time

    1. In my geezerhood, I've become an early bird. It's an obsession that often drives my wife nuts, but it almost always works.Makes driving less hectic. More luck in finding a convenient parking spot. Lines are shorter or non-existent. Tables or seats are easier to snag. We can use the facilities. The best parade spots go to the earliest birds who claim their turf a couple hours early. Dibs. We pass the time with books or phones If you don't have a ticket to an event, or a reservation, early bird is the word.


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