JOLIET — Interstate 55 near Arsenal Road was transformed July 21, 2014, into a gnarled mess after a truck slammed into stopped vehicles in the middle of a construction zone, killing five.
It was later found that the driver charged in those deaths, Francisco Espinal-Quiroz of Indiana, was partially blind in one eye but had driven trucks since 1991 thanks to a federal vision waiver. He was charged with 15 counts of reckless homicide and two counts of falsifying logbook entries in connection with the crash; the case is pending in the Will County court system.
While the circumstances surrounding the July 21 wreck were unique – even for Will County with its high volume of truck traffic – it is collisions like this that local, state and county officials recall when considering where Will County ranks for traffic fatalities.
So far this year, the county ranks No. 2 behind only Cook County for traffic fatalities statewide. And it’s been that way for much of the past decade.
That unflattering distinction has local officials concerned about a number of things – from the lives of those driving on the roadways here to the dilapidated conditions of the county’s aging, outdated transportation system.
A state budget crunch – coupled with inaction in Congress on a long-term highway funding bill – has exacerbated matters.
“It just goes to show that we are in dire need of some major improvements as Will County continues to grow,” said state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood. “It’s something that I’ve been arguing from day one, from the day I’ve stepped into office. … We’re driving on a very constrained system right now.”
‘Crossroads of America’
Thirty-two people have died so far in 2015 in traffic crashes in Will County, according to preliminary Illinois Department of Transportation data. And, despite the larger populations, DuPage and Lake counties have had only 13 and 17 traffic-related deaths, respectively, so far in 2015. Grundy County, with a significantly lower population, has had six.
Between 2005 and 2013, traffic fatalities in Will County declined by 9 percent – from 53 to 48. It’s a small improvement in comparison to Grundy, DuPage and Lake counties, all of which declined by more than 40 percent. Cook County’s fatalities declined 33 percent.
Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. said the county is, in many respects, the crossroads of America where truck traffic is on the rise, parallel with the planned development in and around the Joliet and Elwood intermodals.
Highways like Interstate 80, Interstate 55 and Interstate 57 that come to a head in Will County play a major role, Walsh Sr. said. Coupled with the increased truck traffic, and you’ll find interchanges that aren’t built to perform, he said.
Collisions involving semitrailers are far less common than passenger vehicle crashes, according to IDOT traffic data. But they certainly get the most attention because crashes involving 80,000-pound semitrailers have higher fatality rates, Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes said.
“Just because of the size of the vehicle, and all the metal, there’s a smaller chance of survival,” Hayes said. “They’re more deadly.”
Just over 800 semitrailers were involved in a collision in 2013 in Will County, compared to 13,667 passenger vehicles. The semitrailer-involved crashes resulted in 13 fatalities — a 62-to-1 ratio. The passenger vehicle-involved crashes resulted in 29 fatalities — a 471-to-1 ratio.
A long-sought highway funding bill
One reason highway deaths in Will County rank second in Illinois, according to U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, is that the growth in traffic has coincided with the highway funding problem in Washington. Without a long-term federal highway funding bill in place, it’s nearly impossible for Will County to adequately plan for future, long-term road projects.
Congress last week passed another three-month extension through October, but it was the 34th short-term extension on highway funding since 2009, a measure needed just to ensure any federal money kept coming. That means money is still being spent but not enough to plan for long-term projects like widening Interstate 80, Foster said.
“I-80 is a national thoroughfare. There’s no reason for it being a two-lane road through the Joliet area,” Foster said.
“We need a long-term plan,” he said. “If you knew what the highway fund looked like for the next several; years, you could fund things like I-80. With a three-month bill, that’s impossible.”
Local officials have been exploring private-public ventures as one way to deal with the lack of government money for roads.
The proposal to build a Houbolt Road toll bridge over the Des Plaines River in Joliet is envisioned as a public-private venture. It would be an alternative into CenterPoint Properties and divert truck traffic away from Illinois 53.
Many have suggested building a Houbolt Road bridge over the Des Plaines River to relieve traffic congestion.
Still, officials should take a holistic approach to the truck traffic problem and not only focus on creating new or improved access points into the intermodals, Hayes said.
“We have to first recognize we have a completely unique situation that you cannot find anywhere in the country,” he said. “We have to stop putting a Band-Aid solution on a very real problem.”