Plans for I-55 Expansion in Chicago Raise Concerns Over Air Quality and Community Health

Having spent most of her life in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, Sara Cortes learned to live with bad-smelling air that created a haze in the summer. 

About a year ago, Cortes, 38, was diagnosed with an untreatable lung condition that makes her tired and leaves her short of breath.

So she was shocked when she learned of a fast-moving plan in Springfield to expand the nearby Stevenson Expressway, part of Interstate 55, with additional lanes, bringing more traffic and more pollution.

“It’s definitely a concern for me,” said Cortes. “The air quality in Little Village has been bad for a long time.” 

Introduced at the tail end of the Illinois legislative session, a pair of measures that promote private funding of road projects are moving through quickly as state lawmakers try to wrap up their session this week. One is a resolution that would allow state transportation officials to find private funding for the Stevenson expansion, which runs through Little Village and other communities, and it is in the Senate after moving quickly through the House Chamber. The other is an even more expansive rewriting of rules to encourage private dollars for state transportation projects, which was added as an amendment to a large spending bill on Friday.

“Expanding highway capacity will incentivize more driving and more harmful emissions in an area already burdened by high asthma rates and other chronic health problems,” said José Miguel Acosta Córdova of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Community, environmental and health organizations oppose the 11th-hour moves to bring private highway funding to Illinois, proposals supported by labor and business groups. 

They fear that the changes may mean less oversight and transparency of the planning processes in which major road expansions are approved. 

For some environmental justice communities, there is much concern.

Residents in Little Village, a neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, experience some of the worst air pollution in the city, an analysis last year showed. Every day, trucks from an industrial corridor travel through the neighborhood to and from I-55.

“Semi-trucks come through this residential area all of the time,” said Esmeralda Hernandez, 46, a lifelong resident of Little Village.

Adding new lanes to the expressway near her home is not the solution to addressing congestion and pollution, she adds.

“There has to be another answer than putting in more lanes,” Hernandez said.  

A legislative plan to widen the Stevenson Expressway and promote private funding of road projects in Illinois has community, health and environmental organizations alarmed. Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

A legislative plan to widen the Stevenson Expressway and promote private funding of road projects in Illinois has community, health and environmental organizations alarmed. Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

Marc Poulos, executive director of the labor management group for Local 150 International Union of Operating Engineers, said private money is needed to make sure road projects get funded. Some labor and business advocates have wanted to see the state enter into its first private transportation partnership for a number of years, and the proposed changes are a “modernizing of the statute” that allows such projects.

The widening of the Stevenson has been envisioned since the expressway was built in the 1960s, he said. 

The project is one of several roadway building or expansion projects in the country that environmentalists and community groups have criticized, saying that new or wider roads that accommodate more traffic will result in more cars on the road, ultimately increasing air pollution. Research has generally shown that traffic reduction resulting from highway expansions is often brief before leading to a subsequent increase in volume, as the increased road capacity tends to attract more drivers—a theory known as induced demand.

Transportation is a top source of greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago and Illinois, a freight hub where 2 million people live near warehouses enveloped by truck pollution and face heightened respiratory health risks. Research has shown that traffic pollution in Chicago is concentrated in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods on its South and West sides. 

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Little Village resident Alexis Sanchez, 26, said he only learned about the proposed plan last week from a local environmental justice organization and believes that the Stevenson Expressway expansion would not be good for the community’s health. 

A couple of weeks ago, he kept his bedroom window open overnight. “It’s a pretty familiar smell,” but that night, the diesel exhaust odor woke him up, he said. 

He’s lived near the Stevenson Expressway almost all of his life and is used to trucks passing through his neighborhood, but that night was an “eye-opener,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m breathing that could potentially affect my health in the future.”

Sanchez’s father, Alejandro Sanchez Riviera, 51, is often stuck in traffic on the Stevenson Expressway on his way back from work. He hopes that additional lanes alleviate traffic congestion and improve air quality in the area. “Sometimes we open the windows, but it feels like we’re just smelling smoke,” he said.

Originally from Mexico City, Sanchez Riviera says he feels at home and close to his roots in Little Village but is disappointed to see few efforts to address air pollution.

“It’s a sanctuary for us, and sometimes we get used to what comes with the air, but we need to see some change,” he said. “We don’t know what is in the air.”

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