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This 2005 photo shows the westbound / northbound Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90 and I-94) approaching the "Circle" interchange with I-290 (Eisenhower Expressway). (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

RETRACING AN OLD ROUTE: The route of the Dan Ryan Expressway retraces an early 19th century pioneer trail called the Vincennes Trace, which ran from Chicago to Vincennes, Indiana. The opening of this route established Chicago as a growing trading and commercial center even before the development of the railroads. Today, Vincennes Avenue runs along the old trail. The Vincennes Trace was supplanted by the "State Road" in 1834, and like the Vincennes Trail before it, lives on today as another major thoroughfare, State Street.

EARLY PLANS FOR A "SUPERHIGHWAY:" In 1927, the Chicago Plan Commission announced plans for a network of "superhighways" emanating from the Loop to the south (current route of the Dan Ryan Expressway), southwest (Stevenson Expressway), west (Eisenhower Expressway), and northwest (Kennedy Expressway), as well as a lakefront route (Lake Shore Drive). A north-south cross-town route on Chicago's West Side was added later.

In 1940, the "South Route," as it was called then, was to have been routed south along Franklin Street and briefly along Archer Avenue, then veer south along Union Avenue. Estimated to cost $40 million at the time, the South Route was advocated by Chicago Motor Club, along with the West and Northwest routes, as priority routes for construction. Even at this early date, one Chicago alderman, James McDermott, aroused suspicion that construction of an expressway along Union Avenue would "destroy the homes, churches, and schools of people who have lived here 40 or 50 years."

DECIDING ON ALIGNMENT AND CONFIGURATION: The alignment of the "South Route" was moved to State Street in 1947 when the city approved its comprehensive expressway plan. The original plan called for a three-level roadway, with State Street on the lower level, three southbound expressway lanes on the middle level, and three northbound expressway lanes on the upper level. However, the city's decision to place several large public housing projects along State Street in the South Side complicated development plans for the expressway. In a series of meetings held in the mid-1950s, Mayor Richard Daley and County Board President Daniel Ryan (the namesake for the expressway and one of its most ardent supporters) met with William Mortimer, the county's highway supervisor to determine the best alternate route for the affected section between 25th Street and 51st Street.

On March 28, 1956, the Chicago Tribune reported much of the South Route had been selected except for the disputed South Side section. One alternative recommended by the Cook County Highway Department called for separate, elevated one-way roadways; the northbound roadway would parallel the Rock Island Railroad right-of-way west of State Street, while the southbound roadway would parallel the Pennsylvania Railroad right-of-way. From 51st Street to 63rd Street, both northbound and southbound roadways would be routed along Wentworth Avenue; south of the proposed Calumet (Chicago) Skyway junction, the South Route would rejoin the original State Street alignment. The final alignment for the expressway was selected on June 5, 1956 after Mayor Daley objected to the separated roadway design between 25th Street and 51st Street.

However, the battle of how the expressway would be configured was far from over. The Cook County Highway Department and the state wanted to have ramps set no less than one and one-half miles apart, while Mayor Daley argued the expressway needed more tightly spaced entrances and exits to provide more frequent access for the South Side. The city, county, and state reached a compromise with a "freeway within a freeway" design comprised of local lanes for frequent access (spaced about one-half mile apart) and express lanes with limited entrances and exits (spaced two to three miles apart). Planned with a capacity of as much as 14 lanes, the expressway was anticipated to carry 200,000 vehicles per day (AADT), and spaced was to be reserved in the center median for a rapid transit line as was done for the Eisenhower (Congress) and Kennedy (Northwest) expressways. As this proposed configuration was adopted for the South Route, the city dropped immediate plans for a north-south expressway in the Western Avenue corridor, though this vicinity was planned for the Crosstown Expressway (I-494) 10 to 15 years later.

In retrospect, some involved in the planning of the Dan Ryan Expressway acknowledge engineering was not the only consideration in the alignment of the route. In a few cases, politically connected property owners were spared condemnation, but for the most part the expressway ran mostly on the border of the city's 11th Ward to avoid political conflagrations.

These 1962 construction photos are from the report "Dan Ryan South Expressway" published by the Cook County Board of Commissioners upon the opening of the expressway.

TOP: This photo shows the Dan Ryan Expressway looking north from 31st Street.

BOTTOM: This photo shows the Dan Ryan Expressway looking north from 63rd Street and Wentworth Avenue.

(Photos by Cook County Board of Commissioners.)

DALY PUSHES FOR EXPRESSWAY, GETS FEDERAL FUNDING: Once the alignment was approved, Daly implored the county and state to get moving on construction so that the expressway's opening would not lag behind the Eisenhower and Kennedy expressways, but with the Federal government paying for only half the construction cost, this proved difficult. The original spending allocation between the city, county, and state was as follows:

  • City of Chicago: Eisenhower Expressway south to 39th Street; estimated cost $67 million (including cost of a bridge over the Chicago River-South Branch)

  • State of Illinois: 39th Street south to 63rd Street; estimated cost $33 million

  • Cook County: 63rd Street south to split for Dan Ryan Expressway-South Leg (I-57); estimated cost $70 million

The signing of the Interstate Highway Act into law on June 29, 1956 paved the way for the Dan Ryan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy expressway to receive 90% Federal reimbursement funding. However, with design and construction work in more advanced stages for the other two expressways, and given that the city, county, and state had to advance the funds for construction, the first bids for construction did not go out until August 12, 1958.

Even the funding of the Dan Ryan Expressway itself did not follow a straight 90-10 formula as was followed in the construction of other area expressways. The Federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) allowed 90-10 funding for the local lanes, but only 50-50 funding for the express lanes. (The BPR reached a different decision for the construction of the Kennedy Expressway, stating the additional two traffic lanes for peak-hour travel allowed for "lane balancing.") Moreover, the BPR and the state refused initially to fund an additional 50 feet of right-of-way at bridges to accommodate future transit stations for an extension of the Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) South Side Rapid Transit line (now part of the Red Line), leaving the city with a $1.2 million bill. After extended negotiations between the city, state, and BPR, the Federal government agreed to fund 78% of the cost of the additional right-of-way, though not the full 90% the state and city wanted.

LAND ACQUISITIONS: Even before the first construction bids went out, officials had to purchase more than 3,200 parcels. Most parcels were less than one acre, but two notable land acquisitions involved protracted negotiations:

  • One involved the condemnation of a four-story-high, two-block-long warehouse operated by the Goldblatt retail chain; the warehouse was so large that several railroad spurs entered the warehouse at different levels for the railroad cars to be unloaded. The condemnation notice issued by the state required that Goldblatt move off the premises by November 1958, but as a retail chain, Goldblatt said it could not be off the premises until the following February as moving would require the chain to miss out on the important Christmas shopping season. The state reached a compromise with Goldblatt, paying the chain more than $1 million (the only acquisition of this magnitude along the route) and allowing them to stay past Christmas.

  • The other notable acquisition was the Progressive Church, which at the time was the city's largest minority church. The state reached a compromise with the church, acquiring the land while moving the church on rollers to a new location.

CONSTRUCTION GETS UNDERWAY: The Dan Ryan Expressway required the use of 750,000 cubic yards of concrete and nearly 54,000 tons of steel, and the displacement of 11.5 million cubic yards of earth. It also included 152,000 linear feet of guide rail and 3,650 lightpoles, each with 400-watt mercury vapor fixtures affixed 34 feet above the pavement.

One notable innovation for the Dan Ryan Expressway was the area's first use of continuously reinforced concrete pavement that did not require transverse joints. Although the eight-inch pavement was narrower than the 10-inch standard used statewide, the steel reinforcing on the eight-inch pavement was 210 pounds per square inch, much heavier than the 78 feet per square inch used before.

The other innovation was the use of a paving train to create two 12-foot-wide lanes in a single pass. The paving train included a roller for compacting the base, a self-propelled cart to roll out the steel reinforcing cage, mobile cranes to dump concrete, spreaders to pave the concrete, and a machine to work the concrete into the steel mesh.

A FIXED SPAN FOR THE CHICAGO RIVER: In December 1959, the state approved plans for a three-span fixed bridge over the South Branch of the Chicago River. The original plans called for construction of a movable bridge, but the movable bridge increased the potential for future congestion, and states were discouraged by the BPR to use Interstate funding for movable bridges (this ran counter to the Interstate philosophy of non-stop traffic). The span has a 63-foot vertical clearance at the main span; it originally was built to carry eight lanes but was expanded in the late 1980s to accommodate additional acceleration-deceleration lanes.

This 1962 photo from the report "Dan Ryan South Expressway" shows the expressway after it first opened. Note the empty right-of-way reserved for a future CTA extension. This rapid transit extension--now part of the CTA Red Line--opened in 1969. The high-rise housing projects (Robert Taylor Houses and Stateway Gardens) shown in the right side of the photo were built by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in the 1950s and 1960s; they were demolished in the 1990s and 2000s. (Photo by Cook County Board of Commissioners.)

THE FATHER OF CHICAGO'S EXPRESSWAY SYSTEM LENDS NAME TO ROAD: After the death of Dan Ryan in April 1961, the Cook County Board of Commissioners (which Ryan headed) and the Chicago City Council both approved unanimously the renaming of what was then called the "South Expressway" as the "Dan Ryan South Expressway." As sections of the expressway opened, the "south" name was dropped soon thereafter. Ryan had advocated construction of Chicago's expressway system as early as 1939.

THE EXPRESSWAY OPENS: The first section of the Dan Ryan Expressway to open to traffic was a 3.0-mile-long section from EXIT 62 (US 12 / US 20 / 95th Street) north to EXIT 59C (71st Street). The eight-lane expressway opened on December 12, 1961. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the expressway, Governor Otto Kerner, whose later claim to fame was his heading of a Presidential commission to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots, handed over the ceremonial scissors to Ruby Ryan, the widow of Dan Ryan and who subsequently served as a Cook County Commissioner after her husband's death.

On December 15, 1962, an eight-mile-long stretch of the expressway ranging from EXIT 59C north to EXIT 51H (I-290 / Eisenhower Expressway / Congress Parkway) was opened to traffic. Along with a 0.2-mile-long at the south end of the route to connect to the Calumet Expressway (Bishop Ford Freeway) and a future connection to the Dan Ryan Expressway-West Leg, as well as new connecting ramps at EXIT 59A to connect to the existing Chicago (Calumet) Skyway (I-90), this work completed the $300 million Dan Ryan Expressway.

The 14-lane-wide, quad-carriageway expressway attracted curious onlookers almost immediately, though motorists for the most part adapted quickly to the expressway's system of express and collector-distributor (C/D) roadways. However, according to the online work
Building the Cook County Expressway System by transportation historian Andy Plummer, motorists did not adapt as quickly to the initial eastbound (southbound) split for the express and local lanes at 26th Street, just before the merge from the Franklin Street Connector (which did not open until 1964). In addition to the restricted sight distances owing to the placement of the express-local split on a curve, a nearby Chevrolet dealership turned on a lighted sign to attract the attention of motorists. The sign may have worked too well as motorists--distracted by the dealership's sign--were unable to decide on the appropriate roadway quickly enough, and often crashed into the gore. Soon thereafter, the state erected a 48-foot-wide overhead sign reminding motorists to "STAY IN YOUR LANE," which rectified the problem for more than a decade until additional signing changes were made.

Most of the expressway is signed dually as I-90 and I-94, though the southern / eastern end of the expressway initially was designated as I-90, while the I-94 designation shifted to the Chicago Skyway. In 1963, Chicago city officials--who had jurisdiction over the Chicago Skyway--received approval from federal officials to swap I-90 and I-94 designations as part of a measure to increase traffic on the toll skyway, whose bonds had defaulted that year. (The I-90 designation was perceived as a more important coast-to-coast route, and the corresponding segment of the Indiana Toll Road also was re-designated I-90.)

GETTING TRANSIT ON TRACK: The Dan Ryan Expressway opened with an empty median right-of-way for the CTA extension, but it did not take long for the CTA to get federal funding for the proposed line. In 1964, Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act (UMTA), and President Johnson signed the act, which President Kennedy had championed prior to his assassination, into law. The law provided federal funding for urban rail projects, including infrastructure and equipment, for the first time. In 1966, Mayor Daley proposed a major transit infrastructure improvement program and proposed a bond issue to pay for several line extensions, including a two-track line along the Dan Ryan Expressway. Voters approved the referendum that November, upon which time the city received a 50% matching grant from UMTA to build transit lines along the Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways. After less than three years of construction, the $51 million Dan Ryan transit line was dedicated on September 26, 1969.

This 2007 photo shows the eastbound (southbound) Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90 / I-94) at EXIT 55A (35th Street) near U.S. Cellular Field. Major construction on the expressway--shown here in this photo beyond the 35th Street overpass--was completed in October 2007. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

REBUILDING THE RYAN: As early as 1963, cracks began to form in the local lanes under the pressure of traffic that measured 180,000 vehicles per day (AADT), or 50% more than had been forecast. By the late 1960s, with traffic exceeding 210,000 vehicles per day, the steel reinforcement rods in the pavement had begun to fail. Poor drainage--particularly from the deicing salts used in the winter months--also was cited as a culprit.

The Dan Ryan Expressway had its first major repair to remedy this problem in the summer of 1971; this was part of a $16 million project to resurface the Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways. The local lanes were rebuilt with a 10-inch-deep continuously reinforced concrete pavement, the existing sub-base was replaced with a four-inch-deep asphalt sub-base, and new deformed steel reinforcement bars were added. At least two local lanes in each direction were kept open at all times throughout the project, which was completed one month ahead of schedule. However, the express lanes were not rebuilt.

A more ambitious project to repair and widen the northernmost three miles of the expressway from the "Circle" (I-290) interchange south to 31st Street began in March 1988. The $250 million project encompassed the expansion of the main roadway to five lanes in each direction (from four), improvements to shoulders and acceleration-deceleration lanes (including the ramps to and from I-55 / Stevenson Expressway), and rehabilitation of elevated structures, including the span over the Chicago River. With the main roadways narrowed to two lanes in each direction at all times throughout the length of the project, and with 13 entrance and exit ramps closed during that time, passenger cars were detoured to Lake Shore Drive, while trucks were sent to the Tri-State Tollway (I-294).

This project was completed in October 1989, but it was not without its controversy. Prior to the start of construction, a coalition of minority groups threatened to shut down the project unless each minority group was given a greater share of the contracts. (At the time, federal law mandated minority representation in contracts, but only in aggregate terms and not by specific group.) A compromise reached by Governor James ("Big Jim") Thompson called for 25% of skilled jobs on the project to go to blacks, 10% to Hispanics, and 10% to women; similarly, the state set aside 46% of unskilled jobs to blacks, 10% to Hispanics, and 10% to women. However, a series of 1989 U.S. Supreme Court rulings declared unconstitutional numerical set-aside ("quota") laws that allocated state contracts based on minority status.

REBUILDING THE RYAN REDUX: The most ambitious project to rebuild the expressway began in 2003 and would take six years to complete. With traffic counts now exceeding 300,000 vehicles per day (about 15% of which was truck traffic), the express lanes not rebuilt after 40 years of use, and patchwork repairs on the local lanes taking their toll, a complete reconstruction of the expressway was necessary.

The project, which encompassed nearly the entire length of the expressway from 13th Street south to the I-94 / I-57 split, was spread out over 121 separate contracts. The new pavement consisted of three layers: a 14-inch continuously reinforced concrete pavement with new reinforcement bars, a six-inch asphalt base layer, and a 24-inch granular sub-base. New non-invasive sensors were installed in the pavement to provide information to the Illinois Department of Transportation's (IDOT) traffic information network, while the skewed tining of the pavement surface was designed to reduce tire noise. For the first time, continuous right shoulders were to be provided on both express and local lanes; to accommodate the newly expanded shoulders, some of the crossover ramps between the express and local lanes were closed permanently.

The reconstruction schedule was as follows:

  • 2003: Preparation of alternate routes; patching the shoulder and pavement.

  • 2004-2005: Rebuilding the interchange ramps and bridges at the Chicago Skyway interchange; rebuilding eight bridges and ramps between 71st Street and Wentworth Avenue; improvements to service roads (mostly updated traffic signals and lighting); installation of new high-mast (110-foot-tall) light standards that concentrated illumination on the roadway while reducing it in adjacent areas; installation of new retaining walls with cast-in-place concrete.

  • 2006: Rebuilding the express lanes in both directions from 31st Street to 71st Street, as well as the two outer lanes in both directions from 71st Street to I-57; made repairs to westbound / northbound elevated section from 13th Street to 31st Street.

  • 2007: Rebuilding the local lanes in both directions from 31st Street to 71st Street, as well as the two inner lanes in both directions from 71st Street to I-57; made repairs to eastbound / southbound elevated section from 13th Street to 31st Street.

  • 2008-2009: With much of the major reconstruction complete, work shifted to landscaping and other minor improvements. IDOT invited local artists and sculptors to develop gateway landscaping, sculptures, and carved medallions on retaining walls.

  • IDOT imposed a 45 MPH speed limit during the major reconstruction phase in 2006-2007. When the project was completed, IDOT raised the speed limit back to 55 MPH on the express lanes, but retained the 45 MPH limit on the local lanes.

The final cost of the project was $975 million, more than the $600 million projected in the early 2000s. During the course of the project, IDOT estimated average traffic counts plunged 30%, thanks in part to the state's efforts to redirect traffic to alternate routes and encourage more motorists to use mass transit.

This 2009 photo shows the eastbound (southbound) Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90 / I-94) at EXIT 59A (I-90 / Chicago Skyway). (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

SOURCES: "County Opens First South Expressway Work Bids," Chicago Tribune (8/13/1958); "State Prefers Fixed Span on Expressway," Chicago Tribune (12/05/1959); "Open Three Miles of Dan Ryan Expressway" by Hal Foust, Chicago Tribune (12/13/1961); "Dan Ryan Road Opening Is Set for Tomorrow" by Hal Foust, Chicago Tribune (12/14/1962); "Dan Ryan South Expressway," Cook County Board of Commissioners (1962); "'L' Route Dedicated in Ryan Road" by Thomas Buck, Chicago Tribune (9/27/1969); "Dan Ryan Was a Shining Example of the Golden Age of Expressways" by Robert Davis, Chicago Tribune (2/28/1988); "Dan Ryan Nightmare Arriving As Scheduled" by Cheryl Devall and Jorge Casuso, Chicago Tribune (3/01/1988); "Blow to Minority Contractors: Courts Setting Aside Affirmative Action Set-Aside Plans" by Pamela Sherrod, Chicago Tribune (3/12/1989); "Ryan Back in Fast Lane After Rehab" by Gary Marx, Chicago Tribune (10/02/1989); Building the Cook County Expressway System by Andy Plummer (2005); The Chicago Area Transportation Study: Creating the First Plan (1955-1962) by Andy Plummer (2005); "Dan Ryan Reconstruction Costs Could Exceed $1 Billion," Roads and Bridges (9/19/2006); The Dan Ryan Expressway: A Look Back (and Forward) at the CRCP That Works by Andrea Talley; Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute (2006); "Massive Dan Ryan Logjam Coming Back" by Monifa Thomas, Chicago Sun-Times (1/29/2007); "Next Phase of Dan Ryan Reconstruction Looms" by Monifa Thomas, Chicago Sun-Times (2/26/2007); "2-Year Dan Ryan Project Wraps Up" by Monifa Thomas, Chicago Sun-Times (10/26/2007); "Interstate 90 / 94: Dan Ryan Expressway Reconstruction Project" by John Fortmann, Illinois Department of Transportation (2007); Bill Burmaster; Rich Carlson.

  • I-90 and I-94 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.






  • Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90 / I-94)

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