An 80-year History: Why I-290 Can’t Expand over the CTA Tunnels

Do you ever find yourself stuck in traffic thinking, “We have the space, why can’t they just widen the highway with a new lane over there? That’d make everything easier!”

Even as a highway construction engineer, I ask this question all the time but usually the answer is more complex than simply having extra space. Who likes sitting in traffic? No one, but, living in a bustling Midwestern city like Chicago, heavy traffic is second nature to many commuters traveling in and out of downtown day after day.

The Eisenhower Expressway

One of the great commuter thoroughfares, known locally as the Eisenhower Expressway, is I-290. Winding eastward from Schaumburg and Rolling Meadows through multiple Chicago suburbs, I-290 plugs traffic into the heart of Chicago’s Downtown Loop District at the Jane Byrne Interchange. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Blue Line, a key mode of public transportation for Chicago, splits the Eisenhower Expressway, and lies in an expanded median from the Jane Byrne to Garfield Park. The CTA is separate from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and each organization own the lands their facilities occupy. As you drive down I-290, you might notice there are areas of the CTA median that host no tracks, platforms or buildings.

Photo from Chicagology

Wouldn’t that Land be Better Used as Highway?

The massive and new Jane Byrne Interchange is currently under construction and there is a large median between eastbound and westbound I-290, only half of which is being used by the CTA. When stuck in traffic, it’s easy to wonder–wouldn’t that land be better used as highway? It seems like it would be as simple as IDOT buying the land from the CTA, right? Why has that piece of land between the inbound and outbound directions of a traffic congested highway gone unused all this time?

Great questions. If only it were that easy.

How the CTA and IDOT Work Together to Keep Chicagoland Moving

Believe it or not, the CTA was formed almost 25 years before IDOT, but neither organization started from scratch with the commuter systems we use today. IDOT assumed the functions of the Department of Public Works and Buildings, and in 1947 CTA took ownership of all the streetcar rail lines from the Chicago Surface Lines (CSL) and the elevated rail lines from the privately-owned Chicago Rapid Transit Company (CRT).

The CSL was created in 1913 to operate the oldest system of streetcar rails in the city. The original streetcar and trolley rail lines in Chicago were first built as cable car lines in the 1880s and were later updated to electric lines once the technology proved itself. The CRT managed the elevated railroad operators (now known locally as the “L”) from 1924 to 1947.

Photo from CERA-Chicago

A City of Bridges: Added Complications for Cable Cars

Cable cars are not the best mode of transportation for cities with lots of bridges– especially movable bridges.

With more than 52 movable bridges, 43 of which are still operational within the city limits, Chicago is truly a city of bridges, highlighting the importance of river transport of freight and goods.

Before the age of trains and automobiles, the rivers were king. So in the late 1880s, when streetcar companies wanted to expand service across both branches of the Chicago River, they had two crossing options: use a bridge above the river or a tunnel below the river.

Moving Underground

Unfortunately, cable cars couldn’t cross over the movable bridges, leaving only the tunnel option as a viable solution. At the time, the city of Chicago already had two public pedestrian and horse tunnels underneath the Chicago River at Washington Street and LaSalle Street, but with the promise of improved transit, the city allowed streetcar companies to convert these two tunnels to cable car service. An additional tunnel was built specifically for cable cars at Van Buren Street and all three were in service by 1894.

Photos from Displaced: When the Eisenhower Expressway Moved in, Who Was Forced Out?

Trouble in the Tunnels

Unfortunately, the Chicago River soon became an issue for these tunnels. After the Chicago River was deepened and the direction reversed in 1900, all the tunnels were exposed above the new riverbed. This resulted in a ship running into the top of the Washington Street tunnel, prompting the government to declare all three tunnels hazardous in 1904.

With the government threatening removal, the tunnels were closed, lowered, and converted to electric streetcars. This took about eight years, and the streetcar service resumed by mid-1912.

During this time there were also issues with the ownership of the streetcar lines. Political, legal, and financial dealings eventually led to the creation of the municipally-owned CSL which put all the streetcar lines under one umbrella.

Post Second World War


Population increased at a rapid pace in Chicago after the Second World War, and with this increase in residents came the need for more ways to move around the city. In 1947, the CTA purchased streetcar lines and bus routes from the CSL, and the elevated railroad lines from the CRT. This combination signaled a new era of the Chicago L, and the CTA.

Plans to Expand

The CTA had plans to expand service with new rail lines and were interested in utilizing those old streetcar tunnels built half a century earlier. One plan envisioned a new high-level subway line to run under Jackson Street from Clinton Street to Grant Park. This proposed line was to use the old streetcar tunnel at Van Buren Street under the Chicago River and a new double-wide changing station located in the middle of the newly proposed Congress Street Superhighway (later renamed the Eisenhower Expressway) at Halsted/Peoria/Morgan Streets. 

Within the new highway’s median, they built a single platform and underground tunnel portals for the relocated Blue Line and tunnel portals for the proposed second line just east of Halsted Street. However, as time went on, the plans for a second line were revised time after time before eventually being dropped all together in April 1962.


The Tunnels Today

After 50 plus years of service, the station entrance at Halsted Street and one later added at Peoria Street were recently rebuilt as part of IDOT’s Jane Byrne Interchange project. With the new highway interchange’s upcoming completion, the original portals and the extra wide right-of-way will remain as the only visible clues to a great chapter in Chicago transportation history.  It preserves a history spanning 80 years with privately owned tunnels, cable and electric streetcars, beached riverboats, federal injunctions, bankruptcies, growing populations, and high ambitions.


What will the space in the I-290 median be used for in the future?

Hard to say. As of 2020, I-290 will not be expanded into the space because the median is owned by the CTA. Without an acquisition by IDOT, it will remain CTA’s property unless they decide to do something with it in the future.

Maybe one day the CTA will put that space to a different use, or maybe IDOT will acquire it and continue expanding the interstate. Perhaps it’ll be something altogether new, only time will tell. One thing for sure is it’ll always be a marker from a unique piece of Chicago history.


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