Ridge Ave. light restoration project suspended again

Evan Hessel

Evanston City Council decided Monday to continue the suspension of the Ridge Avenue traffic light replacement project, following claims by residents that city staff bypassed state and local preservation laws while planning the project.

City Council will hold a special meeting June 3 to discuss future plans.

The original project proposed replacing more than 20 single-pole traffic lights in and near the Ridge Historic District with lights suspended from mast arms hanging over the street.

The project began April 17 but was halted in early May after several residents complained.

Concerned Evanston residents voiced their disapproval of the project at Monday night’s joint meeting of the Administration and Public Works and Planning and Development committees.

Resident Stephen Patton said the project should be abandoned because it is contrary to the interest of neighborhood residents and the Evanston Preservation Commission, who did not know about the project until last month.

The commission never was informed of plans to modernize the Ridge traffic signals, even though Evanston law requires that city staff consult the Preservation Commission regarding all projects affecting a historic district, Patton said.

Evanston’s public works department also failed to identify the Ridge neighborhood as a historic district on applications for federal funding for the lights, which prevented the Illinois Historic Preservation Association from contacting the local preservation commission, Patton said.

“Last Thursday, members of your own preservation committee opposed the project after a hearing they should have had three years ago,” Patton said.

Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) said the language on project documentation presented to the alderman by city staff also failed to identify the actual nature of the project.

“Had I known at the time that the intent of the project was to put in these mast arms, I would have definitely questioned the project,” Bernstein said.

Residents also questioned the legality and actual benefits of the proposed project.

The city’s procedures in applying for funding would not hold up in court if residents legally challenged the project, Patton said.

Patton also said the project would not improve the safety on Ridge because mast beam traffic lights are effective only in reducing accidents on major highways and in commercial areas.

Lights mounted on posts are better for pedestrian neighborhoods such as the Ridge Historic District because they are more visible from the street, he said.

“If you are in a residential area with kids and old folks walking around, you don’t want people looking up 16 feet in the air to see a traffic signal,” he said.

City Council yielded to arguments against the project and continued the suspension of the mast arm construction that began earlier this month.

With the original project halted, the city can investigate alternate options, such as restoration and coordination of the current single-pole system, as recommended by the Preservation Commission.

The council and city staff expect the Illinois Historic Preservation Association to make a formal statement prior to the June 3 meeting, acknowledging that they failed to treat Ridge as a historic district, City Manager Roger Crum said.

After the association acknowledges its mistake, Crum and other city staff can try to reach an agreement with the Illinois Department of Transportation on an alternate plan.

The department controls federal funding that would account for 80 percent of the current project’s costs.