From plan to progress: The Central Tri-State’s transformation

Group of people, several wearing safety vests, posing for a photo on an interstate roadway
Five years ago, Hanson completed its work on the master plan that enabled the $4 billion Central Tri-State Tollway improvements. Construction started on the corridor in 2018, and substantial completion is expected in 2026. Hanson’s John Nelson, back row, third from left, poses with Tollway planning staff celebrating the opening of the Mile Long Bridge, a key feature of the Illinois Tollway’s 22-mile project.

The most heavily traveled corridor in the Illinois Tollway system, the central section of the Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 294) around metropolitan Chicago, needed extensive improvements when the Tollway’s board of directors earmarked funding in 2011 to kick off the much-needed project. The Tollway allocated $1.9 billion from a 15-year, $12 billion capital program for roadway, bridge and ramp reconstruction along the 22-mile Central Tri-State stretch of I-294 to replace portions of the vital urban expressway’s original 1950s pavement. The master plan justified increasing the program budget to $4 billion for widening and reconstruction.

The Tollway selected four prime teams to conduct studies and develop design concepts for the Central Tri-State master plan. As part of a tri-venture led by Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., Hanson served as the design corridor manager, overseeing the four design teams and assisted Jacobs with preparing the section of the corridor master plan that addressed the stretch from Cermak Road to Balmoral Avenue. Five years ago, Hanson completed its work on the master plan, which helped usher in the Tollway’s ongoing design. Construction started on the corridor in 2018, and substantial completion is expected in 2026.

Essential improvements to support the region’s economy

In addition to easing congestion and accommodating the demands of current and projected traffic flow in this critical corridor, the project improves critical freight connections, linking rail and air intermodal ports in support of regional businesses that rely on travel time reliability. The project encompassed widening and reconstructing the busy urban roadway from Balmoral Avenue to 95th Street, which sees more than 300,000 vehicles each day. In addition to rebuilding several interchanges and bridges, the design included SmartRoad technology and flex lanes, widened shoulders that the Tollway can use for incident management and to manage growing demand.

In addition to assisting in the development of the master plan, Hanson’s team had the privilege of contributing to the detailed design phase of the critical roadway section between the I-55 and Ogden Avenue interchanges where traffic modeling showed the highest design-year traffic volumes would occur. Challenges included fitting 12 lanes into an eight-lane footprint to accommodate traffic demands while minimizing the construction impacts on nearby property owners.

Working with joint venture partner TranSystems, Hanson prepared construction documents for the 2-mile section from south of 47th Street to north of Ogden, which included replacing the bridge carrying the Central Tri-State over Flagg Creek, modifying the Ogden interchange. In addition, Hanson led the design for the replacement of the bridge carrying the Central Tri-State over I-55.

Making progress a priority

Although the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the middle of the project, the Tollway reacted safely and swiftly, keeping only its most critical employees in its offices and setting up effective remote work locations. No progress was lost during the period of isolation, and construction and design continued as scheduled.

The project also involved significant public engagement. Hanson and the Tollway conducted many public meetings with stakeholders and residents while the master plan work was underway, traveling and meeting with all the communities and neighborhoods along the corridor.

“As corridor manager, I had the pleasure to support the Tollway planning team during the development of the master plan,” said John Nelson, P.E., a vice president and senior project manager at Hanson’s Chicago regional office. “Working with these talented folks was one of the highlights of my career.”

Moving forward

This year has been the biggest construction year in the Tollway’s history as it works toward wrapping up the Central Tri-State reconstruction.

“So many great things came out of this project and our collective effort,” said former Tollway Chief of Planning Rocco Zucchero. “There are going to be some lasting improvements that go well beyond the pavement and noise walls that are being delivered.” 

The Tollway maintains project updates on its website.

John Nelson can be reached at

Aerial photo of construction being performed on an interstate
Hanson was responsible for a design section that included the Tri-State Tollway over I-55. Credit: Cheuk-Fu (Peter) Au, P.E., Globetrotters Engineering Corp.