FAIRBANKS — The history of Illinois Street, which re-opens to two-way traffic Monday afternoon, dates back to two WWII-era streets that don’t exist anymore and an abandoned, more ambitious plan that would have connected Minnie Street to what became the “overpass to nowhere” over the Johansen Expressway.
Before there was Illinois Street, there was North Cushman Street and Pennsylvania Street. North Cushman Street, which still is the official address of the News-Miner, continued straight in a line where Illinois Street curves today, said Bob Pristash, a city engineer who has been involved in the Illinois Street project off and on since 1989. He has studied historical photos to understand the city’s old underground infrastructure.
“Basically, you had Cushman Street with the bridge, which turned into North Cushman, which still exists if you stand in the right place,” he said. “If you stand behind the News-Miner, you’ll see a straight line going down the street, and that’s the old alignment of North Cushman Street.”
In 1963, the City Council decided to replace Pennsylvania and North Cushman streets with Illinois Street. The road’s next transformation, proposed in the 1980s, never came to pass. The plan was to widen Illinois Street to six lanes and divert traffic to the Johansen Expressway by means of a western expansion of Minnie Street. It wasn’t built because of contamination discovered in the rail yard the new road was supposed to cut through. The overpass that’s not connected to any road over the Johansen Expressway is a reminder of the abandoned project.
While engineers and politicians were figuring out what to do about the contaminated rail yard, development picked up in other parts of Fairbanks, and traffic on Illinois Street dropped, Pristash said. It decreased enough that after a 2002 traffic study, the state abandoned the six-lane Illinois Street plan and began working on today’s design.
“The Johansen and Mitchell expressways were taking more and more traffic, and it just didn’t make (sense),” he said. A subsequent 2006 study showed the Cushman Street bridge was getting a relatively modest 17,000 vehicles per day.
Despite the years of planning, scrapped plans and re-planning, the construction of the Illinois Street project occurred fairly quickly. The bridge was built in 2010, and all of the work on Illinois Street was done in 2012. Including $1.1 million to accelerate work to have the road ready for Monday’s opening, the project cost $23.6 million.
Although less involved than the original plan, the state Department of Transportation’s description of the project states that it will nonetheless reduce traffic backups on both sides of the Chena River and reduce wrecks at the intersection of First Avenue and Cushman Street, a particularly accident-prone spot. The road also features new metal halide lights and underground space for water lines; sewer lines; storm drains; and copper, coaxial and fiber optic cables. New traffic lights are the first in Fairbanks to feature the flashing yellow arrow traffic signal.
The new traffic flow on Illinois Street and across the new bridge will begin 1 p.m. Monday, following a parade of veterans in antique cars.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.