The Ghost Highways of Chicago: The Crosstown Expressway & The Lake Shore Expressway

Like all major cities in the United States, expressways cross the City of Chicago on all sides. One trick that traffic reporters use to remember what each road is called is to stick your right hand out, extend your fingers and turn it so that your pinky is on top. From this vantage point the fingers on your hand represent the following named roads;

Pinky - Edens Expy (I-94)
Ring - Kennedy Expy (I-90/94; I-190)
Middle - Eisenhower Expy (I-290)
Index - Stevenson Expy (I-55)
Thumb - Bishop Ford Fwy (I-94)

But even this doesn't tell the whole story, as it leaves out the nameless I-57, which usually is discussed once the expressways on the hand have been mentioned, and the Chicago Skyway, which is almost never mentioned on traffic reports other than when there's an incident on the road.

Still, two other highways were proposed to be integral parts of the City's freeway infrastructure, and these roads are the subject of today's blog.

Crosstown Expressway:

The most well known and controversial unbuilt expressway in Chicago, The Crosstown Expressway has been planned as various facilities since Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan of Chicago.

“Model for Chicago... Where the Crosstown Expressway Would Be Built. View of Midway Airport in Corner.” Chicago History Museum. HB-31407-G. Image:

The proposal that came closest to reality during the building boom of the late 1960's and 70's was first proposed in 1965. It would have had the expressway run from the current junction where the Edens and Kennedy split on the North Side, along a railroad right-of-way, in fact the same one I proposed a bike path for, down to Midway Airport, then veering left at the Belt Railway of Chicago's Clearing Yard in Bedford Park, and then heading east around the 75th St area before meeting up again with I-94, now as the Bishop Ford, which is the route I have mapped below.

Image: "Chicago Plan Commission Proposed First Stage Expressway Development Plan (1943)" via Eric Fischer

While it was proposed to become I-494, there's no reason it couldn't have split up the I-90/I-94 combo for the Kennedy and a good portion of the Dan Ryan, but in any case, renumbering roads is an entirely different discussion.

This proposal for The Crosstown was proposed in the 1960's, and this coincided with a growing skepticism regarding urban freeways, especially after how impactful the building of the Eisenhower Expressway and Dan Ryan Expressway were to the city. 

Even the least impactful proposals for the road would have required thousands of housing units be demolished to make way for it, and displacing hundreds of families between its alignments. Here's how such impacts affected the neighborhood around the Dan Ryan, adjacent to the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes.

Whether or not the road would be built was a pivotal issue in the 1972 Illinois Gubernatorial Election, in which anti-Crosstown Democrat Dan Walker narrowly beat incumbent governor Republican Richard Ogilvie.

After the initial funding and construction boom of the Interstate Highway System in the late 1950's, continued government support for new freeways cooled off, "with increasing concern over programs of mass demolition. 

Though suburban communities were generally supportive of the project, inner-city community groups rallied against it, and fearing political repercussions, Mayor Daley relented. The project was finally cancelled for good in 1979 by Mayor Jane Byrne when the earmarked highway funds were transferred to the Interstate Highway Transfer Fund and then eventually to the CTA in order to fund the elevated train extensions to O'Hare and Midway airports." (Art Institute)

In spite of the reasons it didn't get built, and not even discussing the costs of the road, what would the Crosstown, if it was built, look like? It was proposed as an 8-lane elevated freeway, but with fewer interchanges than the Kennedy to allow for traffic to bypass downtown. A concept unique to the Crosstown would have split the median between North and Southbound traffic by half a mile; creating a large industrial area within it, which was also supposed to include a transit line. I could guess interchanges coming from the north would be at North Ave, I-290, Ogden Ave, I-55, somewhere near Midway, 67th St, Western Ave and Halsted St, before ending at the Dan Ryan. Another proposal would have run a little farther south and connected to I-57 at 99th St.

By 1967, public support for the road was faltering, and a new proposal for the road was put forth, something more akin to a road or freeway proposal today. It was "planned as a new
kind of expressway: a “total development concept” integrating mass transit, high rise
apartment buildings, commercial and industrial zones and green spaces within the overall
expressway concept." (Addie, 2009) Mayor Daley exclaimed that it would be the most beautiful highway in the nation. 

And the most costly, at $2.58 billion in 1967 dollars, over $21 Billion in today's dollars, in the same ballpark as the final cost of the Big Dig in Boston. 

"Lifeline for the Middle City" A rendering for the proposed Crosstown Expressway, c.1977. Art Institue of Chicago Archives.

Would the Crosstown even have had a positive impact on traffic flow? I'm not an engineer, but I think if you look at other urban expressway proposals that have been built, and their impact on traffic, it's safe to say that it would have a fairly positive effect on downtown traffic, especially on the Kennedy. My initial thought process is how the "Big Dig" impacted traffic in Boston.

But that's pretty much where the positives end. The Crosstown would likely have moved the congestion backups from the center of Downtown Chicago to the Junction, where three interstates would condense to two, where traffic is already horrendous. Additionally, both I-55 and I-290 would have choke points at their interchanges as well.

I would put the chance at this road ever being constructed in the infinitesimals, yet The Crosstown is not completely a dead project. In fact, proposals using similar rights-of-way to the project such as the Mid-City Transitway, and a Toll Highway have been proposed as late as 2007. But as any proposals to revive the project are sure to face significantly greater local opposition, funding concerns, and environmental impacts than even the 1970's proposal.

The funds earmarked for the Crosstown were put to good use, and I think much greater use than as a highway, whatever your opinion on freeway building. The Chicago Tribune noted the following projects were completed using the Crosstown money:

- The Southwest Side rapid transit line-nine miles, eight stations and 72 rail cars-linking the Loop and Midway Airport. [CTA Orange Line]

- The O'Hare extension of the Jefferson Park CTA line from Logan Square to O'Hare International Airport-six miles, 10 stations. [CTA Blue Line]

- 16 other CTA rapid transit stations constructed or rehabilitated.

- Three CTA maintenance facilities built or reconstructed.

- 125 CTA buses purchased.

- 16 Metra stations built or reconstructed.

- Nine bridges for commuter trains repaired or rebuilt.

- 13,035 parking spaces created for train commuters.

- 731 miles of highways resurfaced or widened.

- 145 miles of new or reconditioned highways.

- 210 bridges rehabbed or replaced.

- 96 grade crossings for commuter trains improved.

A CTA Connections YouTube video shows a late 1960's documentary on the Crosstown with some interesting era-specific context on the differing thoughts on the freeway:

Stony Island Expressway/Lake Shore Expy:

While local opposition was the ultimate killer of the Crosstown, there existed yet another expressway proposal within Chicago's city limits. This one is much older, and unlike The Crosstown, not only were small parts of it built, they exist to this day.

Before the freeway network was built in Chicago, the arterial roads were the only way to get around. And unlike today, many arterial roads in Chicago carried numerical designations. In the case of Stony Island Ave, it along with the Calumet Expy (today's Bishop Ford Freeway) was designated as ALT-US-30. 

All traffic on the Calumet was routed onto Stony Island Ave, as the Bishop Ford hadn't been built yet. A proposal in the 1950's had Stony Island Ave become an expressway, and thus the Stony Island Feeder Ramp was built.

No longer numbered, Stony Island Ave is nonetheless still a large arterial road on the South Side of Chicago.

Built as ALT-US-30 to move traffic from the Calumet Expy onto the Stony Island Expy, it would have replaced Stony Island Ave as an arterial road up to about 57th St, and turned east to connect to Lake Shore Dr, which itself was proposed to become a full expressway as part of this proposal. This freeway was proposed to become I-494, but when that number was moved over to The Crosstown, this was proposed to become I-694.

Another ghost of this expressway exists as well. The Chicago Skyway's interchange with Stony Island has two large flyover ramps, which seems odd for an arterial roadway, and that's because they were originally designed to connect to Stony Island as an expressway.

Image: Google Street View at 79th St & Stony Island Ave

Much like The Crosstown, The Stony Island Expressway would have had problems of its own with land acquisition. Although Stony Island Ave is wide and could support an expressway (without getting into how that would affect the local neighborhood), the project would have had trouble connecting to Lake Shore Dr, as it would run right through Jackson Park, the Midway Plaisance, and the Museum of Science and Industry. It was thus canceled in 1959, and traffic was routed onto the Bishop Ford Fwy instead.

Yet another ghost, if built entirely, would have connected the Kennedy Expy with the Lake Shore Expy, creating an inner belt of traffic around The Loop; The Ohio Street Feeder, which is currently built as 3 lanes in each direction from the Kennedy to just past the Chicago River, about 1 mile in each direction.

Image: Nathan Holth

The center of this project, Lake Shore Dr as a full freeway has been a non-starter every time that it has been proposed to be upgraded. But it is nonetheless still being proposed to be reconstructed, but part of this newest plan would involve adding more beach are to the Lakefront, as well as smoothing out the Oak Street curve, which currently reduces traffic to 25 mph.

Chicago Tribune, 2017

It's almost certainly for the best that neither The Crosstown nor the Stony Island/Lake Shore expressways were built, for the fact that urban freeways displace communities, are inherently more expensive than freeways in less dense areas, don't really improve travel times (if at all), and have environmental impacts as well.

As this blog was on simply the proposals of the roads themselves, I specifically chose not to delve into these topics, but that doesn't mean these issues don't exist; much has been written on the negative impacts of urban freeways, as well as the history of the roads that have been built in Chicago, and how they were built along racial lines, and accelerated white flight outside cities.

Thanks as always for reading!

Citation: Addie, J.-P. D. (2009). A Century of Chicago's Crosstown Corridor: From Daniel Burnham’s City Beautiful to Richard M. Daley’s Global City . Transport Chicago. 


  1. I grew up in Ashburn on Pippin St. in the 1960s. The Crosstown Expressway would have run four short blocks from the house I grew up in. There was a lot of opposition to the Crosstown Expressway in my neighborhood, just like other Chicago neighborhoods.

    An exit was proposed for Lawndale Ave. This would have been a short distance from my house. Homeowners in Ashburn were virtually 100% opposed to this exit, which would have brought big trucks and heavy traffic right up to some of the houses. The street light at 79th Street and Lawndale was installed to accommodate traffic from the Crosstown exit. Also, Lawndale was widened and improved from 79th Street to 87th Street in anticipation of the traffic from the exit. Previously, it was a local street without stop lights and curbs.

    After the Crosstown Expressway died, the remaining lots in my neighborhood were developed with single family homes. This was around 1973-1977. Some of those houses would have been directly in the way of the exit.

    I clearly remember this from my childhood and wanted to make sure these details were preserved for posterity.


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