Back to the United States, with a return to the Chicago metropolitan area. In the northern suburb of Waukegan, there exists a freeway with very little traffic on it. A bizarre sight indeed, considering that many suburban expressways in the Chicago suburbs are usually packed with vehicles :
Illinois State Route 137, better known as the Amstutz Expressway in Waukegan, is one of those weird anomalies that appears to defy conventional explanation. Freeway critics have argued over the years that building freeways increases traffic and congestion. Yet, for some odd reason, the Amstutz appears to have had the exact opposite effect, proving that the adage “If you build it, they will come” is not always applicable. How did this happen?
Some Chicagoland residents might be surprised to learn that the history of the Amstutz dates all the way back to the first decade of the 1900s, when there were plans for a “Lakefront Industrial Highway” that would link the factories of Lake Michigan north of Chicago. With the advent of the freeway-building age in the mid-1900s, plans evolved for a higher-speed corridor.
Poor Melvin E. Amstutz, who was the director of the Lake County Illinois highway department during the 1960s, probably never would have guessed that his name would be used as a joke and source of derision after having a highway named after him. Yet that is exactly what happened. The preliminary plan for the Amstutz was to link the northern lakefront suburbs of Chicago, namely North Chicago and Waukegan. The belief among highway planners at the time was that the expressway could serve as a viable alternative route to I-94 for the residents of the northern suburbs, easing downtown traffic and serving those who worked in the factories near the waterfront. By 1972 the plan was for the Amstutz to run from the Tri-State Tollway near Northbrook up to the Wisconsin state line.
The project, obviously, didn’t get far off the ground. Any hopes that an alternative corridor could serve the northern Chicago suburbs came to a halt when construction was stopped in the late 1970s . Not only did the Amstutz fail to connect the northern suburbs to the Wisconsin state line, it didn’t even fully connect Waukegan to North Chicago. Only two small segments of the highway made it through to completion: the North Chicago segment runs parallel to Sheridan Road from Buckley Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (1.3 miles), while the Waukegan segment starts near Genesee Street and travels north to Greenwood Avenue. At that point State Route 137 jogs west before connecting back to Sheridan Road (2.9 miles).
The circled areas on the map represent the approximate areas where the Amstutz Expressway was built to completion.
At the northern terminus of the Amstutz, near Greenwood Avenue. Note the extra-wide median, road stubs, and underpass on the left side — this indicated that the freeway was originally planned to extend further north.
Although discussion continued into the early 1980s about completing the Amstutz, there was also recognition that the areas the freeway was supposed to serve were in decline. Although Waukegan’s population remained stable, many of the factories along the expressway closed down, part of a nationwide trend in the decline of manufacturing. As a result, fewer than 15,000 vehicles travel the highway daily.
In the years since, calls have been made by area residents to tear down the Amstutz in order to revive the lakefront district with new housing and commerce. In 2015, journalist David Rutter went so far as to call the expressway “a massive purple wart” on the city of Waukegan. “There’s nothing about the 2.9-mile abomination and its social, financial, aesthetic or cultural contribution to Waukegan that could not be improved by unleashing jackhammers to destroy it,” he wrote.
In spite of the calls to tear it down, the Amstutz Expressway has managed to find at least two other uses over the years. The freeway has been a popular shooting scene for multiple movies, including “Blues Brothers”, “Groundhog Day”, “Ordinary People”, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” and “Batman Begins”. The City of Waukegan, Waukegan Bike Project, and Waukegan Main Street have also sponsored several “Bike the Amstutz” festivals, where cyclists can bike the entire length of the freeway for one day, as well as enjoying live music, artwork, games, and prizes. Who says freeways only have one use?
A snapshot of 2015’s “Bike the Amstutz”. Image from The Chicago Tribune.