The Joint Highway Design Committee

The mechanism for designing and building the expressways in Cook County was a process embodied in the Joint Highway Design Committee (JHDC).  The arrangement was originally set up in 1939, formalized in 1944 and existed until the mid 70's when the last of the Cook County expressways were finished.  The 1944 agreement established design and construction standards for the Congress Expressway and in 1945 was expanded to include the financial arrangements between the state, county and city.  As preliminary plans were developed for each of the expressway, similar joint participation agreements were reached.  As these agreements were fleshed out the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) became a participant in the JHDC.  Participation by BPR and the state virtually assured the necessary formal approval by those two agencies.   Although membership of the various subcommittees varied the following always had some role and participated in some fashion.
Illinois Division of Highways-The state highway department is the mechanism through which federal aid becomes available for projects within the state and by law they are the overseer of the highway work undertaken by local governments with federal funding.

Chicago Department of Public Works-They are responsible for most of the capital construction in the City of Chicago (in 1953 the Department of Subways and Superhighways became the Bureau of Engineering for the Department of Public Works)

Chicago Department of Streets And Sanitation / Bureau of Street traffic-By a city ordinance they are responsible for examining and approving design and general plans for all streets and highways within the city a responsibility they shared with the Department of Public Works in the 50's and 60's.

Cook County Highway Department-Responsible for all phases of highway planning and construction in Cook County including county highways within the City of Chicago.

Chicago City Council and Cook County Board-both of these boards were directly involved in the construction of the expressways.  Their approval was necessary for the disbursement of motor fuel tax funds and the procurement of right-of-way for the expressways.

The joint design committee was a vehicle for all design matters for the expressways within the city and the Chicago suburbs.  The city representatives sat in on all meetings and the city engineers took part in all decision-making regardless of the location of the expressway.  Funding of the expressway under this agreement was rather straightforward.  Within the city all four participated while in the suburbs the city was not a financial participant.  The exception to the funding arrangement, at least theoretically, was the provision of transit the median.  At the time of the construction of the Congress and Northwest Expressway’s the CTA, was a self-regulated non-tax supported municipal corporation. There was not supposed to be a state or federal contribution toward the design or financing of the CTA facility within those two expressway, only corporate funds from the city.  Although the use of the median was a matter approved by the joint highway design committee, CTA engineers designed it while the Chicago Department of Public Works took on the responsibility of construction.  By the time the CTA facility was built within the South Route the arrangements had changed and the state and the federal government had become financial participants in the transit facility and the funding did not always work out as it was supposed to. 

Although each expressway was unique and the problems or situations encountered were different after 1956 the process typically went through the following steps.

The city and county would come to the committee with proposals for designating routes on the federal aid system and upon agreement, were designated as a federal route by the their board or council.  Next a joint participation agreement is made after which the committee agrees on a specific route.  After the committee agreed on a specific route an agreement is developed on how to sub-divide the expressway for purposes of plan preparation and construction.  This division was based on preliminary cost estimates with each participant undertaking work expected to cost about 1/3 of the total in keeping with the equal participation clause of the joint agreement.  Outside the city, the state and county split the work equally.  After approval of the funding, specific plans were developed and after review, approved by the committee and sent to the state and the federal government for approval.

As Gene Kramer pointed out in his 1958 CATS report on the building of the Cook County Expressway system “it is difficult to describe the dynamic highly involved process”.  It required that the engineers from the participating agencies both express and conduct themselves in a cooperative manner.  Plans were in all stages of development with work constantly being changed.  Any change made is necessary to have it approved “around the circuit”.  Each of the participants must have had a rather high regard for the other to enable them to work within such an environment. 

Mike Hartigan at the time Asst. State Expressway Engineer for District 10 said that the design committee meetings he attended often lasted all day.  He said that Bartelsmeyer, Mortimer and Dement were known to attend but it was usually the next level that was the consistent participants.  Charles “Shorty” Monnier from BPR usually came in for the meetings from Springfield.  His goal was to catch the 4:00 PM train back to Springfield after the meeting.  The local group led by Dick Van Grop from the city was famous for waiting until 3:00 PM to bring up controversial or expensive issues.  The result was that Mr. Monnier left most of these meetings angry because he could not participate in a full discussion of the issue.

In an interview with George March, former District Engineer/10, he remarked that he could drive sections of the Cook County expressways and could tell because of subtle differences in design, which agency built what section.  Despite the purview of the JHDC, each agency applied some of their own standards to their work.  He said CCHD had a more individualized design especially in landscaping that set their sections apart from the others.  George said that generally the city had the section closest to downtown, with the state the next and the county the furthest out.  The latter fact was another link to the 1941 decision by Major Quinlan to concentrate county efforts in the suburbs.

In 1956 the joint expressway committee began to deal with special problems created by the rather abrupt termination of the new expressways.  These high-volume roadways dumped traffic onto the existing arterial system en masse, causing a variety of problems.  The county was especially innovative in proposing short-term solutions such as reversing arterial roadway lanes during rush hour. 

Another issue being pondered at this time was how to properly provide signing for these high-speed facilities and innovation was the order of the day, because many of the situations requiring signage were new, thus the standard methods proved inadequate.  One example was the introduction of the triangular yield sign, which was designed to allow motorists to safely enter these high-speed expressway facilities.  In addition to the design of the signs themselves in many cases state law had to be altered in order to adjust to the new situations created by the new superhighways.  Mike Hartigan tells of being directed by Roger Nusbaum the job of designing and installing the large overhead signs on the Congress Street Expressway-in a matter of months.  With nowhere else to turn, he called on a friend, Jim Wilson at the California Highway Department who provided him with a set of full-sized templates.  After making the necessary changes to reflect the local street system, Hartigan presented his templates at a meeting chaired by Nusbaum.  Unfortunately, in transitioning the signs to the Chicago-area expressways, Mike had neglected to eliminate some references to seismic loading on the California templates. At the pre-construction meeting the reference prompted a question by the contractor regarding its applicable to Illinois.  Mike’s boss, Chief Expressway Engineer Bronke, saved the day by asking why the questioner had not heard of the New Madras Fault.  In 1957, after seven years of study the joint committee would release A Policy on the Signing of Expressways In Metropolitan Chicago.