MACON — The Illinois Department of Transportation said safety improvements it has planned for the intersection of U.S. 51 and West Andrews Street Road at Macon will be an innovative first for the state and make the intersection significantly safer.
The intersection, near the P & V Quick Stop at 399 E. Andrews St. in Macon, will be transformed from a conventional expressway intersection with stop signs on both sides of Andrews Street Road into a "J-turn" intersection, which will require drivers to turn right onto U.S. 51 and make a U-turn at a one-way median opening at either side of the main intersection.
IDOT engineers and representatives introduced proposed changes to the intersection Thursday afternoon during an open house-style meeting at the Macon Community Center, 1039 S. Woodcock Road. The department is tentatively planning to start constructing the new intersection in either the summer or fall of 2019.
"There's no time or anything on (the completion schedule) yet because we're not that far into the design of it yet," said Mark Daugherty, studies and plans engineer for IDOT District 7, which includes Macon County. "But we know it can be built within one construction season."
The construction of the J-turn intersection will be the latest safety improvement that IDOT will make to the U.S. 51 and West Andrews Street Road intersection, which has long been regarded by county officials and lawmakers as hazardous.
Despite the improvements, a number of crashes have happened there since IDOT expanded the busy U.S. 51 from two lanes to four in the early 2000s. Most recently, the intersection was the site of a two-vehicle crash between a pickup truck and a semitruck in July in which no one was injured. In September Phil Jacobs Sr., 80, of Pana was involved in a crash in which he suffered injuries that took his life eight days later.
Past safety improvements made to the intersection included reducing the speed of U.S. 51 from 65 mph to 55 mph, installing yellow flashing beacons and signage and adding LED flashing stop signs, radar speed signs and pavement striping on U.S. 51.
Greg Jamerson, IDOT's District 7 program development engineer, said U.S. 51 will mostly remain the same when the J-turn is installed. The changes will primarily restrict through traffic and left-turn movement on West Andrews Street Road, he said, meaning that drivers will no longer be able to cross Andrews Street Road when headed east or south.
Instead, drivers will have to make a right turn, drive along U.S. 51 and make a U-turn using a special lane designated for vehicles to do so legally. Then, Jamerson said, drivers can make a right turn onto Andrews Street.
Drivers will also have to use the U-turn lanes when turning left onto U.S. 51 from Andrews Street Road.
"What this does is that it doesn't make the driver have to cross four lanes at once," Jamerson said. "(A driver) doesn't have to judge gaps permanently ... it's going to force somebody to become more aware of what kind of traffic they're crossing."
J-turns are more common in states such as Missouri and Minnesota, according to Jamerson and Daugherty. Statistics from those states show that J-turn intersections have helped reduce traffic crashes at major expressways, Jamerson said, and those results are what pushed IDOT to propose building its first full-fledged J-turn in Macon.
"We think this will increase the safety of this intersection tremendously," Jamerson said. "That's what we expect to happen, and if this is successful and we see the reduction in crashes, that's really what we're after."
Throughout the time that IDOT representatives were at the community center, Macon residents and other community members were invited to learn more about the proposed changes and to provide feedback about them.
Among those who came to learn more about the changes were Norma Jacobs of Pana and her son, Phil Jacobs Jr.
Last September, the U.S. 51 and Andrews Street Road intersection was the site of a fatal two-vehicle crash involving Norma Jacobs and her husband, Phil Jacobs Sr. Phil Jacobs, a retired Herald & Review writer and photographer, died eight days after the Sept. 4 crash from injuries that he suffered. Andrew J. Johnson, 29, of Decatur was convicted Sept. 28 of failure to yield at the intersection in that crash.
Almost one year after the crash that killed her husband, Norma Jacobs said her road to recovery has been long and ongoing. She said she wanted some kind of change to come to the intersection, preferably in the form of a traffic signal, but IDOT has said installing one could introduce more crashes at the intersection.
Despite this, Norma Jacobs said that any change is better than no change at all.
"(The J-turn) might be something throughout the whole state to use," she said. "And then we can work on getting rid of the human frailties, or whatever's wrong."
As a firefighter with the Mount Zion Fire Department, Phil Jacobs Jr. said he's responded to his fair share of crashes at the Macon intersection. He said he thinks that the changes could be good for the intersection, despite it being something the state hasn't seen before.
"I think this is just out-of-the-box type thinking, it's a safe idea and I'm just excited about the change," Phil Jacobs Jr. said. "I think it's a positive change in the right direction for that road."
It will most likely take some time and effort for many drivers to get used to the J-turn intersection when it is finished, Jamerson said, but in the end, it would be for the better.
"(The U-turn lanes) adds what our analysis shows as 20 seconds to the movement (through the intersection)," Jamerson said. "But we believe that 20 seconds of adverse travel is worth the increased safety for this design."