As Seen on the Illinois Tollway: Chicago-Area Waterways

Illinois roadways, railways and airways are well-known and widely recognized for their impact on the state economy. 

But often overlooked is the vast network of waterways that Illinois Tollway motorists travel over every day. 

A major segment of the statewide waterway system is the Chicago Area Waterway System. This system is comprised of six separate waterways that course their way throughout Northern Illinois and the Illinois Tollway system. These include the Des Plaines River, Chicago River, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, Calumet Sag Channel, Little Calumet River and Calumet River. 

The Des Plaines River, the largest of the Chicago-area rivers, flows south 133 miles from southeastern Wisconsin and meets up with the Kankakee River southwest of Joliet to form the Illinois River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River. 

In Illinois, the Des Plaines River begins east of the North Tri-State Tollway (I-94) near Russell and winds its way back under I-94 just south of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. It then continues under the Central Tri-State Tollway (I-294), just north of Touhy Avenue, near Des Plaines and crosses under the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (I-90) in Rosemont near the River Road Toll Plaza. It continues streaming under the Mile Long Bridge on I-294 near Willow Springs and then southwest under the Des Plaines River Valley Bridge on the Veterans Memorial Tollway (I-355) near Lemont. 

The Chicago River is perhaps the most famous of area waterways that pass under the Tollway system. Known for flowing backwards, hosting architectural boat tours and being dyed green every St. Patrick’s Day, the Chicago River begins at Lake Michigan just south of Navy Pier and breaks off into two branches. 

The North Branch extends to Wilmette Harbor on the lake, while the South Branch connects the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which was constructed in 1900 to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and prevent pollution from streaming into Lake Michigan. The Sanitary and Ship Canal runs parallel to the Des Plaines River beginning in Lyons and passes under the Mile Long Bridge on I-294 and the Des Plaines River Valley Bridge on I-355. 

The Cal-Sag Channel – short for “Calumet-Saganashkee Channel" – links the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal near Lemont to the Little Calumet River, which continues east into Indiana and connects to the Calumet River. The Cal-Sag Channel flows under I-294 south of Cicero Avenue in Alsip. It also was created to draw pollution away from Lake Michigan and toward the Illinois River, as well as provide a navigable route to the industrial developments in the Calumet area. 

Illinois Tollway motorists who catch a glimpse of these waterways are likely to see huge barges transporting a variety of commodities. These barges are critical to the statewide transportation network. One 15-barge tow can remove 1,050 large trucks off Illinois roads, which not only helps alleviate congestion but also significantly reduces CO2 emissions. 

These barges carry a variety of cargo, from dry goods such as corn, wheat and oats to liquids such as fertilizers and fuel. They also transport heavy machinery, bulk steel and precast concrete forms. 

These waterways served as the lifeblood for Illinois residents for centuries before there were planes, trains and automobiles and they continue to play a major role in the state economy. Illinois waterways not only transport more than 90 tons of freight each, they are increasingly providing recreational activities such as boating, fishing and even swimming. 

In total, the Illinois Marine Transportation System contributes $36 billion to the state economy – or about 4 percent of Illinois’ gross state product – and supports 166,000 jobs, according to a recently published economic impact study by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The entire state system is made up of approximately 1,100 miles of commercially navigable waterways that provide Illinois with connections to both the Atlantic Ocean – through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes – and the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. 

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