John LaPlante, 80, Chicago's first transportation commissioner and a former T.Y. Lin engineering manager, died March 22 in Evanston, Ill., from complications of COVID-19 contracted on a personal trip to Egypt in February.
LaPlante served the city for 30 years in transportation engineering positions, starting as an intern at the then-department of public works in 1962. As chief traffic engineer in 1982, he helped redesign and straighten out what was at the time a z-shaped curve on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive at Wacker Drive downtown.
He became acting transportation commissioner in 1992, when the position was created, but resigned later that year when a hole in the bottom of the Chicago River sent water into a network of utility tunnels and basements, flooding much of the city's downtown Loop. Many said at the time that he was not responsible for the incident.
After leaving the department, LaPlante began a long career in the Chicago office of engineering services firm T.Y. Lin International. He retired in 2015 as director of traffic engineering.
LaPlante received the Theodore M. Matson Memorial Award from the Institute of Transportation Engineers in 2010, was principal author of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Pedestrian Guide, and was active in industry groups.
"All of us at the Chicago Department of Transportation are saddened to learn of the passing of John LaPlante," said current Commissioner Gia Biagi. "John continued to work in transportation following his career at CDOT and championed important ideas like complete streets design and bike and pedestrian safety. "
T.Y. Lin termed him "an incredible engineer who made the world a safer place."
A Chicago native, he earned engineering degrees at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern University.
LaPlante’s death “reminds us all of a turning point in the transportation life of our city,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “He was a passionate public servant who helped bring CDOT to life nearly three decades ago.”