Automobile Chicago Infrastructure

In the Chicago region, a setback for regional planning

» A major roadway is advanced, in violation of the consensus-based plan.

Yesterday, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) policy committee voted to approve the addition of a major new highway to the regional plan document. If built, the Illiana Expressway will run 47 miles between I-55 and I-65 in Illinois and Indiana, about 10 miles south of the existing built-up area of the Chicago region.

The project was supported by the relevant state departments of transportation as an essential complement to the existing mobility system and an economic development tool. But the decision to add it to the regional plan suggests a breakdown in what had been until recently a metropolitan-wide consensus about which projects to fund. Though the adoption of the project does not mean the end of the plan, it does imply that sticking to a regional plan in the face of political pressure to build other projects is difficult, if not impossible—especially because the decision-making process that adds newly desired projects to regional plans does not require eliminating funding for other, previously prioritized projects.

These conclusions are applicable to metropolitan areas across the country, not just Chicago.

The debate over the project, in which the benefits and costs of the road were hashed out in public, was an important step forward. In the past, a major highway project like the Illiana would have sailed through the committee with little discussion, supported by the strength of its sponsor (usually the state DOT) alone. Yet the process adopted by CMAP, in which the project’s merits were studied and compared, forced the region to take a hard look at whether or not it was worth its cost.

Following this vote, it will take significant work to reaffirm the mission of CMAP, which had been a model for American regional planning organizations. The agency had developed a unified vision for addressing land use and transportation issues and actively fought the indiscriminate development decisions that had marked previous planning in the region. Can it find its way back to a common regionwide investment program? CMAP, and other MPOs, must take the lessons learned from the fight over the Illiana, both good and bad, and extend them to other projects and future plans.

A background on CMAP’s mission and the development of regional goals

In 2010, CMAP unveiled GO TO 2040, the region’s long-term plan, which incorporating both land use and transportation goals in a single document. The plan, which serves as the region’s federally designated transportation investment plan (TIP), identified a list of priority regional transportation projects.

Compared to the regional plans often being produced by other MPOs, GO TO 2040 took a bold step forward. It acknowledged the interdependence of land use and transportation by articulating a vision for a region where new construction would be focused in already-developed areas, transit use would be encouraged and natural resources would be protected. It emphasized a policy—rather than “market”—based approach to estimating future growth. The plan’s list of priority transportation projects was pragmatic and reasonable—support was limited only to a small group of investments, selected after a vigorous vetting session that considered dozens of possibilities. CMAP selected only those that could be funded given the federal, state, local, and private revenues expected to be generated over a thirty-year period. And maintenance of the existing system was prioritized.

GO TO 2040 was, as a result, a departure from previous Chicago regional plans that not only strayed from a discussion of land use policy, but also were jammed up with dozens of unrealistic, and of more relevance, unfundable, projects. Plans like these, which included a panoply of competing projects, most of which never had any hope of being built, were until recently the standard for MPOs across the country. This approach allowed MPOs to add projects willy-nilly as they responded to the desires of local and state actors. But this resulted in a list that had little relationship to reality; the consequence was a “plan” with no focus.

GO TO 2040 took a different tact. While it was new and quite restrictive compared to the previous norm, it was endorsed unanimously by both the CMAP board and the associated local MPO policy committee, which is responsible for allocating federal funding. Those groups are constituted of representatives of each of the CMAP region counties, as well as representatives of regional transportation agencies. In other words, officials from all around the region were in agreement about the projects that should be prioritized over the next thirty years.

The Illiana Expressway was not one of those projects. Rather, regional officials concentrated their sights on five other capital investments, including the West Loop Transportation Center, the CTA Red Line South Extension, the I-294/I-57 Interchange, the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway Link and the Central Lake County Corridor. An additional project, the Circle Interchange, was added to the list in early 2013.

These projects were selected by consensus not because they were promoted by one politician or another, but rather because they represented projects of regional significance. The goal of the plan was to concentrate resources on those projects. Though none of the projects is beyond criticism, what can be said is that at least officials from around the region agreed on them.

This year’s decision by the State of Illinois to submit the Illiana Expressway to review (the process has been remarkably rapid) and potential inclusion in the GO TO 2040 plan thus raised a number of questions about the long-term effectiveness of the process that led to the original selection of projects. For better or worse, the construction of the Illiana will require a minimum of $500 million in public funds to be built, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, and that figure may increase. As a result, the inclusion of the Illiana in the plan would not merely be a statement of support in favor of a specific project, but also a compromise in the fiscal integrity of the other projects. There is only so much money to be spent, and the $500 million that would be devoted to the Illiana necessarily means reducing the scope of work on other projects. Despite the fact that IDOT holds the project up as a model public-private partnership (it will be a toll road), that arrangement will require availability payments to a private builder-maintainer-operator, which require a state guarantee over the long term and the state is likely to have to subsidize those payments above and beyond toll revenues.

Project proponents suggested that the project would aid in the development of freight industries in the region, encourage the creation of jobs in the southern section of the region, and reduce congestion.

These arguments were vigorously contested by the non-profit Metropolitan Planning Council (I am on staff there and researched the Illiana project) and the staff of CMAP, both of which concluded—often using IDOT’s own figures—that the road would do little to reduce congestion, exacerbate pollution, produce few jobs (in fact, the project is expected to result in a net loss of jobs in Illinois for the benefit of Indiana), and serve few trucks. The fact that the road will be tolled, in particular, means that the market for using the facility will be limited. In other words, the road will offer few benefits at a high cost, particularly in comparison to other projects that would serve more densely populated, congested communities. From the perspective of sound transportation planning, it is disappointing that the project is moving forward.

But lost in the debate about the relative merits of the road, which, to be sure, has many supporters in the metropolitan area, has been a discussion about the role of regional planning in determining which projects should be selected for construction and funded accordingly. From this viewpoint, the decision to support the Illiana’s inclusion in the metropolitan area’s plan is particularly problematic, because it puts CMAP’s legitimacy as the decision maker on questions of regional development into question. Indeed, it raises the question as to whether any American metropolitan area has the capacity to develop a sound plan and then stick to it—without being hung up by political obstacles and conflicting opinions from leaders across the region.

The regional planning mission of any regional planning organization such as CMAP should encompass three primary objectives: establishing goals, identifying priorities, and following through. GO TO 2040 establishes a series of clear goals, including doubling transit ridership, increasing growth in the already-developed parts of the region, and reducing emissions. The plan’s priorities did not include the Illiana project in part exactly because it does not aid in the fulfillment of those goals.

As such, the decision to add the Illiana to GO TO 2040 suggests that this regional planning mission remains elusive.

At the same time, the manner in which the Illiana was presented to regional officials, and the limitations of the governance structure of MPOs like CMAP, present structural obstacles. Rather than consider the project within a regional framework, putting its advantages within the context of regional growth goals and the transportation network, CMAP officials were forced by the state government to consider the project on its own merits. But any sound planning approach recognizes that no individual project can be considered in isolation.

If the successful addition of the Illiana to the plan proves anything, it is that the proponents of the project demonstrated the benefits of the project. But members of the MPO policy committee never had to evaluate whether they would prefer investing in the Illiana or another project. Rather, they simply added the Illiana to an existing plan. Yet that approach, which pulls GO TO 2040 back into the MPO cornucopia-of-projects policy of the past, denies the fiscal reality that there are only so many projects that can be funded. The Chicago region simply cannot have everything it wants, but in its vote the committee acted otherwise.

CMAP, in other words, has in this way not followed through with the priorities it stated three years ago. This failure does not mean the organization’s plan no longer has relevance, just that the coherence in thinking that made GO TO 2040 stand out has faded. Major projects should be evaluated within the context of global thinking about the region’s growth; a multi-billion-dollar project should be considered only in the context of a full-scale update to the plan—taking into account the limitations on available funds and being willing to eliminate other projects if they are no longer seen as useful.

How to move forward

The acrimonious debate over the inclusion of the Illiana Expressway diminished regional unity; the close vote over whether to include the project in GO TO 2040 is indicative of broad disagreement about the way the region’s growth should proceed.

This moment, though, should be one for reflection. Why did the Illiana project cause so much controversy, both for and against? What were the benefits of the project that made it so essential to its proponents—namely in terms of economic development for the southern section of the Chicago region—and so problematic for its opponents? How can we be sure to identify projects that achieve greater consensus in the future? What changes to plans like GO TO 2040 should we hope for in the future?

Undoubtedly, some of the more progressive and ambitious elements of CMAP’s goals, particularly those related to reigning in sprawl and moving trips from automobile to transit, are not relevant to a huge section of the metropolitan area, particularly those people who live in the far suburbs. For people in the southern section of the region, better transit may seem like a nice addition, but a highway sounds like a new lifeblood, whether or not that is true. In a section of the region not given a project in the GO TO 2040 plan, the appeal of a new project like the Illiana, particularly when it supported wholeheartedly by the state, is incontestable. Trying to tell people who feel they have been ignored that they cannot have their own project is a difficult proposition.

Despite the fact that transportation must be addressed regionally, most regional agencies remain only marginal actors, stuck in the in-between world between funding (at the state level) and on-the-ground needs (at the local level). And so regional thinking will likely continue to usually lose out.