Automobile Chicago Illinois Infrastructure

The politics of wishful thinking: American cities and their commitment to the expressway

» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.

For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.

After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are some depressing exceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.

But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed, once started, drugs are difficult to stop abusing—even when everyone is aware of their negative effects.

Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion.

The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. Here, in a city along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and with high transit use, the possibility of tearing down a roadway that prioritizes car use and blocks access to the waterfront has never really been up for discussion. In fact, as I’ll describe below, the city and state departments of transportation are pushing rapidly toward the road’s reconstruction in a manner that will increase the ease by which drivers get around.

A change that would actually meet climate and transportation goals set forth by the city and region is off the table. In the process, the city will miss a unique opportunity to reorient half of its lakefront to the needs of people, not cars. Too many cities have made, and continue to make, the same mistake.

The lakefront expressway

Chicago denizens are practically obsessed with quoting Daniel Burnham, who pushed to “make no little plans” and who co-wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. That plan recommended the creation of parks and a parkway along the lakefront. Many of the parks have indeed been built, producing—in some places—one of the nation’s most beautiful waterfronts.

Residents also point to Montgomery Ward’s push to ensure that the lakefront remain “forever open, clear and free.” While this stance was motivated at least in part to maintain views from his department store, it has inspired generations of Chicagoans to preserve and improve lakefront parks.

But Chicago has a disjointed relationship with its lakefront.

Though the 1909 plan is frequently discussed as if it has structured the city’s development, in fact, most of its waterfront interventions—such as a series of park-islands—have not been completed. And Ward’s efforts to keep the lakefront “free” didn’t do much to prevent the construction of a massive convention center along the water.

But the most dramatic violation of the parks-and-freedom message put forward by Burnham and Ward was the creation of Lake Shore Drive, a multi-lane roadway that now extends from 67th Street* in the South Side to Hollywood Avenue on the North Side, roughly 16 miles via downtown.

As envisioned in the 1909 plan, the road would be a “combination of park and driveway” without truck traffic. And as initially built, it came close to that purpose, looking and acting something like a tree-lined city street along which vehicles moved at slow speed.

But it was rebuilt over time, in the 1930s acquiring most of the function of an urban expressway and being transferred from the Park District to the city in 1959 and then to the state department of transportation in the 1970s.

Responding to concerns about the lakefront’s future, in 1973, the city passed the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which was designed to prevent further intrusions onto the lakefront parks. It legislated that “no roadway of expressway standards… shall be permitted in the lakefront parks.” The city code defines expressway as a road designed for speeds in excess of 45 mph.

Lake Shore Drive, however, is an expressway in all but name. It features grade-separated intersections outside of downtown and, despite the speed limit, anyone who has ever used the road knows its drivers treat it as if it were an Interstate. It features four lanes in both directions. Because of its position along the lakefront, the highway acts as a barrier between the city and the lake, in several cases cutting through the heart of parks. It is a great source of noise and pollution. It would be delusional to claim it meets Burnham’s vision for the lakefront.

It has also, along with the construction of other (official) expressways, encouraged the transformation of Chicago from a transit-focused city to an automobile-dominated region. The city’s transit mode share—the portion of people who use public transportation to get to work—has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to just 28 percent in 2016.

Automobiles dominate on the route; on the busiest section north of downtown, it serves up to 170,000 cars daily. Nevertheless, others have taken to using the Drive for other purposes. 69,000 daily riders use bus routes that travel along it; 31,000 daily walkers and bikers navigate the adjacent trails.

The southern portion of the facility was renovated in the early 2000s renovation, but the northern portion, which is more used by all types of users, is falling apart. The road is degraded; congestion is common; bus services are frequently delayed; and the path is crowded with bikers and pedestrians.

A planning process is now underway, to be completed by 2020, but construction funding remains uncommitted.

Given the size of the road and its position along the city’s famed waterfront, choices about what to do with it will define part of the city’s future. Will the city take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect its urban blocks to the waterfront and prioritize transit, walking, and biking? Or will it simply reinforce the status quo?

Planning for a sustainable, transit-filled future

Given what planners and elected officials in the Chicago region say they want to do, you’d think that the possibility of transforming the Drive into something else would be a major priority.

After all, the region’s new comprehensive plan, developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (the MPO), endorses the goal of doubling transit ridership, a goal the agency has been committed to since 2010. Moreover, the plan recommends “mak[ing] transit more competitive” and increasing the share of regional commuters traveling by modes other than driving alone from 30 percent to 37 percent in 2050.

The City of Chicago and Cook County—the large county that includes and surrounds the city—have both signed on to a popular declaration holding that they will support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement through local policies. This implies that they will identify mechanisms to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Now that transportation accounts for the largest share of American emissions, you’d think that would be a focus.

Similar goals are endorsed by cities and regional agencies throughout the U.S. New York City, for example, hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent; Seattle expects to become carbon neutral and reduce the share of commuters driving alone to work from 43 percent today to 35 percent in 2035. Each suggests that future investments should prioritize reducing car use and encouraging transit ridership.

A reworked drive that doesn’t add up

From the start of planning for the future of the North Side portion of the Drive, it’s been clear that neither the state nor city departments of transportation—which are leading its $2-3 billion redevelopment—are particularly interested in rethinking the way the highway works. The route of the areas being studied is below (with north to the right and south to the left).

The planning process identified its goals early on, back in 2014, which included “improving vehicular mobility” as a primary purpose for the project. In making the choice to “improve mobility for all users,” the planning process was effectively dismissing alternatives, such as eliminating the roadway altogether. From the beginning, the choice of “improving mobility” put in stone the rejection of turning Chicago’s lakefront into the people-oriented space other cities have executed so successfully.

The focus on “mobility” rather than “access,” also suggested a prioritization of speed rather than other goals, such as creating more livable neighborhoods along the lakefront with better access to jobs and commercial needs. For, while the project is a “transportation” one, its impacts will be on land use.

Having to stick to the 1973 ordinance, the project cannot increase minimum speeds to levels higher than 45 mph. Planning documents thus far have suggested no effort to expand the number of lanes for cars. Yet the purpose of improving vehicular mobility has essentially disallowed any alternative that would lower automobile capacity.

It is worth thinking through what an alternative to today’s lakefront might be, because that act of conceptualization—imagining a different world—has been remarkably absent from the discussion.

Consider, for example, not a Chicago cut off from its lakefront by a highway that forces pedestrians to pass under or over it, but rather a city whose neighborhood streets turn into pathways down to the beaches. A rapid transit line with welcoming stations every half mile offering an alternative to the packed Red Line ‘L’ down the street. New opportunities for development, featuring water-fronting retail and cafes, without the ever-present noise and dust of the freeway—allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows. Larger parks, no longer divided in two by concrete.

None of these concepts were seriously considered. The city’s residents had little chance to explore what they might think of these ideas.

What officials do seem to have agreed to, after several years of planning, are the complete reconstruction of the highway, with eight lanes throughout the corridor and new dedicated bus lanes, for a total of 10 lanes, and increasing capacity over extant. These changes will not add any transit stations along the corridor; buses will simply use the route as an mechanism for moving between neighborhoods and downtown and a way to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Current projections suggest the bus lanes could increase transit use by 60 percent.

Despite the improvements for transit service, it’s hard not to conclude that the project will have as its primary effect the reinforcement of the highly automobile-oriented environment that now dominates the lakefront.

The extraction of buses into their own lanes will leave eight purely for automobile use; that simply means more space for personal cars. And the new corridor will be up to 19 lanes wide in some locations, such as south of the intersection with North Avenue, as shown here.

Enmeshed in brand-new concrete, that’s a barrier to the waterfront that won’t be altered for another half century.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the proposed renovations will make driving easier. After all, the project is being partly led by the state department of transportation, which a few years ago attempted to force a new highway down the throat of the Chicago region, ignoring the evidence suggesting its downsides. It was only stopped by litigation over its environmental impacts.

Moreover, the Drive is, of course, very well-used by motorists. Their collective anguish at the possibility that their express route to downtown might be eliminated would surely capture much of the discussion in future mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.

Even the planning profession’s tools would have a role to play in reinforcing the status quo. Transportation models premised on resistance to mode change undoubtedly would demonstrate a city paralyzed were the highway to be eliminated.

But the story is more complex than that. Along the waterfront itself north of central Chicago, no Census tract has more than 50 percent of its resident commuters driving alone to work. Indeed, in most of those tracts, about 50 percent of commuters travel by transit and only about 30 percent drive alone to work (35 to 40 percent of households in this area own no cars). Thus the people who would be most impacted by the replacement of the expressway with something else—the people who live nearby—are already limited car users, as shown below.

There is, just as importantly, significant evidence that cities that have replaced waterfront highways with surface boulevards or simply pedestrian space don’t suffer from massive congestion on nearby streets or a crushed economy, as some transportation models would suggest. Expressways eliminated from use in cities like Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul have seen their traffic “evaporate” as trips formerly taken by car have moved to transit, walking, and biking.

These cities’ economies certainly haven’t suffered—in many cases, they’ve actually seen more development and higher property values as the fumes and noise of cars have diminished. These transformations suggest that people are able to adapt, even in the face of massive alterations in urban infrastructure.

But these arguments are largely irrelevant to decision makers, because the possibility of eliminating the expressway along Chicago’s lakefront wasn’t struck from discussion because of some comparison of the merits of alternative solutions. This possibility has been largely ignored because planners and elected officials in US cities are mired in the wishful thinking of a drug abuser. They’re aware that projects that benefit automobile use will diminish transit ridership and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They just want one more dose, one more chance to address the needs of car users.

The problem, of course, isn’t just a matter of this project alone. Perhaps Chicago could achieve its climate and transit mode-share goals even with Lake Shore Drive remade as it is. The issue is that the Drive’s reconstruction is just the latest in a decades-long stream of decisions to reinforce the automobile-focused status quo rather than fight it. Every time a city makes the choice to do something like rebuilding an expressway to carry more cars than it does today, it is pulling away from the broader efforts it should be pursuing.

Opportunities like the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive come along rarely. They present the ideal circumstances to pilot new ways for people to get around—to promote change that might otherwise be impossible to move forward. Yet city after city continues to miss the chance. New York and Seattle, noted above as other cities also looking to reduce their climate impacts and increase transit ridership, are also the sites of major highway redevelopment and construction projects.

Ultimately, it is naive to believe that a city can both achieve its progressive goals and continue to invest in projects that reaffirm the way the transportation system currently works. Regional plans to double transit ridership won’t happen at the same time as space for automobile circulation is expanded. These two are irreconcilable; cities are going to have to choose what is more important to them. You can’t take another hit while you’re trying to go cold turkey.

* An extension of the highway, from 79th through 92nd Street on the South Side, was completed in 2013, but it is unconnected to the rest of the route.

Photos from (a) Flickr user Roman Boed (cc); (b) Flickr user Yonah Freemark (cc). Maps above from Redefine the Drive and Social Explorer.

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.

Chicago Infrastructure Metro Rail

Chicago Plans to Shut Red Line South to Perform Quick Rehab

» The change in service will cut off service to stations south of Roosevelt for five months. The move will be controversial and inconvenience many, but it will solve problems that would otherwise take years to fix — at a lower cost.

In less than a year’s time, the Chicago Transit Authority will eliminate service on the portions of the Red Line that run through the city’s south side, affecting roughly 80,000 daily journeys for a period of five months. The effort is designed to allow for the quick renovation of this rapid transit segment, replacing about 10 miles of degraded track with desperately needed new infrastructure. It’s a risky move, likely to enflame tensions in an area of the city that has suffered decades of economic difficulties. But if the CTA pulls the project off successfully, Chicago may be setting a precedent for other cities to follow.

The southern portion of the Red Line is is poor condition, no question about it. Built in 1969, the route — known as the Dan Ryan Branch as it runs in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90 and I-94) — is aging rapidly. At the moment, service is incredibly sluggish because the CTA has mandated “slow zones” that restrict trains to speeds far below their capacity, to ensure safety; on the southbound service from Roosevelt to 95th Street, for example, 2.6 miles of service is limited to just 15 mph. As a result, people are literally wasting their lives on their journeys home from work.

The CTA could reconstruct the line, replacing ties, tracks, third rail, ballast, and drainage systems, by shutting it down on weekends. But that would take four years.

Instead, the agency has determined that a five-month shutdown, costing about $425 million and funded by the city’s infrastructure initiative, will not only save about $75 million in project costs (thanks to efficiencies in project delivery), but it will also provide much better service to daily commuters far more quickly. Journey times from 95th Street to Roosevelt Road are expected to be a full 10 minutes more rapid by the time work finishes. That makes sense: Reconstructing a major piece of infrastructure is simply easier when there aren’t vehicles running through it, interrupting work. And customers will surely appreciate the much better transit they experience, even with a few months of annoyance, rather than many more years of bad service.

The last time the CTA attempted a similar move was in the mid-1990s, when it closed the Green Line for two years to reconstruct it completely. While that renovation produced the desired results in terms of infrastructure improvements, ridership on the line had trouble recovering. The simple fact was that the shutdown made transit inconvenient for people who had been used to riding the line. Only through a concerted effort to retain ridership through good service provision even in the absence of the Red Line can such problems be avoided.

The CTA has developed a management plan designed to reroute passengers who currently use the Red Line onto other services in the South Side, as shown on the map posted at the end of this article. This will be made easier by the fact that the Green Line is just a few blocks east of the Red Line between Roosevelt and 63rd Street, so most customers will likely just switch to that other service, which is linked to all the same crosstown bus routes as the Red Line. This will be made especially easy because Green Line trains using the Ashland branch of the service will be directed into the Red Line tunnel and north to Howard as “Red Line” trains, rather than around the Loop, as are all Green Line trains currently. This will provide direct service to the city’s North Side for people on the Green Line, which will surely be appreciated by many customers who now must transfer to get to that part of the city.

In addition, the CTA will operate free reduced-priced express shuttles to and from closed Red Line stops from 63rd to 95th Streets to the Garfield station on the Green Line, and reduced-price services on many South Side routes. Many may actually see faster service than they experience on slow trains today even though they will have to transfer.

One possibility that has not been announced by CTA officials is encouraging current Red Line riders to use the Metra commuter rail trains on the Rock Island and Electric district lines, which also run parallel to the Red Line. If the CTA worked with Metra to institute common fare policies, reduced-cost transfers, and more frequent trains during the disrupted period, a large number of commuters who currently live near Metra stops but do not currently take advantage of the system because of its high prices and low frequencies could be better served. The lack of connection between the CTA and Metra systems is one of the Chicago region’s biggest transportation limitations; experimenting with their integration during the Red Line shutdown could be particularly fruitful.

All of this raises questions about the future of transit reconstruction projects, both in Chicago and nationwide. There is plenty of need for transportation infrastructure renovations, but those must be performed on facilities that are in daily use by people who need to be able to get to and from work. Indeed, Chicago’s next big project will be the renovation of the north section of the Red Line, which is much older than this southern section and carries almost two times as many people daily, but which does not have the advantage of another parallel rapid transit line just a few blocks away. Will that branch also need to be closed? The city’s success in rerouting travelers onto other services with the fewest amount of difficulties could test how much the people of Chicago are willing to take when it comes to the temporary closure of their means of transportation.

Click on the map above to expand.

Images above: Top: Chicago’s 63rd Street Station on the Red Line, one of several to be shut down next year, from Flickr user Zol87 (cc); Below: Service changes planned during reconstruction, from CTA

Chicago Congress Finance Infrastructure

If Washington Can’t Commit, Chicago is Ready to Go It Alone

» Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces billions for infrastructure upgrades. 

Though the details are not yet in full view, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to spend $7.2 billion over the next three years on infrastructure upgrades represents a truly significant advance in the field of municipal investment in the United States. It’s a unified plan to spend public and private funds on improved transit, parks, water, and educational facilities.

What a contrast to the U.S. Congress, an allusion to which I can hardly overlook in this context. Last week, House and Senate officials pushed forward an extension of the existing surface transportation legislation — the ninth such extension since SAFETEA-LU, the previous law, originally was supposed to expire in 2009.

The problem, suffice it to say, is not cowardice or nonsense political wheeling-dealing, but rather relatively minor — but painfully partisan — differences in perspective on the national transportation system. Over in the House, Republicans have campaigned for no increase in spending on mobility infrastructure (under the guise of fiscal moderation, with the goal of remaining within the constraints imposed by revenues provided by the Highway Trust Fund). Transit and other alternative mobility programs have been put under threat. In the Senate, Democrats promoted (and passed) a small increase in overall funding through a diversion of money from general (non-gas tax) revenues.

Now the Congress has given itself an extra ninety days to pick up the slack and somehow pull together a bipartisan transportation bill in the middle of campaign season in a presidential election year. The task is practically herculean.

In that sense, comparing Mr. Emanuel’s progress with the non-action out of Washington is unfair — Chicago’s strong mayoralty, which has almost direct control over public transportation, education, and the parks, allows swifter, more direct action than is possible in the heavily contested national legislature. And perhaps unlike in the federal government, there is basically universal support at the local level for the idea that the public infrastructure must be improved upon.

Emanuel’s plan, which has been dubbed “Building a New Chicago,” would guarantee investments in significant upgrades across the city. Some of the announcement is a media device — much of the spending would have occurred announcement or not — but much of it is being financed through “reforms, efficiencies, cuts in central offices, direct user fees, and… the Chicago Infrastructure Trust,” according to the mayor’s office. This is not, in other words, the same-old, same-old.

The city must be able to show that it can save significantly by improving the delivery of its existing services. One example, for instance, is in the creation of bus rapid transit services on Jeffrey Boulevard and in the Loop, both of which are part of the plan, and each of which would improve the daily experience of transit users even as they reduce operations costs for the Chicago Transit Authority. Similar improvements, such as a $225 million retrofit program, would save money in the long term by reducing energy consumption.

Other projects, such as the completion of the Bloomingdale Trail (the Chicago equivalent of New York’s High Line), the upgrading of many of the city’s parks, the update of the water system, the improvement of many schools, and the renovation of 100 El rapid transit stations, would be funded as well. Though the exact method by which they would be financed has not yet been established, it seems evident that some mix of user fees and private spending will be on hand. The latter will be made possible through the Infrastructure Trust, which Mayor Emanuel announced a month ago. The Trust would use debt and equity investment to leverage private investment for infrastructure. It could be an innovative mechanism to speed repairs to the city’s public environment.

Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Richard Daley, Mr. Emanuel has produced a plan that would not result in the privatization of infrastructure. Mr. Daley’s 2008 parking meter deal notoriously lost the city billions of dollars, even as it deprived the city of control over much of its street space. The Trust would allow for private profit-making without handing over full control — a reasonable compromise.

Mr. Emanuel’s interest in investing in infrastructure is a logical extension of the arguments he has made since he was sworn in to office about 11 months ago. His administration, like that of most other cities, has been troubled by the decline in tax revenues resulting from the nation’s extended economic difficulty. He has had to balance budgets through difficult moves like school closings.

Yet unlike leaders of other cities, Emanuel has not yet made the push for increases in taxes to pay for infrastructure, unlike, say, Los Angeles. In some ways, this represents a strategic move; rather than assume that voters are ready to contribute more to a not-perfect system, there has been an effort here to live within the city’s existing means. If this can be done without imposing too much austerity on public services, it will raise confidence in the local government’s ability to perform adequately.

Chicago’s decision to fund its projects in such a manner is something that most cities could likely emulate with few negative political results. They just have to be more willing to experiment with creative financing and efficiencies.

In the years ahead, though, even a $7.2 billion investment will be inadequate to resolve some of the city’s most significant transportation needs, such as the renovation of northern section of the Red and Purple Lines and the extension of the Red Line south to 130th Street (each of which Mr. Emanuel has announced his intention to pursue) — not to mention more long-term efforts to extend the Orange Line, build a new downtown subway tunnel, and create a citywide BRT network. If those projects are ever going to make it into construction, Washington will need to step up its game, as even cities like Chicago need federal support for the biggest investments.

Image above: Bloomingdale Trail, from Flickr user vespar avenue (cc)

Bus Chicago

Chicago Commits to Downtown Bus Priority

» A series of bus lanes will link commuter rail stations, downtown, and the Navy Pier. It’s not quite a transitway — despite the branding — but it will speed movement for thousands of passengers.

A year and a half after Chicago won $24.6 million in federal funds for the construction of an urban circulator downtown, the city announced this week that it will contribute $7.3 million in tax increment financing to improve the state of bus service in the urban center and link commuter rail stations to office buildings. Together, the money will provide for painting dedicated bus lanes on the Madison/Washington and Clinton/Canal Street pairs for a total of two miles, offer signal priority, improve bus shelters, and add bike lanes. New buses and a small bus transit center at Union Station are also part of the plan.

Though the improvements will be most visible to customers using the new dedicated “Central Area Transitway” connecting Union Station and the Navy Pier northeast of the loop, the new lanes will also be used by seven existing Chicago Transit Authority bus routes which already collectively carry 32,000 riders a day on 1,700 buses.

There is nothing new about the idea of improved circulator service in Chicago’s downtown core. Following the failed efforts of planners in the 1960s and 1970s to expand the city’s subway system, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced in his first year of office (1989) that he wanted to construct a center-city light rail line linking major tourist attractions, commuter rail stations, and the business center. By 1993, the plan had morphed into a $775 million proposal that would include eight miles of median-running track designed to carry four routes — the first running east-west along Madison and/or Monroe Streets between Oglivie Transportation Center and Michigan Avenue; the second heading north-south along the river to Navy Pier; the third running south to McCormick Place Convention Center; and the fourth heading north to the Magnificent Mile of North Michigan Avenue.

The plan came surprisingly close to being realized. The federal and state governments each agreed to chip in $250 million, and local businesses in the Loop — concerned about their ability to compete with retailers on North Michigan Avenue and convinced of the importance of linking commuter rail passengers to the center — agreed to a special tax district that would also raise $250 million. The project would have reshaped the image of and mobility in Chicago’s inner core.

Yet in fall 1993, the U.S. Congress cut off most funding for the project. In 1995, the state pulled out of its share. Business leaders suggested they might double or triple their contribution to the project through neighborhood taxes, but North Michigan Avenue leaders pushed back, suggesting the project gave an unfair advantage to retailers in the Loop. The project died. By 2006, hoping to do something, the city had settled on the idea of a Navy Pier-Union Station busway.

Unlike these previous plans, the new proposal for Chicago will offer only minimal improvements to circulation in the downtown core: Customers will save an estimated 1.1 minutes on travel between Union Station and Michigan Avenue. The priority lanes will be beneficial, but buses will continue to stop at almost every cross street on Madison and Washington, limiting the amount of travel time that can actually be reduced. And the focus on serving the Navy Pier — a tourist trap that is scheduled for a major renovation — speaks to the limited degree to which this route will serve actual commuters.

Nevertheless, the connection between the commuter rail stations west of the Loop and the central business core provided by the bus link will offer the potential for improved circulation downtown. Improved service to Union Station must be a priority, since it is not linked to the L rail rapid transit network (the nearest station is about half a mile away) and it is the focus of the region’s commuter rail and intercity rail improvement efforts. The seven bus lines that will share parts of the route will split off and continue to other parts of the city, meaning that customers who are arriving on the #14 from Jeffery in the South Side, for instance, will have a quicker trip once they reach downtown.

If the CTA designs signage well enough, customers attempting to make the trip from Oglivie Transportation Center — another commuter rail station — to Millennium Park would have six services to choose from, offering fantastic headways of one minute at peak and two minutes off-peak. But the city will have to be careful not to place too much emphasis on the “Central Area Transitway” brand that it will give to the bus that runs the full route from Union Station to Navy Pier, because the most important element of this improvement project is its provision of minor improvements to many bus lines, not just a single one. It should be clear to customers that if they want to take a certain trip, they have several options.

Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, Chicago is taking an incremental approach to the improvement of public transportation in the city, steering away from the mega-fantasies of the Daley era. The CTA is already planning to invest in similar bus priority improvements on Jeffery Boulevard in the South Side for the #14 bus and along the north-south spine of Western Avenue as part of a citywide BRT plan that would fill in the gaps missing from inadequate rail service in certain areas. Slowly but surely, the city’s bus lines are scheduled for improvement.

Yet the city’s bigger ambitions remain apparent. In the application for the federal urban circulator grant in 2010, the city included the following map, documenting potential new transit routes for the center city along dedicated rights-of-way, clearly modeled after the improvements suggested by the 2009 Central Area Action Plan, which proposed light rail lines on the Carroll, Clinton, Monroe, and Lakefront Corridors. They would either be placed underground or along dedicated transit routes, like the McCormick Center busway (for the Lakefront route).

For lack of funding, it will be a long time before any such routes see the light of day. In the meantime, painting a few bus lanes and offering existing lines priority at signals represent a reasonable step forward.

Images above: Chicago downtown circulator routes, from City of Chicago, via Grid Chicago