Circle Interchange Project Highlights Flaws in Regional Planning Process

CTA Blue Line station
A third level of highway infrastructure is coming to the Circle Interchange by the UIC campus.

The Illinois Department of Transportation’s Circle Interchange highway project appeared out of nowhere. It wasn’t around when the GO TO 2040 regional plan was being crafted and then adopted by 7 counties and 284 municipalities, a process that lasted from 2005 to 2010. It didn’t show up until 2012, when IDOT asked the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning – our region’s federally-designated planning organization – to insert the project into GO TO 2040. The addition of this $400 million highway project has sparked an important discussion about what went wrong and how the regional planning process can be fixed, to prevent IDOT from ambushing it again.

On Wednesday, the CMAP board voted to insert the Circle Interchange project into the GO TO 2040 plan (three committees also voted to add the project). At the same time, Randy Blankenhorn, CMAP’s executive director, acknowledged that the process was broken.

“It’s a bit of a failure in the planning process and we need to fix that.” he said. “How do we have a plan and two years later something of this magnitude comes basically from outside the discussion in?” Blankenhorn said that plans are not fixed in stone and can be amended, but he concluded that the addition of the Circle Interchange project had damaged the integrity of GO TO 2040, echoing a point made by others involved in the process.

In opposing the amendment, the non-profit Metropolitan Planning Council wrote [PDF]:

The [GO TO 2040] process was fair and transparent, based on the projects’ merits and reflective of CMAP’s emphasis on basing investments on accountability and transparency with a results-driven project selection process. The Circle Interchange was not among the 52 regional transportation projects that advanced to the evaluation stage during the GO TO 2040 process, which included input from IDOT.

Randy Neufeld, who sits on the CMAP bicycle and pedestrian task force, is focused on preventing the same kind of “ticking time bomb” from being dropped again. “The state [IDOT] puts out a 5-year plan every year,” he said. “Only projects in the first [current] year are funded and the next four years are based on estimated revenues. The plan adds and drops projects so it’s not long-range like GO TO 2040.”

Neufeld wants to prevent the kind of emergency voting that characterized the Circle Interchange process. “Ultimately, what I’d like to see at next month’s transportation committee meeting is some way of coordinating the GO TO 2040 process with the state’s process,” he said. “What else is in IDOT’s 5-year plan that’s a ‘ticking time bomb’ or is a huge project we don’t know about?”

Neufeld agrees with MPC that spending money on this project means not spending on another project — one that may be needed more urgently or is better suited for the multi-modal future that Chicagoland needs to work toward. The counties and municipalities of the region weren’t given a chance to decide if the Circle Interchange should be that project, even though it was in the hands of the CMAP MPO Policy Committee and Board.

Meanwhile, IDOT issued a gloating press release about the CMAP voting:

“Through a comprehensive and transparent process, we have identified a plan for the Circle Interchange that will keep our region and our economy moving,” Transportation Secretary Schneider said. “We applaud CMAP’s decision to support Governor Quinn’s efforts to enhance safety and improve congestion at the Circle Interchange and include this project in the region’s long-range plan, so we can continue our planning and design efforts without delay.”

The Circle Interchange process was actually the opposite of “transparent and comprehensive” — it was rushed, and CMAP’s own executive director admitted it was flawed. The project has a fraction of the economic benefits of other projects that didn’t make the cut into GO TO 2040.

We need to fix this. Chicago is trying to attract people to live here, not shuttle them over and past Greektown at 40 MPH at a time when other communities around the country are tearing down highways because they divide neighborhoods.

Our region should push for better planning coordination and a smarter balance of funding between highway, transit, walking, and biking projects. While the Circle Interchange project is going to happen, we should ensure that this obtrusive project, with its three new flyovers above Halsted and Harrison Streets, has the smallest possible impact on our neighborhoods, and our transit system.

A public hearing on the Circle Interchange project is scheduled for April 3, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Marriott Chicago at Medical District/UIC, 625 South Ashland Ave.

  • I’m glad that CMAP recognizes how broken the process is. I hope that a permanent fix in the interest of transparency, comprehensiveness and the overall health of our communities can be made as soon as possible, before any more car-centric bombs like this are dropped on us by IDOT.

  • Scott Sanderson

    If the board already voted to add this project to the plan, what is the purpose of the April 3 meeting?

  • Anonymous

    It’s an IDOT meeting.

  • Anonymous

    Too late.

    They’re on a carpet bombing mission already.

    Circle Interchange. I-290 add-a-lanes. I-90 add-a-lanes. Illiana Expressway. Prairie Parkway. IL-53 extension. The list goes on.

    What problem can’t be solved through adding road capacity and redesigning ramps?

  • Elgin-O’Hare expressway extension too…

  • Anonymous

    Oh, and IDOT also changed the Regional Comprehensive Plan’s under-girding population and employment forecasts from ones that are policy-based, i.e., what we say and do in the region can actually change the way the region develops in meaningful and positive ways, to market-based projections that are based on the idea that sprawl is inevitable and the patterns of development we have seen since the advent of the interstate highway system will continue unabated into the distant future.

    Written CMAP rules prohibit in the development of project analysis any employment and population projections that undermine the regional preferred scenario; however, IDOT represents that CMAP has approved their market-based projections, which fly in the face of those embedded in the regional scenario, thereby presenting a sharp contrast in outcomes – focused development (policy-based) verses sprawl (market-based). If that does not “undermine the preferred scenario”, I don’t know what does.

    Maybe the preferred scenario morphed into sprawl.

    In any case, IDOT dismisses the preferred scenario as unrealistic and unachievable. Sprawl will rule and we must accommodate and support it. There’s only one way to do that: Increased road capacity.

  • Anonymous

    IDOT still has to finish conducting the dog and pony show demonstrating the value and benefit of the project, while at the same time making plans to mitigate adverse impacts.

    Never mind that NEPA sequencing first requires that they try to improve the human and natural environments, then look to maintain them, and only last to mitigate the adverse impacts of unavoidable actions.

    Of course, unavoidable is all in how the problem is defined. Take a look at their “Problem Statement” and “Purpose and Need” for the proposed action. The problem is always defined the same, and the solution is, as well. Solutions only vary at the margin, i.e., a bike lane here, some grass and a tree there, and always a commitment to preserve the ability to implement future transit amenities.

    If transit is in the future, like IDOT always explains, then why the heck aren’t we building out our future instead of building the last projects of our past?

  • Joseph Musco

    I would try and nationalize the issue. Maybe get a supporter of Obama’s Energy Security Trust to comment about spending $400 million dollars on one interchange for oil burning vehicles when the President of the United States is proposing half that per year FOR THE ENTIRE COUNTRY to shift away from an oil economy.

    Pat Quinn, Rahm Emanuel, Dick Durbin, Jan Schakowsky — these people are all ostensibly environmentalists. What do they think about 1 highway interchange that scores low on public benefit costing twice what President Obama is proposing? Maybe Ray LaHood might say something?

    Maybe you could pitch a freelance piece about the interchange to some larger outlets that deal more with policy like Grist, Washington Monthly, Mother Jones — that kind of thing. Transit geeks aren’t really a voting block in politics but environmentalists could make a lot of hay about with the disconnect between one Chicago highway costing 2x the entire commitment of the United States to green energy.

  • Jennifer

    Only 40 mph?

  • I was making that up. Currently one can barely go 20 MPH because of the congestion, but the new flyovers will have wider radii. This can help truckers, but will allow people to drive faster.

  • Thanks for bringing up Obama’s visit to Argonne. He was there to talk about how the sequester is harming battery research.

    I still haven’t heard Obama talk about non-motorized transportation or even transit. Sure, transportation secretary Ray LaHood talks about it a lot, and comes to Chicago every now and then to talk about bike sharing and CTA, but why are batteries so important that they merit a visit from Barack?

  • It’s a “public hearing”. Except it’s after every thing that the public can influence is said and done.

    The work to be done now is make the Circle Interchange suck less. I’m developing a scenario for that.

  • Anonymous

    Because they have Smart Grid implications (as well as EVs). See the DOE SunShot program and the linkage between renewable energy sources and national security.

    Imagine having a building’s power supplied by solar accompanied by the ability to store energy in batteries for discharge either during periods of outage or high electric prices. One might also sell electricity back into the grid during periods when it is at it’s highest price, thus offsetting the cost of solar even further given a backdrop of hardware prices that are already dropping.

    41% of pirmary energy consumption in the U.S. is associated with electricity generation; it also comprises the largest single category of GHG emissions. Transportation comes in second.

    That’s why Barack was at Argonne, I’m sure.

    Yes, we need that level of visibility around public transportation, as well; however, battery technology could be a very significant advancement with global implications for U.S. competitiveness in the international alternative energy manufacturing and deployment arenas.

  • Anonymous

    Also, there may be benefits for electric-based public transportation, e.g., CTA rail.

  • Adam Herstein

    Why did the highway planner cross the road?

    Because that’s what he did last year.

  • PhilipGlassRules

    Blankenstoop will say tear down the Circle Interchange (now the “Bryne” Interchange) and put in a roundabout. Should easily handle 300,000 vehicles a day.