Experts and Advocates Weigh in on Rauner’s Proposal to Widen the Stevenson

Sunday morning Stevenson
The Stevenson, just west of the Dan Ryan. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

On Thursday, Governor Bruce Rauner announced a new proposal to address congestion on the Stevenson Expressway, aka I-55, by adding lanes. The construction would be financed via a public-private partnership, and the new lanes would be tolled. Revenue would go to the concessionaire, allowing them to recoup their investment.

The so-called “managed lanes” would be an option for drivers who are willing to pay a premium to bypass traffic, while the existing lanes would not be tolled. Some local transportation experts and advocates lauded the plan as a creative way to address congestion woes. But others argued that our region’s focus should be on providing better alternatives to single-occupant vehicle commutes, rather than simply building more capacity for them.

The proposed lanes would cover a 25-mile stretch of the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Veteran’s Memorial Tollway, a segment that carries about 170,000 vehicles a day. The plan calls for adding at least one lane in each direction, at an estimated cost of $425 million. The P3 model would need to be approved by a majority of state lawmakers.

The new lanes would feature “congestion pricing” – the toll price would vary according to the number of cars in the managed lanes, as well as the rest of the expressway. Rauner said it’s possible that drivers with one or more passengers might be allowed to use the new lanes without paying a toll. The state hopes to finalize a design by this spring and start construction by late 2017.

The Metropolitan Planning Council pushed for several years in Springfield for legislation to enable this kind of public-private partnership, which passed in 2011. MPC executive vice president Peter Skosey said his organization applauds Rauner’s proposal, adding that adding capacity to I-55 is listed as a priority in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 regional plan.

“Experience shows that simply adding another regular lane will not ease congestion in the long term: once that capacity is there, it will just fill up,” Skosey said. “Putting a variable-priced toll on that lane lets you manage demand and keep it free-flowing. If you’re really in a time crunch, you have the choice to take that lane.”

Skosey argued that the new lane would also make taking the bus a more attractive choice. “[Pace’s] current Bus-on-Shoulder service has been incredibly successful, but it isn’t able to use the shoulder for the whole corridor and it’s limited to 35 mph. This lane would give it a continuous path and let it go as fast as 55 mph, improving reliability and opening the door to more frequent service.”

Steve Schlickmann, the former head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center, agreed that the governor’s plan makes sense. “The combination of high congestion in regular travel lanes and insufficient growth in federal and state funding to maintain Illinois roads and transit, makes I-55 managed toll lanes a reasonable approach to address congestion and to help pay for I-55’s on-going maintenance needs,” he said.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 8.06.23 PM
The project would include the 25-mile stretch of I-55 between I-90 and I-355. Image: Google Maps

Fellow transportation expert Joe Schwieterman, director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, also feels that the project has merits. “Both toll and HOV lanes encourage behavioral changes among motorists, which is good, but tolls have the advantage of generating positive cash flow,” he said. “Given the dire financial condition of our state, that is a huge plus.”

While Schwieterman implied that Rauner’s plan isn’t particularly progressive, he argued that it’s a step in the right direction. “Frankly, given that we have done so little to encourage more efficient highways use, besides simply raising tolls on the tollway system, most of us would welcome a project of this kind.”

But Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, said the Governor’s proposal seems to put too much focus on moving cars, rather than people. “It’s being justified in terms of congestion,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything about demand reduction. In a true managed corridor, you’d have bus lanes and HOV lanes, things that don’t assume single-occupant vehicles are going to be the primary mode.”

He argued that some of the revenue from the tolled lanes should be used to fund additional transit service. “And if you wanted to talk about creating bus-only lanes, that would be real leadership.”

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke said his organization would support converting existing travel lanes on the Stevenson to managed lanes. “However, adding more lanes for cars — be they conventional, car pool or tolled lanes — only exacerbates traffic congestion in the long run while making non-auto options less viable,” he said.

Burke argued that new highway capacity in urban areas like Chicagoland leads to more driving, more congestion, and car-centric development patterns that often discourage walking, biking, and transit use. Moreover, he added, there would be traffic impacts due to more cars going to and from the Stevenson on roads that have not been widened.

“Investments in car-dependent travel and the land use patterns that follow further alienate and strand people who cannot afford cars or are unable to drive, as well as those who choose not to drive,” Burke said. “To reduce congestion and enhance mobility, the state and the region should focus on reducing driving demand rather than accommodating it through supply-side strategies like adding lanes.”

Burke argued that a better approach for the Stevenson would be to maintain the existing lane configuration and reduce traffic demand by converting existing lanes to HOV lanes, adding bus-only lanes, improving Metra and other transit options, and deploying transportation demand management strategies that help people meet their transportation needs while driving less.

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  • ardecila

    It should be noted that the only reason this can even be considered by private companies is because IDOT already laid much of the groundwork for a fourth lane back in 1998-2000 when the expressway was rebuilt. Space was preserved in the median and many bridges were built to support the extra lane. At the time, this was envisioned to be a free HOV lane.

    I hope the state can make the private partner pay for other enhancements, like a sound wall along Archer from Halsted to Ashland. The groundwork is also in place for this, but I assume it was cut from the budget.

  • This is a waste of money. There is no reason for a so-called public/private partnership. We have a department of transportation and we have a tollway authority. They are totally capable of doing the job. 425 million dollars is pocket change in the highway business. This is just a give-away of citizen funds to line some crony fatcat’s pockets. It is a typical neo-liberal approach towards ever increasing wealth disperity between the rich and the poor. And by poor I include the shrinking middle-class. It is bad enough that we line bankers pockets via bond issues. That is already too much public private partnership.

    All the above imho, of course.

    As for all the other arguments for and against I agree with both sides. HOV would help transit and more lanes mean more congestion in general. I am fine with congestion pricing. So lets see, as the roadway slows down you pay more. No, wait, that can’t be right??? Oh I’m sure it can be figured out.

  • Bernard Finucane

    If the picture is the bridge in question, I have a simple solution: Reduce the speed limit to 25 MPH and add 2 lanes by restriping the existing roadway.

  • Uh, did we just read the same article?

  • mkyner

    How about we toll the entire road from I-80 northward instead of just a lane? There are a ton of projects around the region that could benefit from the additional revenue.

  • FPJ

    I suggested a IDOT-Tollway partnership for similar reasons (suspicion of PPPs) over at Capitol Fax last Thursday:

    http://capitolfax.com/2016/02/04/rauner-says-new-toll-lanes-means-state-open-for-business/

    Another commentator over there suggested that there were two problems with this:

    * the tollway and IDOT have slightly different design criteria which would make co-managing a facility difficult.
    * IDOT is covered by the State’s Court of Claims, while the tollway is subject to unlimited liability.

    I still think it would be good for IDOT to own the lanes and contract with the tollway to manage them (install and manage the IPass and signage infrastructure), but it sounds like that would require some legislative action. Not much of that is happening these days.

  • FPJ

    My understanding is that Burke’s suggestion of converting existing lanes to toll lanes is not allowed under federal law. You can add lanes and toll them, but you can’t convert an existing lane and make it a toll road.

  • I’m with you. Sounds like the approach to take.

    Apparently there is already a requirement for new/different legislation, so that is not really an obstacle.

    Good ole Capitolfax. Glad to see he is still hanging in there.

  • JKM13

    Ideally a portion of the tolled lanes should go to transit funding, but otherwise I don’t see an issue with this.

  • Ron Burke

    Right, you’d need legislation to convert to toll lanes. I recommended converting existing lanes to HOV (carpool).

  • JacobEPeters

    existing legislation does not allow this

  • O. R. Thog Raphy

    Can’t you physically proof read your writing? “Some local transportation exports and advocated lauded the plan as a creative way to address congestion woes.”

  • Jeff Gio

    They’ll hire a proof-reader next quarter…

  • One of our jobs as commenters is to provide proof-reading services. The editors here are thankful when we do our job.

  • It is out-of-the-box thinking that fits well with solutions to urban density issues. It is the sub-urban mentality that seeks to bring their fast and uncongested mentality from the suburbs into the city that thinks that they can build more lanes right into downtown that Bernard is addressing. He is suggesting the redesign of the Stevenson into something more like Lakeshore Drive.

  • Except the Stevenson expressway is an actual interstate highway, whereas LSD is technically some kind of boulevard. Let’s at least stay close enough to see what kind of box it was we just jumped out of.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Fixed, thanks. Sorry about those two errant key strokes. Yes, we “physically proof read” [sic] our pieces, but this site currently employs one full-time staff member and one part-time staffer, so typos are going to happen now and then. We do appreciate it when readers (politely) point them out to us.

    Of course, donations will help us fund more staff time, which can help us do a better job of providing typo-free posts. If that’s a priority for you, feel free to click on the “Donate” button at the bottom of the article. Thanks!

  • FPJ

    Gotcha. That might work in practice, but would be politically very difficult. Maybe the goal should be that any new lanes be HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes: you pay a toll _or_ use the lane for free if you are a carpool or transit vehicle.

  • As long as we are constrained by technicalities we will be stuck in whatever the box is no matter the kind.

  • So we should… un-interstate I-55 within city limits? Is that what you and Bernard are proposing?

  • Bernard Finucane

    Yes. In the issue is throughput, meaning passengers per hour. Density, meaning passengers per mile , not speed (miles per hour) is the key to mobility in a city.

    Think of Manhattan as an extreme example. The challenge during morning rush hour is not to get people a great distance to the island in a short period of time (speed). The challenge is to get a lot of people onto the island in a short period of time (throughput).

    Throughput is density times speed, because people per mile times miles per hour equals people per hour. The same applies to freight.

    Higher speed traffic is lower density, because safe following distance increases with the square of speed, so supporting high speed in a city is counterproductive.

    Wide lanes and buffers as in the picture are only useful in high speed low density situation. The simple solution is to narrow the lanes, reducing maximum speed but increasing density. This does not reduce speed when the road is busy anyway, because congestion does that.

  • Again, just to be clear: You are proposing that an interstate, which already exists, is made not to be an interstate anymore, on the grounds that traffic is already moving at city street speeds due to congestion?

  • Sure. Lets go for it. Though I-55 is a bit unique in that it traverses a primarily industrial corridor.

    But honestly I was just trying to clarify in my own mind what he was saying and how it might fit into the subject of the article. At this point the expressways are built and the damages done to the city environments. Once vehicles go electric the air will become cleaner and the noises of the expressways lessened so those impacts will be improved. I suppose that with self-driving cars even a lot of the parking issues may get addressed as well.

    I don’t know about Benard but my goal is to remeditate as much damage as possible that has been inflicted on the city. Reinventing the expressways to boulevards would certainly help but is probably not necessary. Of course, maybe it is necessary as the expressways serve to inject high volumes of traffic onto streets neither designed for them nor healthy in an urban environment.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    We can’t even minimally raise the gax tax. So this good idea seems DOA.

  • neroden

    Terrible idea from the worst Illinois governor ever.

  • neroden

    I don’t know about him, but I think that’s the proposal, and it’s a very good proposal.

  • Bernard Finucane

    No, it’s more like this: The city of Chicago, like many American cities, is broke. Widening the highway will be insanely expensive and not solve any problem. Just look how much good the Edsel Ford Memorial Highway did for Detroit.

    If there is going to be an investment of this scale in Chicago, it should be one that helps the city in a tangible way. Spending hundreds of millions widening this road will never pay for itself.