IDOT’s $400 Million Circle Interchange Expansion Won’t Fix Congestion

Circle Interchange
The existing Circle Interchange disrupting West Loop, Greektown, Loop, and UIC.

An expensive new interchange expansion that the Illinois Department of Transportation is pushing for downtown threatens to dump more traffic on Chicago streets, but the project still needs approval from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to move forward. While IDOT is simultaneously proposing some improvements for biking and walking in the area, all of those could be implemented without the new highway components. The deadline for public comments to CMAP about the project is Monday.

IDOT is planning to build new car lanes and three new flyovers at the Circle Interchange, the downtown spaghetti bowl confluence of the Dan Ryan, Kennedy, and Eisenhower Expressways (I-90/94, I-290). IDOT justifies this $410 million project by saying it will improve traffic congestion, reduce crashes at this location, speed up travel time, and make it easier for truckers to drive through the interchange.

southbound Halsted photorealistic with flyover
An IDOT rendering of the proposed flyover above Halsted Street. Note the plethora of trees disguising the new road.

But an analysis from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning concluded that none of these changes are guaranteed and warned that the project will lead to more car trips, more carbon emissions, and fewer transit trips [PDF]. CMAP’s Tom Garritano said “the project was not identified as a priority in the planning process that led to the development of GOTO2040,” the agency’s regional plan, in 2010. Since the project isn’t listed in GOTO2040, it can’t move forward unless CMAP approves it.

According to CMAP’s analysis, the interchange expansion is projected to convert 1,000 trips from transit to driving and increase carbon dioxide emissions by 39,000 metric tons each year. While the Circle Interchange, according to the Federal Highway Administration, is the nation’s “most heavily congested freight bottleneck,” this expensive effort to make room for traffic isn’t going to fix congestion. CMAP predicts that drivers in the region will save 1.2 seconds per trip if the project is built.

Active Transportation Alliance Executive Director Ron Burke suggested that the interchange project is a poor way to achieve transportation goals. “If you really want to address congestion in a long-term sustainable way, we need to give people alternatives to driving, especially driving alone,” he said. “We’re concerned about this emphasis on highway expansion at a time when the experience in Chicagoland and other areas shows us that it is, at best, a short-term solution to roadway congestion. In general it perpetuates land use and travel patterns that make us auto dependent creating a negative feedback loop. It’s not a sustainable way to address congestion.”

Brandon Gobel, who hauls bricks for a trucking company based in Pilsen, thinks that the Circle Interchange is difficult for truckers to drive through but is highly skeptical that the changes will have any effect on congestion. “What improvements to transit service are being made for people who could skip the Circle Interchange and prevent the area from returning to the same congestion levels?” he said. “Since this area is so important for cargo, non-truckers could be tolled.”

Peoria entrance at UIC-Halsted station
The Peoria Street bridge would be rebuilt.

IDOT is attaching some bike and pedestrian improvements to the interchange project, but all of them could be implemented independently of the interchange. “The main takeaway is that in every drawing there are some improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians,” said Paul Lippens, a transportation planner at Active Trans. “They’re making a good faith effort to implement the complete streets policy, which I think is encouraging.”

The bike proposals include buffered bike lanes on one block each of Harrison Street and Jackson Boulevard, between Halsted and Canal Streets, and a bike lane on southbound Halsted Street between Van Buren and Harrison Streets where there’s currently only a northbound bike lane. The Halsted bike lanes would be in the center of the street, with automobile traffic on both sides of the bike lane.

To fit the new flyover from northbound Dan Ryan onto westbound Eisenhower under Peoria Street, the Peoria Street bridge will have to be reconstructed. This very lightly-trafficked street is “an opportunity to go above and beyond,” Lippens said, adding that “this is really a gateway for all modes to enter the UIC Campus. It can even be a gateway from the highway into the Loop.” The University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus master plan calls for this area to become a “signature gateway” to the campus.

UIC said they were unable to share details of their plans, and IDOT hasn’t responded to request for comment. (Disclosure: Architect Ryan Lakes and I worked on a proposal for a pedestrian street here that we introduced at a UIC Urban Innovation Symposium last week.)

The CMAP Board and CMAP’s Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee will consider IDOT’s request to include this project in the GOTO2040 plan at their March 13 and 14 meetings, respectively. The public comment period ends Monday, February 18. To comment on the interchange project, write to: CMAP, ATTN Plan and TIP amendments, 233 S. Wacker Dr., Suite 800, Chicago, IL, 60606; via email or phone 312-454-0400.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. You’ve got a lot to contribute. Why don’t you join the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance? We could really use your help.

  • Ryan Wallace

    @e2c1ada5549e7517cfd826a790fe0657:disqus is right on, speed differential is the key on most of these ramps. It’s not that traffic needs to be always at a high speed but it needs to be at a constant speed for safety. Its much safer if the ramp speed is as close as possible to the roadways is leads from/to. 65 > 40 > 25 is ok, but 65 > 30 > 65 is problematic. In my opinion these are just as, if not, more important factors than the structural deficiency. Although @stevevance:disqus points out that only one ramp/flyover is currently identified as structurally deficient, its only a matter of time before the others are as well, given the age of the interchange. As I said, to me this is more of a public relations mistake by framing the improvements as a means to reduce congestion. Any project that is viewed as simply a way to reduce congestion without improving transit options is going to be a very hard thing to sell the public from now on.

  • Ryan Wallace

    @Coolebra:disqus Actually simply adding tolls has shown to alter behavior:

    I agree that many of your concepts could and should be included in the redesign of I-290, did you suggest any at public meetings?

  • Ryan Wallace

    What about the new Elgin-Ohare Western Access that will be all electronic tolling, a portion of it will just be converting the existing E-O Epxy to a tollroad (adding one lane, but tolling all lanes)???

  • Ryan Wallace

    I assume when you refer to the “Green Book” you are referring to is “A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets” by AASHTO. Which is called “the Green Book” because of the color of its cover only, and not because of its contents.

  • The Federal Transit Administration is changing its regulations to stop caring about travel time savings and care about community benefits. That seems like a step in the right direction. But their change is not as important to our region’s promotion and use of sustainable transportation modes as if the Federal Highway Administration adopted the same rule.

    How one states the problem is very key to how one solves a problem.

    I didn’t know that Context Sensitive Solutions was a legislated changed. I attended a CSS workshop produced by Congress for New Urbanism at the CMAP office on February 7. I have yet to report on it. Present there were tens of IDOT staff engineers. It was fascinating to watch them work and converse. They seemed to have a secret language!

  • Anonymous

    The public record reflects a number of comments reference pricing strategies and various alternatives, including that described above.

  • Anonymous

    Same one. The Green Book that isn’t.

  • Anonymous


    See PA 93-0540 (2003). It directed the IDOT to adopt CSS
    principles in its planning and design of major projects.They’ve been the subject of some pointed criticism insofar as implementation is concerned – along the lines that simply crafting and adopting the policy is an empty commitment, and not at all consistent with legislative direction, if you’re not actually doing it. A similar history exists in association with IDOT’s transition from a public works department, to a highway department, to a department of transportation. The name has been legislatively updated over the years and those name changes have been accompanied by increased focus on non-highway responsibilities. Change does not come easy, though, when your education and training leads you down a path lit only by a laser beam.

    Also, it may intrigue you to know this statement is included in the IDOT manual “The mandate given by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 was to build a new national highway system which would move large volumes of traffic safely and expeditiously at the highest design standards. By any measure, that effort succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. However, that era is over.”

    The Highway Era is over? According to IDOT?? Disingenuous? Maybe. Bottom line is that the manual got them over the legislative speed bump so they could continue business as usual. It seems Secretary Schneider may be trying to breath some fresh air into the IDOT offices, though.

    In any case, if the Highway Era is over, why are we still proposing new highways and expanding existing ones while our transit network has yet to be built out, and what we do have is being allowed to deteriorate?

    CSS means _______________. It is still being defined nearly a decade after it was adopted pursuant to prescriptive legislative action.

  • Anonymous

    What is BRT? I know what a streetcar is.

  • Anonymous

    Even more to the point, IDOT analysis of the proposed I-290 project, which shares a border with the Circle Interchange project, indicates that the $1B+ investment will not solve congestion, not even make a significant dent in it. Free-flow is not achievable without an impossibly grand expansion scheme.

    They say it is primarily a safety project.

    I guess it must be safer to crunch four lanes of GP traffic into three east of Austin; safer to construct a non-barrier separated HOT lane that is to travel at free-flow next to congested traffic; safer to add about 3,000 cars to an already congested urban interstate; and, safer to invest in road capacity as opposed to a transit amenity that could get people out of their cars.

    I guess driving the congested interstate is safer than riding the train. I suspect, though, that federal trasnportation safety statistics might make a fairly persuasive counter-argument.

  • Anonymous

    That is what exceptions are made for – they’re all over the interstate highway network. Ask and ye shall receive.

  • Real full-on BRT is basically a surface subway line (complete with entry-controlled stations and completely separated right-of-way), only with pavement and busses instead of train tracks.

    That’s not what Chicago is proposing to do, basically anywhere, even the ‘more BRT-y’ part downtown. Chicago is proposing bus lanes and some signalization improvement.

    Even real BRT has only a minor difference in cost from installing a full-on proper train line, in that if you are actually repaving the street, putting the tracks in isn’t terribly more expensive (look at the several cities nationwide that are putting in pre-emptive tracks to enable them to fund train lines later). Plus, proper electric train vehicles last 2-3 times longer in service life than any bus, for quite a cost savings. And you can chain multiple cars together to increase capacity controlled by the same driver (labor costs).

    But Chicago isn’t interested in really repaving, they want to paint stripes on the street and have to special left-side-entry-door busses to set up something that won’t even improve travel speeds as much as the old express routes we used to have. Sigh.

  • Anonymous

    Behind BRT?

    I’d rather be behind the right solutions, BRT, streetcar, or otherwise.

    BRT is no panacea, but there are places where it can work. There are also places where it is plainly the wrong alternative.

    There is no one size fits all . . . unless you’re a road builder and want to keep your industry alive, then BRT is simply the latest pop song and all the rage – a tune to be played on every radio station all day long. But, the song gets old.

    Pop songs fade away quickly, while anthems have staying power. BRT is – and will always be – a pop song in the nations most heavily traveled urban corridors, as that is rail territory.

    BRT has value in certain circumstances, but it is not the end-all, do-all, and the propaganda surrounding its costs, performance, and benefits, will only serve to amplify negative public sentiments surrounding the concept. It’s too bad that we over-promise and under-deliver, as it undermines the ability to implement BRT in those instances where it is actually the best solution.

  • Anonymous

    Are you following the I-290 study? Look at their assessment of the alternatives. One alternative includes pricing all existing I-290 lanes, extending the Blue Line to Mannheim, and linking the extended Blue Line to new BRT service operating highway shoulder (similar to I-55) between Naperville, Oak Brook, and Schaumburg. It also includes improved feeder service to the Blue Line.

    They claim the combination results in *decreased* transit ridership compared to doing nothing. They also claim that the modeled 40% reduction in I-290 congestion is diverted to arterial. They thus assume that people would rather sit idle in traffic on hopelessly congested arterials rather than pay the use fee or opt for high quality transit.

    Maybe “tolling everything” inside the loop is what they need in their model, i.e., cordon pricing. That still doesn’t explain how making a comprehensive trasnit investment decreases transit ridership, though.

  • Anonymous

    Ryan: Take a look at IDOT’s latest analysis. Their findings are incredulous.

    After modeling suggested improvements 1 through 3 above, they find that transit ridership *declines* despite a comprehensive transit investment strategy) and 40% of I-290 traffic is diverted to arterial streets. It seems unlikely that all those cars would fit on the arterials, for one, and even less likely that people would sit idle on an arterial instead of opting for high quality transit . . . or paying the congestion tolling price.

  • Anonymous

    Without going into an awful lot of detail, let’s just say there is more than one way to skin a cat.

    Here’s an inescapable truth: Apart from the no-build alternative (the do nothing scenario), IDOT does not have a single alternative they are proposing to advance to Round 3 screening that maintains four general purpose lanes east of Austin – they *all* convert the existing 4th lane to HOT, with or without a capacity-based ride free (HOV) element. They are not spending literally millions of dollars, countless hours of staff time, and calling in chips to get the Circle Interchange project through a process that is designed to be fairly impervious to change (amending the regionally adopted list of fiscally constrained and air quality confirmed projects) simply in an effort to advance a project that they even *think* has no chance of being constructed.

    Importantly, all iterations of the T-Bill, MAP-21 included, go through iterations of “technical corrections” and amendments. MAP-21 also includes pricing programs and pilots authorized all the way back to ISTEA that remain unchanged by MAP-21 and are not constrained by Section 129 language. Add to that the urgency with which regional, state, and national officials are advocating for pricing strategies to deal with an insolvent Federal Highway Trust Fund that can’t continue to be kept afloat by general fund transfers and you begin to get a view of the political and regulatory landscape.

    Importantly, MAP-21 does not change the IDOT’s plan, nor reduce the likelihood of them implementing their severely flawed vision of success. Only the people of Illinois can.

    To be clear, the IDOT’s *only* plan is to convert a lane east of Austin to HOT and compress the existing four lanes of general purpose traffic into only three.

    Good thing for those in the remaining three lanes left: IDOT says they’ll save lots of time as a result – boatloads of extra time in highway improvement lingo. You should be shaking your head in disbelief at this point, perhaps laughing aloud at the very notion that IDOT would claim something so silly, or maybe just plain pissed-off that your state DOT thinks you’re stupid.

    The IDOT hopes, though, that you’re just comfortably numb and simply don’t notice that the king has no clothes . . .

  • Check out the ID(i)OT website. Totally inadequate and not updated.


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