As Circle Interchange Clears Another Hurdle, Doubts Remain About Its Value

halsted street looking north
The latest rendering from IDOT shows the proposed flyover over Halsted Street and a signalized crosswalk that will serve an 8-Halsted bus stop.

On Friday, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning transportation committee voted to recommend the addition of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s $410 million Circle Interchange project to GO TO 2040, the official regional plan. According to CMAP’s estimates, the project will increase carbon emissions and decrease transit trips. Governor Pat Quinn has directed IDOT to pursue the Circle Interchange expansion, but it cannot receive federal funds unless it is in the regional plan.

At Friday’s meeting, Metropolitan Planning Council Vice President Peter Skosey first motioned against recommending the project to the MPO Policy Committee and CMAP Board. While that motion failed (21 nays, four yeas, and four abstentions), it triggered a lively discussion about the project among the committee members.

Skosey began the discussion by pointing out that the Circle Interchange project was analyzed differently than other projects included in GOTO2040, so it’s difficult to compare this project to others, and to understand if it is a good use of funds. His questions also elicited new information about the project:

  • IDOT’s Brian Carlson said there are 940 crashes each year in the project area. Skosey wanted to know if this was more or less than any other area of the highway system or any other project being considered for construction. His point was that the committee needs more data about the relative benefits of a project when deciding how to spend $410 million.
  • Further emphasizing Skosey’s point about using data to prioritize spending, a CMAP study estimated that the increase in gross regional product attributable to the Circle Interchange would be only $436,000, compared to $46 million for the I-394 expansion and $102 million for adding lanes to I-290.

  • An analysis CMAP conducted for GOTO2040 categorized benefits of some projects as “insignificant.” Skosey pointed out that some of the Circle Interchange’s projected benefits are smaller than other projects’ benefits labeled insignificant by CMAP. For example, the I-394 expansion was projected to reduce regional congestion hours by 1,968 annually, which was deemed to be insignificant by CMAP, while the Circle Interchange is projected to reduce congestion by just 1,000 hours.
  • According to IDOT, the Circle Interchange is the most congested freight bottleneck in the country, with 33,000 trucks using it daily out of 400,000 total auto trips. But IDOT couldn’t say how much actual freight is carried or how this compares to other projects that are competing for the same funding.
  • A CMAP analysis of the Circle Interchange projected that it will shift 1,000 trips from transit to driving every day. However, CMAP staff said in a memo [PDF] to the committee that they believe these trips will be “offset” by the improved walkability of the surface street network on Halsted, Harrison, and Van Buren Streets.

Two meetings next week – the MPO Policy Committee and the CMAP Board – will make the final call about including the Circle Interchange project in GOTO2040. Stay tuned for more coverage, including a look at how this undermines the regional planning process, and how the negative impacts imposed by a very wide flyover above Halsted Street can be mitigated.

IDOT will host the final public hearing in the Phase I planning process on Wednesday, April 3.
4:00 PM to 7:00 PM
Marriott Chicago at Medical District/UIC
Chicago IL 60607

Note that of the 12 people and organizations who submitted input during the public comment period [PDF], only one person wrote to support including the project in the GOTO2040 plan. Most of the comments were submitted by Streetsblog readers and opposed the amendment.

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