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.

  • Adam Herstein

    Hopefully, this won’t turn into a debacle on the scale of the CRC controversy in Oregon/Washington. It is starting to seem that way…

  • Scott Sanderson

    That drawing does not look so pedestrian and bike friendly to me. The bike lane is a just a stripe of paint with motor traffic on both sides.

  • Adam Herstein

    IDOT probably included the bike lane and improved transit in their drawings in the hopes of convincing opponents that the Circle Interchange needs to be redone. “Look, we included a bike lane for you, so you have to support this project!” Don’t fall for their tricks. ODOT tried the same thing in Portland with the CRC project.

  • I don’t think it will get that way, mainly because the money involved is much, much lower, and the state legislatures (WA and OR) aren’t involved.

  • In a previous post, I advocated against using centered bike lanes. They are not a good design, as they squeeze a person riding a bike between two moving lanes of automobiles. Ahead, this “bus lane” is not a bus lane but a right-turn lane, so there will be a lot of merging traffic.

    I’ve outlined this issue here:

    It would be prudent for readers to send their critiques to the IDOT planners on this project:

    Paul Schneider, Project Manager
    (847) 705-4725

    Steven Schilke, Consultant Studies Unit Head

  • Adam Herstein

    Agreed. This problem will likely be even worse, given the bike lane’s proximity to the highway. People driving cars tend to speed more near highway on/off ramps.

  • Adam Herstein

    Has IDOT considered simply tolling the Circle Interchange? That seems like a much more cost-effective way to reduce congestion.

  • Joseph Musco

    Does CMAP or IDOT spend any money on telematics to reduce congestion? It seems like changing the physical composition of roads is the most expensive least effective means of reducing congestion. UPS doesn’t build their own roads but they do spend a billion dollars a year on telematics to route their equipment. It seems like a $400 million investment in open telematics would provide many times the benefits of this Circle Exchange. ZF + Intel are working on an “openmatics” open source telematics platform. Maybe Illinois should get in on the action instead of pouring another century’s worth of dumb concrete.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if the crashes Mr. Carlson includes in his count are linked to the Circle Interchange. The last I heard, they were having difficulty with crash data because the location was often cited as the nearby crash investigation site rather than an actual mile marker.

    Data integrity aside, if we really treated safety as number 1 we would get people out of their cars. That means investing in a reliable, affordable, and efficient auto-competitive transit network – that means we need to stop investing in successive capacity projects that claim to increase safety and decrease congestion. We’ve had 50 years of that already.

    It is time for a new paradigm.

  • Anonymous

    Or tolling the existing lanes feeding into it and using the revenue to guarantee debt for purposes of building out an auto-competitive transit network?

    Oops, I forgot.

    IDOT claims that transit decreases road safety, increases VMT, and projects declining ridership irrespective of public policy, and regardless of whether we build new high quality alternatives or not. Really, that is what their analysis shows. No wonder Illinois builds only road capacity enhancements.

  • Adam Herstein

    In nearly all cases, increased congestion leads to increased safety, as the cars are moving slower. We should be working to increase congestion, not reduce it.

  • Anonymous

    Que record. Drop needle. Play song featuring deadpan beat.

    Chorus: “The pavement is over 50 years old. Design and capacity constraints are responsible for elevated safety risk and excessive congestion.”

    Refrain:”Add-a-Lane is the solution.”

    Repeat chorus.

    Song with Dyson vacuum sound, which represents public dollars being sucked down the drain for another worthless project with no accountability for delivering on projected benefits.

  • Anonymous

    That is the best kept secret down at IDOT. Now it appears they will need to punish you for releasing it.

    Of course, they also know that every time they add capacity to solve congestion, it simply creates more that subsequently needs to be solved again. Job security.

  • Anonymous

    The project manager’s job is to move the project forward while minimizing delays and exposure to litigation. Corresponding with them is a necessary litigation strategy, and may also help to influence the project at its periphery, e.g., whether a bike lane is present and/or if it is centered or off to the side; however, it will generally do very little (really, nothing at all) to cultivate significant changes in project design and will not change IDOT policies and practices moving forward.

    If you’d like to see tangible differences in what IDOT is planning either now or in the future, get your local and state electeds involved in the discussion. IDOT will not change on their own. Rather, they simply continue to move forward like an asphalt grinding machine – slow and deliberate, with only one outcome being advanced. One inch at a time, one project at a time, but never veering off-course. The project manager’s job is to keep that machine oiled, not to idle it.

  • Adam Herstein

    What we need is less cars, not more road.

  • “Dealing” with residents is a way to mitigate the project slowing down.

  • Bingo. That’s not on IDOT’s agenda though. What is on their agenda are projections that say there will continually be more driving and since people are demanding to drive, we must supply a place for them to drive.

  • I didn’t come across this in any of the documents on the CI website.

    IDOT, in its planning for the I-290 reconstruction, is considering adding a managed lane. Managed lane means there is some kind of pricing structure that’s more dynamic than a flat rate per vehicle for some arbitrary distance.

    However, as Coolebra or someone else mentioned in the first CI post I wrote, IDOT’s project scope extends to Racine while the CI project scope extends to Morgan, a gap of 2 blocks.

  • Adam Herstein

    One must wonder where they are getting this data from, because everything I read states that VMT and car ownership have been on the decline for a while now.

  • Anonymous

    The Circle Interchange consultant team indicated at a UIC area public meeting that they are examining ways to incorporate HOV or HOT lanes in the reconfigured interchange.

    Also, IDOT presentation materials from last month indicate that the two studies share a common boundary: Racine. They also presented a graphic showing the east boundary of the I-290 EIS is shared with the west boundary of the Circle Interchange study; it appears that any Morgan boundary is obsolete – no gap, anymore.

    They are also opposed to dynamic pricing – they want a flat rate toll, and one that isn’t terribly high. They claim true dynamic congestion pricing would generate too great an impact on arterial streets. Ironically, CMAP models can’t model dynamic pricing. Thus, the relative merits of dynamic verses fixed price tolling aren’t available for consideration.

    They also don’t want to commit any toll revenue to transit.

  • Anonymous

    Adding transit improvements causes more VMT than highway improvements, alone. That’s the result of IDOT’s modeling, anyway.

    Question the model outputs and they’ll simply say there’s a lot going on in the model. It’s the black box explanation – ‘We can’t tell you what happens in there, we can only read the card it spits out. The box never gives a wrong or misleading answer. Trust the black box’ . . . even when its predictions make no sense whatsoever.

    It is sort of like the Magic 8-Ball of billion dollar boondoggles.

  • Anonymous

    UPS also said in a congressional hearing held in Chicago that they would pay tolls to use the interstates provided they received value in exchange, i.e., a faster trip that would result in hourly wage and equipment savings. It wasn’t a discussion of how much taxes trucks already pay to use the roads, but an expressed willingness to pay extra for value exchange.

    We could get a lot of cars off the interstate (and provide the value UPS and other commercial interests are willing to pay for) if we provided a solid alternative to driving and priced existing road capacity to further induce mode shift. IDOT studies suggest a 40% reduction, which is generally consistent with international experience; however, they claim the impacts to arterials would be too dramatic. It’s the idea that no transit alternative – no matter how high quality, and no matter how much time and money it takes to drive, will attract ridership.

    Does that square with everyone’s sense of the relationship between transit, pricing, and willingness to drive and/or shift modes?

  • Anonymous

    There’s nothing worse than mothers with babies protesting in the streets. Better to bargain.


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