All Infrastructure Projects Create Jobs, But Not All Are Smart Investments

Quinn speaking on the Peoria Street bridge with construction workers and union leaders behind him. Photo: ## Chicago##

The Circle Interchange highway expansion project began construction Wednesday. At a press conference on the Peoria Street bridge, Governor Quinn stressed the job creation aspect of the $475 million project. What Quinn didn’t mention is that any $475 million infrastructure project would create a lot of jobs.

In fact, after the 2009 stimulus bill injected billions of dollars of infrastructure spending into the economy, analysts found that bicycle, pedestrian, and transit projects created more jobs per dollar spent than roadway projects.

The real question is whether the Circle Interchange is a good use of scarce public funds. Quinn’s press release boasted that it will cut congestion and save fuel, but when you run the numbers, it works out to just 0.011 gallons of gas and two minutes of travel time savings per trip. The project’s scant benefits and ample drawbacks were never compared to other projects before it was shoe-horned into the GO TO 2040 regional plan.

To make a real impact on congestion and pollution, instead of inducing more traffic like the Circle Interchange will, the region could have invested in rehabilitating the Red and Purple Line embankment, or building bus rapid transit on Western Avenue as well as Ashland Avenue.

In addition to helping people get around without clogging up the streets, those projects would have generated new revenues in the form of additional fares and higher property taxes as land becomes more valuable. The Circle Interchange, meanwhile, will remain untolled, paid for with the country’s most expensive bonds. It arises from the same wasteful approach that guided the Illinois Department of Transportation’s plan to widen I-290 and build a new expressway on farmland near Peotone (currently the subject of a lawsuit that alleges IDOT never demonstrated the need for the Illiana Expressway project).

By buying unnecessary roads now and paying later, IDOT can put off the day when it will have to switch from being just a “road builder” to a being the manager of a financially sustainable transportation system. How many more wasteful highways will the agency build before it makes that transition?

Circle Interchange
In the 1909 Plan of Chicago, Daniel Burnham proposed building City Hall where the Circle Interchange now stands.
  • Anonymous

    Transit infrastructure investments have been demonstrated to create more and better, longer lasting jobs, not to mention the other benefits associated with providing alternatives to driving and enhanced economic opportunity for not only station areas, but also for both transit-dependent and discretionary riders by way of reducing transportation costs by a wide margin.

    Highway jobs are relatively short-lived and the people working them quite typically come from other areas and take their income with them when they leave.

  • Anonymous

    Dead-on, Steven.

  • Anonymous


  • Brian

    How many more wasteful highways will the agency build before it makes that transition?

    I doubt they will ever make that transition. So would BRT on Western help the semi driver delivering goods? Would a renovated purple line help the family driving into Chicago for a vacation?
    I don’t think so. Roads and cars are here to stay, and thankfully IDOT recognizes that and didn’t listen to the people whining about this project. While I doubt this project will do much to alleviate congestion, if it can have SOME impact on travel time reduction, it will be worthwhile.

    The problem with your POV is that not every can trip can be replaced by BRT or a bike. Thankfully IDOT realizes that and continues to keep building roads, and will do so for years to come!

  • Please, do identify which aspects of spending $475 million to reduce congestion when overall vehicle miles traveled is declining, makes sense.

  • MH100

    To answer your question about the renovated Purple line, Yes! It absolutely would help a family driving into the city on vacation because speedy, safe, reliable public transit will keep more people off existing roads, creating less traffic and pollution.

    Also, how on earth does it make sense that IDOT should spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure people like my parents (who live in the Suburbs) have a 45 minute drive to the loop instead of ghastly 50 minute drive? Why should their occasional needs trump those of us who use the city’s infrastructure on a daily basis?

  • Fred

    To me the Illiana project makes more sense than the Circle project. The Illiana is far outside the city and does not go to the city at all. It could potentially draw some of the long range traffic that currently goes through the Circle. Speeding up freight traffic is the supposed reason for the Circle project, right? Getting traffic off the Circle, either by getting commuters to use transit or by drawing through users to an alternate route are both good, right?

    Expressways aren’t inherently bad, only urban ones.

  • CL

    Great points. It’s very sad to think of what we could have funded with $475 million. If we couldn’t think of anything else to do with the money, marginally improving the circle would be fine with me — really, I’d be okay with paying people to dig holes because it’s stimulus. But we have so many other projects that need money — just fixing the CTA, and restoring service to routes that have been cut, would be a fantastic use of millions of dollars that would benefit everyone in Chicago. BRT or the Clark Street Trolley would be even better, but more controversial. I think all Chicago residents can get behind improving the CTA, though.

  • $475 million is $50 million more than the south Red Line rehab cost, and over 17 times as much as the entire 4,000-bike Divvy system cost.

  • Jin Nam

    I ride over the interchange on Peoria early morning (06:20) to get to work. The noise from the few cars traveling at high speeds below is very loud. Now it’s going to be above and below. Riding back home today, I was thinking that this project could have been a $50million mistake if it was reconsidered it post-design phase, instead of plowing ahead to turn it into a $475 waste of funds and a horror and blight on the cityscape . Like Netsch’s University Hall building, brutalist. The flyover in the neighborhood is at complete odds with how Greek town has evolved over the past decade.

  • Joseph Musco

    This project is horrible on so many levels. I’d rather they spent a billion dollars and buried the entire circle exchanged and developed on top of it. This cloverleaf destroys the integration of UIC into downtown, it constrains economic growth moving west and south, and it makes the air in this part of town hot and disgusting. It’s just awful.

    Having said that, highways aren’t the only projects that tout job creation but waste money. This project serves 400,000 vehicles a day and costs $475 million dollars. The upcoming Wilson Station CTA project serves 6,000 passengers a day and is projected to cost $203 million dollars. Stupid comes in many flavors.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    The Illiana project isn’t going to keep any traffic off the Circle. It’s going to duplicate what I-80 already does. It’s a favor to BNSF Intermodal, their landlord CenterPoint Properties, and a Walmart distribution facility, which all occupy the Joliet Arsenal site five miles from the west end of the proposed Illiana Expressway.

    Regarding the Illiana project, the Trib says:
    “The proposed 46-mile road would run east and west from Interstate 55 near Wilmington, Ill., to Interstate 65, near Lowell, Ind.”

    Connecting I-55 to I-65 is already accomplished by I-80, 15 miles north of the Illiana project and 45 miles southwest of the Circle.

    To go from Wilmington to Lowell via the Circle Interchange, you’d take I-55 to the northbound Dan Ryan to the southbound Dan Ryan to I-65 (where it meets I-80) to Lowell:,+IL&daddr=Interstate+94+to:41.876182,-87.6453794+to:41.875309,-87.644822+to:41.8762248,-87.6456362+to:I-90+E%2FI-94+E+to:Interstate+90+to:Lowell,+IN&hl=en&ll=41.744677,-87.442932&spn=1.196774,2.469177&sll=41.877869,-87.635579&sspn=0.018661,0.038581&geocode=FaFOdgId3Py–im58so87X4OiDEx8jo1Ygcirw%3BFe2YfgIdz6PG-infr-V5epwliDFAYt8WPkB1gw%3BFdb6fgIdPaPG-il3pwvQ6SwOiDFmq0zr-7RKmg%3BFW33fgIdaqXG-inD3YXQ6SwOiDHmItiMvVAWzA%3BFQD7fgIdPKLG-imhh0lgwiwOiDGy6nT8HmROcw%3BFRL4fgIddqLG-g%3BFV6YfgId6aTG-inx-W7bW-uJhzFHIRFKKaGb3Q%3BFaAOdgIdUhHK-imNvV0jrPkRiDFk9PU1J7wanA&oq=Low&mra=dpe&mrsp=4&sz=15&via=2,3,4&t=m&z=9

    Going through the Circle takes 97 miles through city traffic. I-80 is 80 miles, bypassing a lot of city traffic. County Line Road is 55 miles, though probably not suited for fast tractor trailers, and the Illiana project would cut it to 46 miles. But the only people who need a shorter route from Wilmington to I-65 are BNSF, CenterPoint and Walmart.

  • I use the Wilson station and while it is in desperate need of repair, I cannot believe it is slated to cost as much as it is. That is a huge chunk of public money for one station. It will be to replace the track, too, I believe, but that is still a lot of money!

  • Fbfree

    It would make sense if one is spending that money to alleviate the single choke point in a large highway network, and if that network were reasonably costed (tolled). The biggest problem with the Circle project is that is is far from the only choke point in the system, and is quite well balanced with the loads the highways leading to it can handle. Increasing capacity at the Circle will have only a marginal effect on regional congestion at a very high price.

  • Joseph Musco

    Wilson is my station too! It definitely needs work but much of the bad reputation of the station actually comes from the concentration of social services around the station – services that do a better job of serving people than just about anywhere in our city. It smells like urine because there are hundreds of people living nearby with complex mental and physical health challenges nearby and CTA removed bathrooms in the 1970s. You don’t see Rahm Emanuel at the ribbon cuttings for leasing a port-o-potty though so instead we get a $200M station — which still won’t have a bathroom. Urbs en porto!

    I asked at a CTA budget meeting about the breakdown of track vs. station costs and was told unofficially that station costs are roughly $125M of the total. I have no problem with track costs, which benefit the entire Red Line. Station costs should be modest and consistent across the system. The Fullerton and Belmont stations cost $50M each in inflation adjusted dollars, Howard around $65M — so why is Wilson costing 2x as much while serving less ridership? It’s a lot of cabbage for one station.

    CTA should standardize the fit and finish of their stations and focus on operations or at least have per rider spending guidelines. An agency with such a giant infrastructure backlog doesn’t have the wiggle room to be indulging their inner architect and pricing terracotta restoration just because Pat Quinn gave them a pot of money. Service and the transit experience should be the same throughout the system because riders are paying the same fare to ride the system.

  • I agree that the station designs should be standardized. It can be fun to have different themes for the stations but this can come in the form of art inside them.

    I didn’t know that about Belmont and Fullerton. Those are pretty nice stations, and for much less.

    Regarding the bathrooms, I wish we had more public bathrooms. I was just in London for the first time and noticed there are a handful of staffed restrooms dotted throughout the city that cost 50 pence to use. The ones in Paris are automated and cost nothing, and they have a 20-minute time limit. I think that something like that may be able to help (prevents people from living in them, and keeps them clean, either by an attendant or a robot).

  • Joseph Musco

    I find a most of my comparative station costs and info on the wonderful .

  • One big reason the Wilson station will be so expensive is that it will be converted into a new Purple Line stop, which takes significant track construction. But there’s no comparison between this project, which will boost transit ridership and greatly enhance its neighborhood, to the Circle Interchange, which will discourage transit use and degrade the nearby neighborhoods.

  • Speeding up freight traffic is apparently one of IDOT’s goals in expanding capacity of the Circle Interchange project BUT nowhere has IDOT said by how much the movement of freight will improve. This is likely because it won’t. Freight vehicles comprise less than 10% of daily vehicles yet by increasing capacity more vehicles will enter the highway to fill that capacity, negating any benefits of the increased capacity (although it may take months for this inducement to occur).

    If IDOT was serious about freight movement through Chicago it would toll everything else.

  • Joseph Musco

    All of the costs and examples I cited below (Fullerton, Belmont, and Howard) are station-to-station comparisons for stations that include Purple Line transfers. I intentionally separated out $75 million dollars in track construction costs based on what I was told by a representative of the CTA planning department at a budget meeting. The $125M station cost is what I was given from CTA planning as an estimate when I pressed for a breakdown of track vs. station costs at a budget meeting (the “Save the #11” meeting).

    Again, I support whatever track costs are involved with the Wilson Station rebuild. We agree about the need for track improvements. Track improvements improve the transit experience for everyone in the system. Better tracks translate to lower maintenance costs, improved speeds, and most importantly improved service. Better stations provide no such system wide benefits.

    Wilson is the roughly the 30th busiest stop in the CTA system. I’ll leave it to CTA to explain why it will be the second most expensive station in history.

  • Elliott Mason

    I don’t see why CTA is so hot to make the Purple stop everywhere. During the last big wash of construction they started the ‘Purple echoes Red for most of its length’ garbage and removed any advantage to it as an express line at all. Even when I wasn’t going to Howard, I would preferentially get on the Purple at Merchandise Mart so I could get to Belmont faster. That doesn’t actually work anymore.

    If they need more Red Line service, put in more Red Line service, but don’t make the Purple useless.

  • Elliott Mason

    My husband’s Modest Proposal: Turn the reversible express lanes into HOT … and an automatic fine to trucks. It already says ‘no trucks,’ but those people who buy SUVs and put truck or B tags on them because it’s cheaper than passenger tags? Enforce on them.

  • Fred

    I was thinking in terms of more longer trip drivers; say someone going from Des Moines to Detroit or St Louis to South Bend or Grand Rapids. It would allow them to completely bypass metro Chicago.

    The other use for the Illiana is access to the damned Peotone Airport project that for whatever reason won’t die.

  • BlueFairlane

    The Illiana adds about 30 miles to the Des Moines-Detroit trip and doesn’t even bypass all the congestion. The St. Louis-South Bend route is about the only trip for which the Illiana saves anybody anything, as almost any other set of destinations already offers better routes, and I can’t imagine enough people travel that specific path to justify the cost. Anybody who does could simply take US 24 or some combination of IL 17 through Kankakee, which while single lane are virtually empty highways laid out in straight lines.

  • The argument has been made in the past that I-80/94 will be a gridlocked mess in 30 years based on higher traffic volumes.

    This argument may have made sense 10 or 15 years ago when the highway was being planned, but as the years go by I find that I’m not buying it anymore.

    Compare this to a project like the Elgin-O’Hare western access… in which Thorndale Avenue really is a mess and a half, and I-90 isn’t a great alternative. More importantly, the Tollway Authority has taken it on and will get to adjust toll rates on both highways running west from O’Hare, as is appropriate.

  • Further to the point… Cline Avenue in NW Indiana basically disappeared, and no one really noticed. :-p

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    You’re right about the Peotone Airport. It would sit at the center point of the Illiana Expressway.

    I’ve looked at your example routes and agree with BlueFairlane. Illiana would just be a detour between Joliet and Gary, taken in the hopes of going faster than on I-80, which is currently humming along at 52 mph according to Google Maps.

    To me, there’s a beautiful simplicity in I-80 to I-75 for Des Moines-Detroit and I-55 to I-80 for St. Louis-South Bend. As BlueFairlane points out, adventurous souls looking for a shortcut can already try their luck with state highways. (Shout-out to IL 17! See you tomorrow!)

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    I keep hearing that fewer young people want to own cars, so I doubt we can rely on higher traffic volumes predicted in the past. If it is going to turn into gridlock, I’d rather see money spent on big solutions like improved freight and passenger rail or perhaps moving I-80 south so it completely circumvents Chicago traffic, not a little 46-mile patchwork detour that serves special interests.

  • Fred

    After further thought and map study, I have to say I agree with you and Ms Schibrowsky. There is no point to the Illiana without the Peotone airport, which shouldn’t be built.

  • Alex Oconnor

    In my dream universe, the circle and for that matter most if not all, inlcuding LSD, highways would be put under ground and the costr offset by selling off right to build above in case of circle, and along in case of edens, ike, kennedy , ryan, In case of LSD just expand the park and create more woodlands. between marine / inner drive and the lake.

    Along other highwways like the Ike build boulevards with small roads for local traffic going one direction on either side of a “plaisance” type of park. ALong sides of those boulevards upzone and allow for higher level mid-rise; perhaps save space for some LRT or BRT type PT as well

  • This has been proposed by countless architects but I’ve never heard anyone in government even acknowledge these proposals.


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