Graphic: Huge Cost Disparities Between Highway, Transit and Bike Projects

If the Elgin-O'Hare Connector is Jupiter, the Berteau Greenway is a tiny asteroid. Image: Shaun Jacobsen, Transitized

It seems like every time the city proposes an innovative sustainable transportation project, there’s someone who attacks the plan as an irresponsible waste of money for our cash-strapped city. For example, Roger Romanelli and his Ashland-Western Coalition anti-bus rapid transit group have repeatedly argued that the CTA’s plan to build 16 miles of fast, reliable BRT on Ashland Avenue at a cost of $160 million is outrageously expensive. Other initiatives like Divvy bike-share, which cost $27.5 million for the first 400 stations, and the Dearborn protected lanes, which cost $450,000, have also come under fire from citizens and in the press as frivolous uses of taxpayer dollars.

Streetsblog Chicago contributor Shaun Jacobsen has brilliantly skewered these arguments on his blog Transitized with a graphic that illustrates how ridiculously cheap these initiatives are compared to highway construction. “Every time I’ve been to a community meeting, there’s always at least one person who wonders how we have money for bike lanes and new transit stops, but we don’t have money for police officers, the children, etc.,” Jacobsen writes. “Too often, it’s easy to get lost in the zeros and the -illions of dollars being spent on a project. What’s the difference between $55 and $56 million dollars, anyhow? One possible answer: 6.5 miles of new protected bike lanes.”

The Dearborn bike lanes north of Washington. Photo: Michelle Stenzel, Bike Walk Lincoln Park

The Solar System-like diagram shows various projects as circles whose area reflects their relative costs. While the $3.4 billion Elgin-O’Hare Expressway and $2.5 billion Central Lake County Corridor (IL-53 Extension) appear as massive orbs, BRT and bike-share are relatively tiny dots, and the Dearborn PBL and the $150,000 Berteau Greenway are barely visible specks. Why is Romanelli, executive director the Randolph/Fulton Market Association, carping about the pricetag for the bus plan when its dot is dwarfed by the $475 million Circle Interchange Expansion? He didn’t bat an eyelash over that destructive, property-value-lowering project, also in his district.

Jacobsen says he’d also like to create an interactive graphic that depicts the relative cost of all types of regional transportation projects. “It’s important to put the numbers in perspective so we truly understand what we decide to invest in,” he writes. “The media can report various figures for large expressways, but the difference between a $1.1 billion highway and a $1.2 billion one could be a greenway in every neighborhood of the city.” I’m looking forward to re-posting Jacobsen’s chart the next time the anti-BRT crowd starts making noise about the relatively minor cost of a project that, unlike wildly expensive suburban highway boondoggles, will be money well-spent.

  • Adam Herstein

    No amount of money is too much to keep people from getting killed by people driving motor vehicles. If only people who drive cars experienced the full cost of their transportation choices – monetary and social – perhaps they’d make other decisions.

  • Anonymous

    Just because the absolute dollar cost of Project A is less than Project B, especially when they are totally different, does not make Project A any more justified than Project B.

    If I tried to sell you a shirt for $400 and framed it as, “Come on John, it’s only .01% what you spent on your house!!” you’d laugh.

    Expenditures should be evaluated on their own merits first. That’s why AWC hates the BRT, and that’s why you hate the Circle Interchange…not because of their relation to something else.

  • Sustainable transportation infrastructure is viewed as wasteful and extravagant by the people who don’t think they’ll use it, e.g. the AWC and BRT, but as the chart shows, it generally costs a pittance compared to the car infrastructure that is taken for granted.

  • All interstates should be tollways from the point of where the farthest Metra station is located and in towards the city.

  • Kevin M

    This isn’t shirts & houses, apples & oranges. These are all transportation projects, all competing for the same source of *limited* public funds.

  • Ray

    I agree with you bedhead1. Absolute values are not particularly useful because the scope of these projects are really hidden in the numbers. Though I love you guys at Streetsblog, the graphic is misleading because the Elgin-O’hare extension is a slightly different size than Divvy. I’m not even sure it’s comparable in dollar amounts. You all make a good point in how this all ‘comes from the same pot of money,’ but it’s a bit unfair to compare 5 or 10 miles of BRT to 30 miles of highway. Perhaps the numbers need to be normalized to size of project or amount of people affected by the project to have a chance of being a fair comparison.

    I love transit and biking infrastructure, but we need to be fair in comparison.

  • Ray

    That’s a bit unfair because there are people who have to use the highways that do not benefit from Metra. There’s a huge outcry of people who live near the Skyway who can’t afford to pay the tolls on a daily basis, need to use the highway to get to work, and Metra does not serve them. It’s a really big equity issue and can’t be simplified by just tolling.

  • There’s a case to be made that more people will use Divvy in a month than will use the new Elgin/O’Hare extension (I certainly can’t see it being useful to me for anything I do regularly) …

  • That’s likely a limited situation, though depending on how you suggest Metra doesn’t serve Skyway users. I just looked and saw a station that is begins 1200 feet from the Skyway and two miles from the border.

    I looked elsewhere and it’s quite possible to say that Metra serves Chicagoland more than the Interstates do.

    Those who support bike, ped and transit users seem to also support increasing the cost of using roads closer to what the actual cost of constructing and maintaining them is. What’s the harm in doing that?

  • The BRT route is 16 miles long, and roughly 700,000 people will be walking distance from it.

  • Anonymous

    So what? By your (and others’) logic, ANY transportation project, even if it was just paving over a road somewhere, would magically become justified by virtue of it being cheaper than the Circle Interchange.

    There are good arguments for the BRT, but this silly and illogical cost chart isn’t one of them, and frankly all it does suggest the pro-BRT crowd shouldn’t be taken very seriously.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks. Unfortunately, unfair “analysis” comes from both sides. You saw it with the Illiana, and you see it now with the BRT. People see what they want to see.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Surely it’s relevant that the highway projects are paid for entirely by their users. (Yes, I’m aware that local subdivision streets are not). A lot more is spent on restaurant meals than food pantries, but we don’t think of it as “one pot of money” that can be moved around as we wish.

  • tooter turtle

    If we don’t allow the money to be moved around a bit, we can’t ever change our transportation mix. I pay a lot more gas tax than I do public transportation fares, but this is not by my choice – it’s because our infra usually doesn’t give me a choice. I would prefer the gas tax I pay to be used on a few things other than making more roads that further lock me and everyone else into auto dependency.


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Roger Romanelli’s well-organized anti-bus rapid transit group the Ashland-Western Coalition is rallying their troops to oppose the CTA’s plan, so BRT supporters need to provide a show of strength as well. The transit authority recently released the long-awaited environmental assessment of their plan to create fast, efficient, ‘L’ train-like bus service on Ashland Avenue, and […]