Road Projects Gobble Up Growing Share of Chicago’s “Air Quality” Funds

Elmhurst and Touhy
The Elmhurst and Touhy intersection in Elk Grove Village will get an $11 million treatment to add a bypass lane. Photo: Google Maps.

In its upcoming update of the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning needs to take a closer look at the transportation projects it funds with federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grants. In the latest round of these grants, announced Tuesday, CMAP committees have approved funding for nine projects that only add more space for cars.

The Regional Transportation Operations Coalition, a consortium of transportation agencies and consultants that makes recommendations to CMAP, selected several projects that add turn lanes at intersections.

These funds are supposed to be used to reduce vehicle pollution, because Chicagoland air quality does not meet the standards set out in the Clean Air Act. The best way to do that using transportation infrastructure is to make walking, biking, and transit more appealing to people relative to driving.

While each road expansion project is presumed to reduce traffic congestion at that specific location, the broader effect is to induce more driving and discourage transit use. And increasing transit ridership is supposedly a major goal of CMAP’s GO TO 2040 regional plan.

This year, road projects comprise 35.2 percent of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funding, an increase from the 25.7 percent share in 2012.  According to CMAP’s own analysis, all of these road projects will have “no benefit” when it comes to reducing solo driving trips or traffic in general [one, two]. Meanwhile, all bike/ped/transit projects are projected to have a positive impact on reducing traffic and SOV trips.

Union Station intermodal rendering
The good news: CMAQ funds will pay for construction of the Union Station transportation center at Jackson/Canal, with underground walkway to the Great Hall.

Granted, these road projects may yield some improvement to the speed and flow of bus operations. But the overall effect could still work against transit: By creating more space for driving, people will drive more in these places, which can slow down buses. And just as important, all the money spent on these road projects cannot be invested in ways that will definitely improve transit, biking, and walking.

No sidewalk at bus stop
A bus stop without a sidewalk or waiting area along suburban Randall Road. Photo: Google Maps.

On to the more worthy projects that will receive this funding. Active transportation projects that Chicagoland residents can expect in the near future include:

  • Sidewalks and concrete waiting areas for suburban bus stops. Yes, Randall Road in Kane County is notorious for being hostile to pedestrians and Pace bus riders, as bus stops consist of a pole in the grass next to a ditch. This project will address the fact that “bus stop locations along [Randall Road] lack adequate connectivity due to prevalent large-setback strip-malls.”
  • “Arterial Rapid Transit” bus service on Milwaukee Avenue from Jefferson Park CTA Blue Line in Chicago to Golf Mill mall in Niles. The project will have transit signal priority (like Ashland BRT), branded buses (like the J14 Jeffery Jump), stations, and real-time info at stops.
  • Reconstruction of two Chicago Transit Authority stations, Monroe Red Line and State/Lake elevated.
  • A faster 66-Chicago bus. Signalized intersections on Chicago Avenue from Austin Avenue to Orleans Street will be upgraded to give CTA buses priority.
  • Union Station transportation center at Jackson/Canal, with underground walkway to the Great Hall for smoother, weather-protected connections to several bus routes, including the upcoming Central Loop BRT.
  • An extension of the Chicago River riverwalk with an underbridge connection at Addison Street.
  • 75 more Divvy stations.

That’s the good news, but it’s difficult for transit to gain ridership or biking and walking to increase when we continue to heavily fund driving.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Steven, can you explain in more detail what is going to happen at the Elmhurst and Touhy intersection in the top photo? I Googled “bypass lane,” and U.S. DOT says it’s an alternative to a left-turn lane on two-lane rural highways. This intersection seems to already have plenty of lanes including turn lanes.

  • Roland Solinski

    It’s actually a quadrant bypass, like this one:

    Essentially, all turning traffic is forced to detour onto the bypass to reach the other roadway, while all/most turns are prohibited at the original intersection. In this case, Old Higgins will be used as the bypass.

  • Very cool with some of those other projects. Nice that Monroe will be reconstructed. I hope the lighting is improved, that station is a dungeon.

    Some will claim that it is a compromise to support active transportation projects while also supporting ones mainly for cars; I don’t think it works that way. Improving conditions for driving and transit are mutually exclusive; making it easier to drive often makes it less attractive to take public transportation or bike or walk. Not to mention that roadway projects are incredibly expensive. Look at that one intersection in Elk Grove Village. It is nearly half the cost of the entire Divvy program for one intersection bypass lane!!!

    If I had more time I’d like to look at the marginal cost and benefit of these sorts of projects. For a lot of these road projects, the cost must be exceeding the benefit by this point.

  • Ted King

    Take a look at page 21 of the PDF below. It seems that this is one piece of a multi-part tweak to roads in that area.

    Agenda Packet, 19 June 2013
    NB – 40 page PDF.

    P.S. The total project cost is almost $18.7M per CMAP. So there’s more than seven million dollars ($7M+) coming from some other funding source or sources.The CMAQ funds are $11.45M (two sig. figs.).

    P.P.S. The CMAQ I.D. code is “II03143988” (II = intersection improvement).

  • Here’s another example at Harlem/65th:

  • Click on the “one” and “two” links for an easy breakdown of how some projects will or won’t contribute to SOV trip elimination and VMT reduction.

    You can find more details in the project proposal rankings here:

  • Chicagio

    Does anyone know if these road projects have to abide by MWRD (or other applicable storm water authority) requirements for storm water? For the pain that private land owners have to deal with to mitigate and treat water on site, i’d be pretty ticked if they can increase the amount of impervious surface without any consideration of storm water runoff.

  • Nathanael

    It should be possible to sue to stop the “road expansion” projects from getting CMAQ funding, as it’s a plain violation of the CMAQ law. I’m not quite sure who has to be sued or what the technical name for such a suit is.

  • Nathanael

    I’m fine with supporting SOME sorts of projects for cars — resurfacing two-lane roads, repairing automobile bridges which are falling apart, reestablishing street grids which were broken by “megablocks” or expressways — those are just some examples. I can support left-turn pocket lanes at intersections, and I’m sure I can think of lots of other such things.

    The thing is that we have such an overbuilt system of roads that most “car” projects are total overkill. We don’t need more expressways and we don’t need more “general purpose” lanes anywhere.

  • Ryan Wallace

    Wow, these are the worse kind of intersections for pedestrians. No vehicle movement at a signalized or stop controlled intersection should ever be continuous.

  • Ryan Wallace

    Yes, all roadway projects have to deal with storm water requirements. This is usually based on the concept that the project is allowed only to outlet runoff at the same rate as before the project (or some variation of the type of rule depending on the agency). With large increases in impervious area, most projects need to build large detention ponds in order to meet that requirement.

  • I think you would sue the federal government, so they would change the regulation, and CMAP, for finding expenditure on these road expansion projects in conformity with the GO TO 2040 regional plan.


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