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MPC and Active Trans Disagree About Rauner’s Plan to Widen the Stevenson

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Image: Rachel Duggan, Chicago Reader

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editorJohn Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

For all his warts, Governor Bruce Rauner deserves credit for putting the brakes on the Illiana Tollway, a pet project of his predecessor Pat Quinn. That $1.3 billion highway boondoggle, proposed for a corridor roughly ten miles south of the metro region, would have been funded by a public-private partnership (P3) that would have put Illinois taxpayers on the hook for some $500 million in borrowing.

In comparison, Rauner's announcement earlier this month that he wants to use P3 funding to build new toll lanes on the Stevenson Expressway, aka I-55, sounded downright fiscally responsible. The state estimates it would cost $425 million to build the new lanes, less than a third of the price of the Illiana. Work on the lanes could start as early as 2017, with completion by 2019.

The Metropolitan Planning Council, a local transportation and development think tank that opposed the Illiana, has applauded this project as sound urban planning.

But MPC's close ally the Active Transportation Alliance, which advocates for better conditions for walking, biking, and transit, has come out strongly against Rauner's plan, arguing that the solution to regional traffic woes is to give people alternatives to driving alone, not add road capacity.

The Stevenson project would cover the 25-mile stretch between the Veterans Memorial Tollway (I-355) and the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90/94). The state says this segment of I-55 carries roughly 170,000 vehicles a day and is plagued by long, unreliable travel times.

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A Pace bus rides on the shoulder of I-55. Photo: Pace

At least one "managed lane" would be added to the Stevenson in each direction. A likely scenario would allow solo drivers to pay a toll to bypass traffic jams on the regular lanes. Pace buses and carpoolers could use the new lanes at no additional charge.

The project's price tag would be relatively modest thanks to the Stevenson's existing wide paved shoulders, which are used for Pace's successful bus-on-shoulder program. Converting the shoulders to lanes that can handle more vehicles and higher speeds would require little or no land acquisition.

The new lanes would employ "congestion pricing" to ensure that traffic flows smoothly—the fee would go up or down according to demand, based on the number of vehicles in the regular and express lanes. As the expressway becomes more crowded, higher tolls would reduce the number of drivers entering the express lanes.

In 2010 MPC conducted a study for the state tollway authority that looked at the possible effects of building managed lanes on I-55. The report predicted drivers who pay the toll would shave 22 minutes off a morning rush-hour commute on the 25-mile stretch.

Assuming the toll prices are well calibrated to reflect demand, drivers who pay would be rewarded with faster, jam-free trips. That makes it more likely that an investor could be paid back via toll revenue than would have been the case with the half-baked Illiana.

In a blog post last week, MPC vice president Peter Skosey cheered Rauner's proposal. Skosey noted that adding capacity to I-55 is a top priority in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's Go to 2040regional plan.

He also applauded the inclusion of congestion pricing, noting that expanding the roadway without it would cause new lanes to fill up with traffic.

But Active Trans's leadership thinks adding new automobile lanes to the Stevenson, even managed ones, would just make the region more car-dependent.

Read the rest of the story on the Chicago Reader website.

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