Worry Less About $40 Tolls and More About Plans to Widen I-55

The Stevenson Expressway. Photo: Robert Powers
The Stevenson Expressway. Photo: Robert Powers

As Greater Greater Washington noted, earlier this month a new tolling policy on the crowded 10-mile stretch of I-66 in northern Virginia, inside the D.C. beltway, resulted in sticker shock for drivers. While during peak hours this highway segment had previously been only open to carpoolers, people driving hybrid or electric cars, and folks traveling to Dulles Airport, it was opened to solo drivers who pay a toll.

As required by law, congestion pricing was implemented to maintain 55 mph traffic on the Interstate – as more people enter the highway the toll for single-occupant vehicles goes up, discouraging additional solo motorists from entering. But while officials had projected the tolls would reach about $6, the rush hour rates actually skyrocketed to between $30 and $40 as a result of heavy traffic, although some people are conjecturing that the fee is higher than necessary.

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial argued that we should view this as a cautionary tale as the Illinois Department of Transportation considers widening I-55, aka the Stevenson Expressway, to add tolled express lanes. The current proposal is to add two lanes in each direction on the highway between the Kennedy Expressway junction and I-294, and one line in each direction between I-294 and I-355, the Veteran’s Memorial Tollway.

Under the current plan Pace buses and carpoolers would use the new lanes for free, while solo drivers would pay a toll. IDOT is still considering whether that would be a flat fee or a sliding scale based on the congestion level during rush hours, as in Virginia, to help keep traffic flowing and encourage carpooling and bus ridership.

The Tribune editorial board wrote that it supports the idea of congestion pricing but argued that such high fees would be unfair non-affluent drivers. “A fluctuating premium rate has some appeal — it assures that the express lanes don’t become so crowded as to defeat their purpose. But transportation officials should think long and hard before implementing a pricing system that allows the price of a commute to spike to $40 or higher.”

But GGW’s David Alpert argued that those $40 tolls in Virginia actually reflect the real price of highway transportation, which is largely hidden from the public because gas tax money, along with other kinds of tax revenue, is used by states and the federal government to fund road construction. The Stevenson expansion is supposed to be partly or wholly funded by a developer through a public-private partnership, with the investor getting its money back via toll revenue. But any contract is likely to have safeguards for the developer in case there’s a revenue shortfall, which could leave Illinois taxpayers holding the bag.

It’s true that $40 tolls would likely face a major backlash from Chicago-area drivers. On the other hand, assuming the Virginia fees aren’t artificially inflated, that may be what it takes to limit the number of motorists entering the Stevenson express lanes and prevent them from getting clogged.

Then there’s the whole issue of whether it makes sense to widen I-55 at all, even to make room for tolled, congestion-priced lanes. In a letter to the Tribune last month, Active Transportation Alliance governmental relations director Kyle Whitehead said the group supports setting aside existing lanes for buses and carpoolers, with dynamic-priced tolls for SOVs. But he noted that expanding the Stevenson, as well IDOT’s proposal to widen I-290 and I-294 to add tolled lanes, would only encourage more driving.

“On the surface, it appears widening and extending roads would better distribute traffic,” Whitehead wrote. The problem is that research and experience show that expanding roads in urban areas only makes traffic congestion as bad or worse in the long run by inducing more people to drive, and fewer people to consider alternative modes like public transit.” He added that highway expansion encourages employers to locate workplaces in transit-inaccessible suburbs, making it harder for low-income people to access jobs.

You can tell IDOT what you think of their plans to widen highways via a comment form.

  • James Bell

    Mass transit is NOT the solution here. In many cases these areas that are serviced by the Stevenson are not clogged due to there being too many cars, but because there are WAY TOO MANY TRUCKS! Look at some of the photos taken of today’s Stevenson. About half of this thing is truck traffic and the last time I checked, stores and business don’t ship their goods by bus or Metra. It’s no brainer, trucks carrying 44,000 lbs plus being nearly 80 feet long take longer to stop and go so this ripples down causing everyone to clog up. If Chicago wants to be a major hub city and continue to hold this trophy, then it needs to do something about unclogging all major arteries around it. Businesses will have no problem moving their distribution centers to other areas outside the metro area. Sounds good? Well the typical distribution center will create nearly a thousand jobs many of which are union jobs such as forklift drivers who in the Chicago area typically make about $25 an hour plus overtime. Those are pretty nice jobs to have in the area for people without higher education. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel wants to win the bid for the Amazon headquarters which I commend him on trying for, however do you think Amazon will want a distribution center to be placed downtown or near it with all the expressways being stopped all day long? No business owner in the logistics industry in their right mind would want to set up shop in an environment like that. Your goods would be late all the time.

    This is very simple, you don’t want to pay the toll? Fine, sit stuck in traffic. You think because you build more lanes everyone will jump off the Metra and back into their cars? Then you are just a baffoon. Parking downtown is still a rip and most people won’t want to pay $40 a day to park so problem solved, induced demand can be controlled again by Rahm and his buddies in the parking industry, just raise the parking rates then less people will drive.

    The main thing here is, we need to get our trucks delivering our goods and services MOVING again and not be stopped in traffic as soon as they hit Weber Rd all the way in. That costs ALL of us money. Trucks move America and with them being stopped in traffic, up goes the cost on everything.

  • James Bell

    http://www.dailyherald.com/storyimage/DA/20160530/news/160539962/AR/0/AR-160539962.jpg&updated=201605300757&MaxW=800&maxH=800&noborder

    Here is good photo showing exactly the problem here. Also, note the truck in the “hammer lane” in this photo and I see this everyday when I drive on this thing. Trucks in the left lanes clogging up that lane as well even though they aren’t supposed to be in there.

  • Tooscrapps

    The picture you referenced in your second comment above underscores the problem with your argument. Look at the sheer number of cars and the road space they take up. That one truck isn’t the reason vehicles are backed-up there.

    Furthermore, Amazon is looking for an second corporate HQ, not a downtown distribution center. Workers will be arriving in cars or via transit/bikes/walking, not semi-trucks.

    So, Jim/James, any other Houstonian insights for us?

  • Davey43

    I’m all for the $40 tolls as long as the overall congestion mitigation and behavior change goals are met.

  • Davey43

    You’ve just went all over the place. An alternative is to pay $4.50 for the 850-line routes on the corridor. That, or you go to Metra. If you don’t want to pay tolls, then carpool. Pacerideshare.com does an okay job with this concept where it becomes an affordable alternative. Let’s try to get out of the car-centric mindset without sacrificing the business tools needed.

    Tolls (for managed lanes at least) does that. If you really want to make everyone ditch their cars, make 55 into a full-fledged toll road (won’t happen).

  • James Bell

    Houston is growing at what rate and Chicago is growing at what rate? Oh ya, Chicago is stagnant and Illinois as a whole is seeing people fleeing it in record numbers while states like Texas have cities such as the Dallas / Ft. Worth Metroplex growing cities the size of Orland Park in a matter of 5 years. Let’s see; Texas job growth is in record numbers, population growth is in record numbers, the state has plenty of wealth, and doing great. Illinois is loosing population or remaining stagnant including Chicago which has been loosing population for the past 30 years, job growth is stagnant, the entire state and city are broke, and in a recent survey among residents in states, Illinois ranked dead last in states with residents actually liking where they live. I would suggest we look closely at what the Texans are doing as it is working including the realization that Americans love their cars and are NOT going to get out of them. They will just move.

  • Jeremy

    You provide no sources to back up your claims. Especially the “recent survey”.

    Interstate 610 in Houston is 12 lanes at its widest. Last week, the Texas Department of Transportation named it the most congested road in the state.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_610_(Texas)#Lane_configurations

    https://www.equipmentworld.com/texas-dot-releases-list-of-states-most-congested-roads/

    By the way, household income in Illinois is $60,000. In Texas, it is $56,000.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_income_in_the_United_States#Income_by_state

  • Tooscrapps

    Paradise on Earth. So, what’s keeping you here?

  • Jeremy

    If so many people have left Illinois, why are the roads congested?

  • ardecila

    Yeah, this makes me nervous, especially regarding other downtown highways. The Circle Interchange is being upgraded now, but this project will just pump more traffic in and make it back into a bottleneck. Lake Shore Drive is also a big route from I-55 into downtown, so expect more traffic on LSD and the Grant Park roads.

    This will also swamp Pace and Metra’s nascent efforts to build transit into the I-55 corridor. What’s the advantage of taking a commuter bus or train that can bypass congestion when you can just drive all the way in express lanes?

  • Cities like Houston were held back from growing during the time Chicago was growing because of the lack of affordable air conditioning. Then when Texas oil money began buying up manufacturing and sending the jobs to Mexico and China of course the Midwest lost population.

    Luckily more car drivers left than transit users. So now Texas is struggling to catch up with quality transit. See Houston’s redesigned bus system.

    Anyway sorry to hear how you Texans are struggling to handle all those immigrants from the Midwest. Good luck.

  • You beat me to the recongesting of the not even finished rebuilding of the circle interchange comment.

  • James Bell

    Wow Illinois average income is $4000 higher than in Texas (a state with no income tax) Hmmm, so lets see, I make $100,000 a year, and income tax here in s-ville, USA is 5% now for the state portion so that is $5000 just in taxes where in Texas I get to keep that money. Oh ya, and my property taxes in Orland on a FIFTH of an acre are approaching 10K a year! I have colleagues in the Plano area with million dollar houses paying half that.

    As for the 610, it is the most congested in the state, but having traveled on it, it can handle FAR more traffic than 55 was ever designed to do and that is the funniest part that none of you seem to get. IDOT has civil engineers designing its roads with PH.Ds and they are fully trained in designing roads and are saying 55 is operating beyond its design capacity. What is your level of education in the transportation industry? I am no engineer, however I do agree with them that something needs to be done. Read this article about lane capacity and how much a roadway is designed to carry safely. You may learn something. http://www.mikeontraffic.com/numbers-every-traffic-engineer-should-know/

    Now here is more for citing for you to choke on.

    https://www.gettingaroundillinois.com/gai.htm?mt=aadt#

    There are the daily traffic counts taken by the pavement sensors in the roadways. 155,000 near Pulaski. Now, lets look back to the other link as to what a six lane highway is designed to handle. Hmmmm 44,000 vehicles a day. See a problem there?

  • Carter O’Brien

    I largely agree with you, but never discount how much of a monkey wrench just a *single* truck can cause on the highways by being in the passing lane. This is because there is a domino effect as people get frustrated and start changing lanes, each of which in turn further disrupt and slow down traffic flow. This also applies to that single car in the passing lane who is on their phone and making everyone pass them.

    The dynamic and why it’s so much more of a problem than you’d think can be seen looking at street traffic. When a light turns green, there is a multiplier effect starting with the second car needing to hesitate until the first car has started moving, and then the third car having an even larger wait, etc. And that’s IF everyone is paying perfect attention. The truck is like one link in that chain that compounds the problem by having a slower reaction time than the rest (or imagine being a cyclist stuck behind a bus that you can’t quite get out in front of).

  • FredD

    All the planned widening of the Ike and Stevenson will not help. There is a 1000 mile tollway that ends at the Skyway I-90. There is a 16-mile “missing link” that can be seen from space between the Skyway and the Strangler. Building that road and rail corridor would help immensely. I-90/94 is the crux of Chicagos traffic/growth/economic problems.

  • decisivemoment

    A Stevenson widening from Ashland to Central along with improvements around the Tri-State interchange only would address severe bottlenecks that cause crashes and congestion. Another possibility is a free-flow ramp at Cicero from westbound Stevenson to southbound Cicero, or simply a longer and wider exit ramp at Cicero and a retimed light if Cicero can’t handle the volume of traffic from a free-flow. A fourth toll lane throughout simply generates extra traffic and undermines Pace’s express bus service.

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