Advocates, experts: Infra bill is more car-centric than hoped for, but will benefit Chicagoland

Waiting for a bus at the Jefferson Park Transit Center. Photo: John Greenfield
Waiting for a bus at the Jefferson Park Transit Center. Photo: John Greenfield

Last Friday’s passage of the $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in Congress provided a much-needed win for President Joe Biden. However, sustainable transportation advocates pointed out that the legislation largely prolongs the car-centric status quo by allocating scores of billions of dollars for driving projects, including nearly $110 billion for highways. Still, there are some upsides of the bill for walking, biking, transit, and intercity rail in terms of new funding and better policies. Streetsblog Chicago checked in with local transportation advocates and experts to get their takes on how the deal will impact active transportation in Chicagoland, for better or worse.

Active Transportation Alliance

“The infrastructure bill provides a historic opportunity to improve and expand public transit in the Chicago area,” said ATA spokesperson Kyle Whitehead. “Long-promised projects like the Red Line Extension and a network of bus priority streets should be advanced with robust community engagement and transparency.”

However, Whitehead argued that overall the bill fails to go far enough in establishing the transportation funding splits and policy needed to achieve real progress on our region’s climate and equity challenges. “It maintains the inequitable 80/20 split in highway and transit spending. The road spending comes with very few strings attached and could be spent on projects that would move us in the wrong direction. It will be critical to hold our elected officials, [the Illinois and Chicago transportation departments] accountable to their climate and equity commitments in spending these funds.”

Whitehead added that it will be crucial for Congress to pass the separate Build Back Better Act package of climate change and social service service initiatives, which includes $40 billion in targeted investments to advance racial and environmental justice in transportation. “Components include $10 billion to support transit access to affordable housing, $4 billion for reducing transportation emissions, and $1 billion for reconnecting communities isolated by highway projects.”

He lauded the new All Stations Accessibility Program, which earmarks $1.75 billion for retrofitting historic transit stations like CTA ‘L’ stops to make them wheelchair accessible, as well as as well as digital improvements, like creating new apps and wayfinding services for people with cognitive challenges. “Thank you to [Illinois U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth], who championed this program with support from [the local disability advocacy group] Access Living and transit and disability rights advocates from across the country.”

As far as walking and biking goes, Whitehead noted that the bill also includes a 60 percent increase for the Transportation Alternatives Program, which has funded many walking and biking projects in the Chicago area. “This could be used to advance a community-informed vision for a citywide network of protected bike lanes in Chicago and safe and connected trail networks that extend into the suburbs.”

Metropolitan Planning Council

MPC transportation director Audrey Wennink provided the following list of noteworthy aspects of the bill (her language, lightly edited for clarity.)

  • Given that Chicago’s is the second-largest transit system in the country, the infusion of transit funding is exciting. However, the Chicago region needs to have an integrated regional vision for how to build the transit system of the future and not focus only on state of good repair of our legacy systems, as has historically been how the Regional Transportation Authority has allocated funds. Additionally, the bill does not address the challenges of the impending transit operations funding crisis that looms once COVID-relief funding runs out.
  • Road safety program ($11 billion), which is desperately needed to turn the tide of steadily increasing fatalities and injuries on our roadways, particularly involving pedestrians. However, all highway spending should be oriented toward improving safety, not only funds from this program.
  • A small amount ($1 billion nationally) for reconnecting communities harmed by highway building, which was unfortunately sharply reduced from $24 billion.
  • Investments in the national Amtrak network will be highly beneficial for Chicago, one of the largest Amtrak hubs in the nation.  Amtrak published its vision plan in the spring, which highlights a number of desired route extensions, increased frequencies and increased speeds for the Midwest.

“The reality is that our world is changing fast,” Wennink added. “We must be open to new ways of solving our extremely complex infrastructure needs. We must use methods like Value planning to develop more durable, affordable, community-oriented and operations-friendly infrastructure solutions. We must not simply rebuild the transportation infrastructure of the last century when we now need to mitigate climate change, adapt to climate change impacts already occurring like severe rainfall and extreme heat, reduce the harms created by our old infrastructure like highways cutting through communities and 40,000 deaths a year on our roadway system, and customize solutions to communities.”

In addition, Wennink said that as new federal funds are infused into the transportation system it will now be up to the states and communities to prioritize how funding is spent. “This is where the action is. It will be more important than ever for us to get our methods right for deciding how we spend transportation dollars to achieve the outcomes that people want and need, such as providing multimodal access to destinations, improving safety and improving equity. And every time we undertake any maintenance, reconstruction, or capacity project we need to ask how we can rebuild in a sustainable way that improves communities – we need to be way more forward-thinking than just repaving and reconstructing all the roads in the same format that we have now.”

Wennink concluded, “We will need the federal government to take a much stronger role in holding states accountable for prioritizing maintenance first, focusing on safety outcomes, providing equitable multimodal solutions, and not expanding highway lane miles that will not address congestion and will contribute to increases in climate-busting driving.”

P.S. Sriraj, director of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center

Sriraj argued that while the infrastructure bill was trimmed down significantly from the original version, it still provides significant opportunities to improve transportation in Chicago and in Illinois. “The nation’s infrastructure is at a C- grade as per The American Society of Civil Engineers. Given this below-average condition of the infrastructure, any investment to improve the existing infrastructure is welcome.”

He noted that that the bill includes $149 million for expanding electrical vehicles charging infrastructure in Illinois. “Apart from these federally apportioned dollars, there will also be opportunities to compete for bridge investment, EV charging stations and other investments.”

Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development 

“There will likely be a tug-o-war between those advocating that the funds be used for upgrading existing transit routes, many of which are oriented toward downtown, and those pushing for funds for ‘new start’ projects less focused on the city center,” Schwieterman predicted. “We need to fund both types of investments, but the tradeoffs loom large as work patterns evolve in response to the pandemic.”

He argued that both the Red Line Extension and Phase II of the Purple Modernization Program are “slam dunks” for major funding.  “Leaders at Metra are no doubt feel relieved that the railroad’s deferred maintenance problems will be at least partially resolved.”

“Chicago is especially well-positioned to benefit from an infusion of funds in Amtrak,” Schwieterman added. “Considering how dire things looked for Amtrak only a year-and-a-half ago, the turn of events is remarkable.”

One downside, he said, is that “Chicago does not have a large-scale ‘shovel ready’ project designed to weave together our somewhat disjointed bus and rail systems. Transfers between CTA and Metra trains remain awkward.  This could prove to be a significant missed opportunity for our region.”

Check out the Biden administration’s fact sheet for the infrastructure deal here.

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