A back door deal: Land transfer to facilitate driving to O’Hare from west is a bad investment

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O'Hare Airport. Photo: Keith Ammann

In this age of climate change and high gas prices, Chicago needs to focus on making it easier for people to get where they need to go without a car. So why did the City Council recently approve a land deal that will encourage more people to drive to and around O’Hare Airport?

As part of the Elgin O’Hare Western Access Project, which has the goal of creating a ring of highways around the 72-acre international airport by 2026, alderpersons recently approved a land deal with the Illinois Tollway Authority. The agreement paves the way for the I-490 Tollway, which will meet up with the I-294 Tri-State Tollway to the south and the 1-90 Jane Addams Tollway to the north.

According to a Block Club Chicago article about the project, 19th Ward alderman Matt O’Shea, chair of the aviation committee, claimed in a council meeting on March 23 that the new O’Hare expressway will lower traffic congestion on existing highways by 20 percent, encourage more freight use and generate job creation. O’Shea asserted that the start of the project would create over 50,000 jobs.

The nearly $108 million deal between the city and the Illinois Tollway will hand over roughly 202 acres of city-owned land along on the west side of O’Hare to the tollway authority, Block Club reported. The Elgin O’Hare project came out of studies begun in 2017 led by The Illinois Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The studies analyzed transportation issues in a 127 square mile area west of O’Hare, with the goal of preventing traffic jams and providing access to the airport from the west.

Map of the Elgin O'Hare Western Access Project
Map of the Elgin O’Hare Western Access Project

State and federal agencies have historically prioritized motor vehicles over all other modes. It’s a missed opportunity that expanding transit access to the airport, such as an extension of the Blue Line, wasn’t seriously considered as an alternative to spending billions on new expressways.

During the March 21 committee meeting, aviation commissioner Jamie Rhee tried to convince aldermen that the I-490 Tollway will ease traffic jams around the airport, Block Club reported. “Those individuals that are just merely trying to bypass O’Hare and just get onto that Southern leg of 294 will now have an alternate where they can go to the west side, instead of clogging our entrance, which is one way in and one way out of O’Hare off I–190.” 

“With gas prices surging and transportation emissions growing, this is just what we need: a new expressway to create more car and truck traffic,” Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead said ironically in response to the news, noting that more road capacity will simply encourage more driving. “This project won’t relieve congestion around O’Hare in the long run, but it will generate more revenue for the tollway authority. There are many long-proposed ways to upgrade Blue Line, Metra, and Pace service to the airport and make it easier for people to ride transit, but of course those plans will remain on the shelf while the tollway moves forward.”

I share ATA’s frustration that government officials just can’t seem to think outside the automotive box and create quality sustainable transportation alternatives. (And let’s not even get into the climate impacts of aviation as opposed to high-speed rail.) At the very least we should be providing convenient and affordable transit options to one of the country’s busiest airports within our city, and we really should be doing it more to make it easier to access O’Hare from the suburbs.

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