Sick Byrne! Twitter account for the $800M+ interchange expansion gets brutally ratioed

What would the late Mayor Jane Byrne (the one on the right) think of all this? Photo: Steve Kagan via @Chicago_History
What would the late Mayor Jane Byrne (the one on the right) think of all this? Photo: Steve Kagan via @Chicago_History

Has there ever been a worse expenditure of the better part of a billion dollars in Chicago than the Jane Byrne Interchange expansion project?

On December 14, Governor J.B. Pritzker cut the ribbon on the massive expressway “spaghetti bowl” enlargement in the West Loop. The initiative has cost $806.4 million so far, 51 percent higher than the $535 million estimated when construction began in 2013. That’s 12.6 times as expensive as the $64 million Navy Pier Flyover bike-pedestrian bridge, Illinois’ priciest cycling project. The work has also taken five years longer than originally projected.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is trying sell this giant expenditure for drivers as something that will result in more efficient, safer, and even greener transportation. “The finished product is predicted to result in a 50 percent reduction in vehicle delays, saving motorists an annual 5 million hours previously spent sitting in traffic and $185 million in productivity,” IDOT said in a news release. “Vehicle emissions are anticipated to reduce by a third, with annual gas consumption decreasing by 1.6 million gallons a year. Crashes are predicted to go down 25 percent.”

The Jane Byrne Interchange. Photo: IDOT
The Jane Byrne Interchange. Photo: IDOT

Those rose-colored projections are highly dubious. Analysis by Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning prior to the project’s approval in by CMAP in 2013 (which ignored the agency’s own findings) noted that none of those kinds of improvements were guaranteed and warned that the project would lead to more car trips, more carbon emissions, and fewer transit trips. The interchange expansion was projected to convert 1,000 trips from transit to driving and increase carbon dioxide emissions by 39,000 metric tons each year. Moreover, CMAP predicted that drivers in the region would save a mere 1.2 seconds per trip if the project was built.

At the time, then-Active Transportation Alliance Executive Director Ron Burke noted that the interchange project was a poor way to achieve transportation goals. “If you really want to address congestion in a long-term sustainable way, we need to give people alternatives to driving, especially driving alone,” he said. “We’re concerned about this emphasis on highway expansion at a time when the experience in Chicagoland and other areas shows us that it is, at best, a short-term solution to roadway congestion. In general it perpetuates land use and travel patterns that make us auto dependent creating a negative feedback loop.”

Chicago Critical Mass rides on an access ramp of the interchange during the 25th anniversary ride last September. Photo: John Greenfield
Chicago Critical Mass rides on an access ramp of the interchange during the 25th anniversary ride last September. Photo: John Greenfield

And then there’s the cautionary tale of the $105 million project to “fix” the west-suburban Hillside Strangler bottleneck in the early 2000s. That was a textbook example of how throwing money at road expansion projects does little or nothing to prevent traffic jams. When you make more room for cars on highways, more people choose to drive – a phenomenon known as induced demand – and thus the effect on congestion is negligible. As with the Strangler “improvements,” any congestion reduction from the opening of the Jane Byrne will likely be limited to a few weeks or months.

Nonetheless, today the Twitter account for the Jane Byrne Express, presumably run by IDOT, celebrated its official opening with this cheeky tweet.

The sustainable transportation advocacy community gave this tone-deaf post the smack-down it so richly deserved. The tweet got less than 60 likes and four retweets as of press time, which were exponentially outnumbered by critical replied and quote-tweets, an embarrassing situation known in Internet parlance as a “ratio.” Let’s take a look at some of the commentary. We’ll start with ATA’s director of planning and technical assistance David Powe, followed by a few other civilian advocates.

There’s a lot more insightful commentary, as well as comedy gold, to explore in the thread. Maybe IDOT will think twice next time before telling Chicagoans to “move over” to make way for cars.

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