Opportunity Cost: What could we have bought instead of a new Wacker Drive?

October 6, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Government at any level (theoretically) has a fixed amount of money it can spend on, well, everything government does. Any decision to fund one project comes at the expense of another, second-best project, followed by a third-place project, and so on. Sometimes it’s hard to really think about this easily because of the myriad levels of government and the departments within that fund various projects. When it comes to funds for transportation projects, some money is dedicated to building or fixing roads, some is dedicated to mitigating air quality in some form, while other funds are dedicated to improving fixed infrastructure.

With all the various sources of funding, it is hard to make direct comparisons to what was or is done and what could have been done, especially when comparing modes of transportation. In this post, I wanted to talk about the ongoing Wacker Drive rebuilding project in Chicago and compare it to what else could have been bought with that money. It isn’t exactly fair to compare the money spent on that project with another project not related to road construction. Nonetheless, we can imagine we’re in a perfect world where funds would have been given to any other transportation-related project instead of the Wacker Drive rebuild.

Wacker Drive

Wacker Drive in Chicago

The Tribune puts the total cost of the project, which started in 2010, at around $303 million. 66,000 cars and 140,000 pedestrians use Wacker Drive daily, according to the same article. The project improved many facets of Lower Wacker Drive and increased the sidewalk width on Upper Wacker Drive. But it didn’t really bring anything new to Wacker Drive besides some nice sidewalk planters and better lighting. Much of what new is below the surface, repairing viaducts to keep the structural integrity in check. But $303,000,000 is still a lot of money.

So, what could we have bought with that money?

One of the most frustrating things that could happen in any city is waiting a relatively long time for a bus, then finding that two buses show up at the same time. In a perfect scenario, the buses would have run normally-spaced and you would have waited a much shorter period of time for the bus. This happens all the time on the #22 Clark bus in Chicago. I haven’t observed this on just one occasion; it seems the #22 runs on its own terms no matter where you are. I counted bicycles on Clark St at Chicago Ave last weekend, where Clark is a wide, multi-lane one-way street. Routinely the bus would not come for 20 minutes or more, then 2 or 3 buses would suddenly show up. Properly spaced, the buses would have came every 7 or 10 minutes. The same thing happens farther north, where I live just a few blocks from Clark Street.

An idea that I love is the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance. I stumbled upon this idea a long time ago and find it to be a great solution for what is a pretty bad problem on Clark Street. For much of its path, Clark Street is a two-way street with traffic on one lane in each direction. It runs through lots of vibrant and busy neighborhoods like Andersonville, Wrigleyville, Lakeview, and Lincoln Park, not to mention downtown and the near north side. It also passes Wrigley Field, whose patrons do a pretty great job clogging traffic (and buses) on Clark Street (I’d rather see more people on buses than driving to Wrigley nonetheless). Since Clark Street is such an important roadway transecting popular neighborhoods, it’s a surprise that it relies on slow-moving, clogged, and bunched buses for its entire length. The streetcar idea is great: get rid of motorized traffic, which would do better pushed off onto more reliable and high-capacity roadways like Ashland Avenue or Lake Shore Drive anyway. Give Clark Street back to the people of the neighborhoods. From its intersection at North Avenue and Lincoln Park (the actual park) near the beach up until Grace Street (near Irving Park Road), Clark Street is full of businesses and residences which generate activity around the clock. Its narrow width makes it a prime candidate for one of Chicago’s first car-free streets; the street isn’t so wide that it would feel bizarre without auto traffic, but is still wide enough to accomodate pedestrian traffic and a streetcar.

Tram in Amsterdam

Tram on a street in Amsterdam

If we assume that a tramway/streetcar line costs $35 million per mile (a pretty decent estimate for an above-ground tramway), a terminus at Daley Plaza (whose size makes it a great turnaround point and transfer point to the Blue and Red lines) running all the way up to Andersonville (near Bryn Mawr Avenue) would be about 7 miles – even further than the vision set forth in the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance. That’s $245 million at $35 million per mile. Not bad, and still some money left over for Wacker Drive!

My intention was to point out a proposed project that was comparable in cost to something that seems a lot less important. Sure, Wacker Drive carries a lot of traffic and is an important street downtown, but it is just a short drive that runs along two sides of the Loop. Rebuilding it won’t add much more capacity to it since we can’t exactly demolish the skyscrapers around it to make more room. Instead, we could build the streetcar line I wrote about above – which would be great for public transportation in Chicago, reduce emissions and gridlock, and provide another transportation option on the north side while enhancing the neighborhoods all along it.

The streetcar project referenced deals with the north side, but what about the south side? Much of the south side is essentially a “train desert” with residents forced to connect one or more times to get where north side residents can get without any connections. Why not run a tram alongside the existing Metra Electric line, which runs frequently only at rush hours and doesn’t really provide great connectivity the rest of the day? I saw such a system in Paris: I would take the Transilien regional train to my friend’s house in Versailles, but Tramway 2 ran alongside the tracks for more frequent service and interstitial destinations. The south side seems to get left out of a lot of transportation projects in Chicago (save the new Jeffrey Jump) – let’s give it some light.

We could have also built 2,160 miles of protected bike lanes, if they cost $140,000 per mile, like Gabe Klein says. We don’t even have room for that many, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Governor Quinn called Wacker Drive the “8th wonder of Chicago”… let’s make a car-free street Chicago’s 9th! We don’t need more flashy road projects that don’t really do anything for drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, or transit passengers alike. We need more “grand” projects that can change neighborhoods and the way people get around. Why not start with something like a streetcar?