No More Highways: Illinois Route 53 Extension is Wasteful

February 4, 2013 at 6:02 pm

It takes a little perspective to actually understand how much we waste on needless highway infrastructure, whether it’s a $4,700,000,000, 52-mile highway bypass in Birmingham or a $118,000,000, 11-mile bypass near my hometown (if Google is to be trusted, it saves drivers a whopping 2 minutes to bypass the town’s 10,000 residents; if my observations are to be trusted, the bypass sees about 1 car every few minutes). Remember, that’s in a state whose governor rejected building a currently non-existent high-speed rail link between the state’s two largest cities on the grounds that taxpayers would have to pay something like $8 million per year to subsidize it. I could spend days researching the most expensive transportation boondoggles in the country, but its really just depressing considering we can’t even maintain what we already have, and other people are already doing it. We have enough – we’ve gone way past the point of diminishing returns because these new roads are making driving more attractive (in theory), therefore making traffic worse, and ensuring that we have to pay more for them in the future when they stop being all shiny and smooth.

So why exactly is the Illinois Tollway trying to extend IL route 53 12.5 miles north into Lake County? The proposed extension (map below) would take the existing freeway portion, which runs from Lake Cook Road at the Lake/Cook County border south to Schaumburg at Interstate 290, and extend it north through Lake County to route 120 in Grayslake.

Credit: Chicago Tribune.

To the Tollway’s credit, the plan does call for the road to be paid for through user fees, specifically congestion charging, something around 20 cents. However, this wouldn’t pay for the $2,500,000,000 price tag (yes, that’s $200,000,000 per mile, or about $3,500 per resident of Lake County, but who’s really counting, right?).

While it’s easy for ISTHA and CMAP to feel good about a project because they’re coming up with ways to lessen the burden on the general taxpayer (but not really, which I’ll get to), the truth is that we should apply more user fees to roads that already exist, not use it as justification for new ones.

There have been several assertions made by supporters of the extension, one which purports that it will reduce traffic congestion at the bottleneck where the northern part of the freeway dumps all drivers onto Lake Cook Road. It is true that the freeway generates more traffic onto roads that can’t handle it – but that’s not an argument for more roads, its an argument for two things:

  1. Perhaps the freeway should have never been built at all, eliminating the traffic spillover caused by higher induced demand;
  2. But since this already happened, it means they should just toll the freeway that already exists so that the capacity where route 53 ends matches the capacity of Lake Cook Road

Except that nobody wants to pay for it:

This is where the opposition lies. Bill Morris, a resident of Grayslake and a former member of the Illinois Tollway Authority Board, said having a suggested 20 cent toll wouldn’t be fair.

“The working class who live in Lake County would have to pay more just to get to work everyday,” Morris said. “I can’t imagine families able to pay $5 a day on tolls. It’s not right.”

This is actually a sentiment that can be applied to the nation as a whole, who are generally against tolls or raising existing tolls since its unfair to pay for what you use the children. Currently, tolling would only raise between $45 and $60 million per year,  not nearly enough to pay for the project. Other proposed funding sources include raising the sales tax, which shifts the burden of the roadway onto all users, even though those that won’t use it, or raising the gas tax in Lake County by $0.04. I believe the gas tax should be raised, but not to pay for new projects; rather, it should be raised to maintain what exists.

It’s also already established that adding lanes to any road (including increases from 0 lanes) will end up just creating even more traffic, and in this case it would certainly just create more spillover onto ill-equipped roads further north in Lake County, and we then soon have another extension to propose. It would also enable more negative externalities like suburban sprawl and raise CO2 emissions.

Another argument for the extension is that it will help Lake County’s economy. Again, not so. Just paragraphs apart, the Build53Yes website claims that not building the extension will cause businesses to bypass Lake County. Then it makes the case that traveling from Round Lake (in Lake County) to Schaumburg (in Cook County) is currently a “harrowing journey.” If you want people to stay in the local economy, why are you trying to make it easier to move them to other counties?

Another fact is that businesses are just not staying in the suburbs. It was fun for a while, but the real talent is now moving (back) to cities, and major corporations (like Motorola, whose move to the Loop this past summer from Libertyville was cited as a reason to build the extension now) are realizing or have already realized this.

Credit: Chicago Tribune. Obtained from Smart Growth America.

The website that pushed voters to approve the extension also cites “dramatic” population growth over the last 50 years. Remember: the population almost everywhere has increased over the last 50 years, and its not all that different for Lake County over the last 30:

Finally, what is potentially the most head-scratching argument of them all is that the extension will somehow be environmentally sustainable. Co-chairman George Ranney of the Route 53/120 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council said:

It’s the most environmentally responsible infrastructure project of its nature in the state…

Emphasis mine; he saved himself with “of its nature,” but projects that put more cars on the road should never be considered “environmentally responsible.” The most environmentally responsible thing to do is not build it.

The extension would run through wetlands, and somehow the project’s backers think that’s okay as long as the speed limit is reduced to 45 MPH, it adopts a “parkway” design, and it has a bus lane. ISHTA’s council’s resolution has stated that the project must also be friendly to pedestrians, provide connections for bicyclists, and accommodate transit options. It does nothing to suggest what types of transit would run or to where.

It’s somewhat possible to build a highway “sustainably,” as long as nobody uses it. The reality is that, despite all the very best intentions of the highway lobby to relieve congestion, strengthen the local economy, and have a net-zero impact on the natural environment all in the same project, it won’t happen. The extension will only carry people further away from increasingly centralizing employment centers, move congestion from one place to another, and worsen the quality of the natural environment. I appreciate that the project proposes to charge users based on their distance traveled, but the truth is that we don’t need any more roadways (and the toll would have hardly made a dent in the project cost). Drivers need to pay more of the cost of actually maintaining the roads we have and providing proven, cost-effective transportation systems like Metra with proper funding and the capital necessary to expand, specifically to create reliable, 21st century transportation that takes people where they need to go without the negative externalities of roadways.

Furthermore, as I already stated, the extension might not even need to be built if the existing freeway portion of IL-53 were congestion priced to reduce traffic ending at Lake Cook Road. Perhaps a starting point should be tolling the road that already exists. My hunch is that at least some of those traveling from the County line will switch to other modes, i.e. Metra, to get to Chicago if the toll were raised to meet the price of a Metra ticket.

Map showing extension of route 53 in comparison to Metra lines

Part of the extension, shown in red, is already close to Metra lines (albeit one that could use increased service, the NCS line to Antioch). Credit: Google Maps.

The extension has been up in the air for some months now, and I hope it remains that way. $2.5 billion dollars is a lot of money to spend on a part of the Chicago region that is incapable of long-term sustainability. Investments should be refocused on dense population centers as well as transportation that effectively serves more people. Metra, currently underfunded and raising fares, could use the type of investment that would increase reliability and frequency while lowering fares that would make it competitive with driving a private vehicle. The list goes on.

Put simply, it’s time to end the highway construction and extension era.

Update: Please see these two newer posts which contain more information about the (ever-increasing) cost of the planned extension:

Breaking: IL-53 extension will be expensive (Oct 25, 2013)

IL-53 expansion to cost even more than anticipated (Dec 5, 2013)