IL-53 expansion to cost even more than anticipated

December 5, 2013 at 11:32 pm

A new cost estimate for the 25-mile IL-53 extension will cost almost $500,000,000 more than expected (in 2020 dollars), reports the Sun-Times.

Existing IL-53 freeway portion. Image: Interstate-Guide.

The extension’s tolls, at $0.20 per mile (or $0.14 higher than the IL Tollway average), would cover less than 17% of the cost of its construction. In order to address the massive shortfall several ideas were thrown around, including raising tolls elsewhere on the system, adding new toll plazas, raising the gas tax, or raising the Lake county sales tax (the same ideas that were tossed around last time I wrote about this).

At least other Chicago transportation system users pay more to finance the operation of their journeys – On Metra, 55% of expenses were covered by fare revenue; CTA, 56%; Amtrak to Milwaukee, 59%; even the Chicago to St. Louis Amtrak service covered about 33% of its cost with ticket sales (source). It’s worth pointing out that road projects pay far less for themselves than people like to think.

Critics of the tolls on IL-53 like to point out that because the toll would be so high, it ought to be lowered to bring it in line with the IL Tollway average ($0.06/mile), which would bring the “recovery ratio” for this roadway closer to 5%.

Not all transportation investments are the same; some infrastructure should be built even if user fees cannot cover half the cost. But a roadway that can barely muster to pay for a fifth of its cost with fees that people deem “too high” is a roadway whose plans ought to be shelved. A better idea is to toll the existing IL-53 freeway portion, possibly abating existing car traffic, which in turn may eliminate the need for a new highway. I argued that the same thing needed to be done in Wisconsin before they decided to go spend a few billion on freeway expansions.

Perhaps this is just reality rearing its head after decades of highway building and expansion: Transportation is expensive. The ability to drive a heavy, private vehicle on roadways designed to sustain much wear and tear is an expensive proposition and has been subsidized far too long, with highly detrimental effects that we’re still discovering. It makes more sense to spend limited funds on transportation infrastructure that can serve large amounts of people without high market entry costs (i.e. a car), in areas that are already developed, and in ways that are sustainable in the longer term. This means turning the way we think about transportation funding in the U.S. on its head: Heavily funding public transportation improvements and expansions that make it more reliable, convenient, speedy, comfortable, connected, and usable. We will still have automobiles, but we cannot afford to continue to expand (then maintain) new automobile infrastructure. It is more prudent to enhance what we already have and intensify development around existing transportation links than to continue to build new highways, especially those that don’t make financial sense.