Funding plan for $2.6 billion IL-53 highway extension project pleases no one

September 18, 2014 at 11:37 pm

The US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) released a report today outlining several new highway projects throughout the US that are most likely no longer needed due to a change in the number of miles Americans are driving. With that number falling and plateauing, it seems we just don’t need new road capacity in the form of massive highways any longer.

One of these projects, double-decking Interstate 94 in Milwaukee, WI, is included in the report and was part of a report released by Wisconsin’s PIRG last week, which I covered at Streetsblog USA.

Smaller but expensive projects like a bypass in my hometown, Burlington, WI, were constructed and remain underused, falling far below original traffic expectations. Photo: Casey Jacobsen.

With VMT continuing to fall it makes little sense to expand highway capacity by laying down new roads or expanding existing ones. In the case of IL-53, which I’ve covered here, here, here, and here, is an expensive highway expansion that we probably don’t need, nobody wants to pay for, and will likely be underused.

The current portion of IL-53 as a highway ends at the Lake County, Illinois border. The entirely untolled highway portion is essentially built to interstate standards – high speed limits, medians, shoulders, and large on-/off-ramps. The extension of the road through Lake County and up to Interstate 94 will be a slower-speed (45 mph/70 km/h) “boulevard,” and will also be tolled at a rate much higher than any other toll road in the state.

The $2,600,000,000.00 project will likely be paid for by various methods. From the Lake County News-Sun:

What the components share in common is that everyone will hate at least one of the ideas. And lots of people will hate the entire idea, starting with spending $2.6 billion on a road that only begets bad funding ideas.

If shared pain is a compromise, then this one is a beauty. Every driver on every road across Lake County will pay more, perhaps forever, for Route 53.

New tolls will be added at several places along I-94 where no tolls exist now (on-/off-ramps to the roads serving Six Flags and Gurnee Mills mall, for example), and an increase in the county’s gas tax by 4c/gal.

What I still cannot understand is that, after months of back-and-forth debates about how to pay for the new road, there was no proposal to toll the existing road. Would tolling the existing road push the cost of driving high enough that some people decide trips could be combined, carpooled, shifted to transit, or just not made at all? Would tolling the road now impact future development decisions in Lake county that might influence some to live closer to the places they need to go, avoiding the frequent need to drive dozens of miles across counties?

There are political reasons why the existing IL-53 highway cannot be tolled, but if the extension is really necessary – or, rather, the need to reduce the amount of traffic congestion is necessary – they would find a way to make it work.

The presumption is that Route 53 travelers would pay, too. Will they? How much? Seems a pertinent detail to have glossed over.

The originally-proposed toll, $0.20 per mile, would cover somewhere around 15% of the project’s cost. And yet that amount still seems too high for drivers.

It’s 2014 and we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that highways are expensive. If the road is really needed, the people using it will need to pay something closer to what it costs to build and maintain. While it wasn’t cited in the USPIRG report, the 53 extension is a boondoggle and should not be built.