Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tale of Two Cities

There were two transportation-related developments receiving media coverage today that illustrate the relative fortunes of different players in the regional transportation system.

First, Indiana and Illinois have agreed to collaborate on the so-called Illiana Expressway, which will run from roughly I-94 near Michigan City to I-57 in Illinois. This expressway is intended to divert truck traffic off of the Borman Expressway and around the core of the Chicago urban area. In doing so, there may be congestion relief benefits not just in Indiana, but also throughout the RTA's six-county region. The expressway is also intended to jump start economic development in Northwestern Indiana and Chicago's south suburbs, both areas that could use the boost.

Indiana, under Governor Mitch Daniels' leadership, is clearly taking the lead in the effort. Indiana is developing a design-build-operate model. Under this model one or more private parties will take all or some of the operational and financial risk of building and operating the expressway and be repaid through tolls. As shown by Daniels' successful effort to lease the Indiana Toll Road, it is evident that Daniels now wears the "make no small plans" mantle in the region.

Illinois, by contrast, appears flat-footed. IDOT's public statements about the Illiana are notable for their lack of enthusiasm about the project. IDOT seems unwilling to consider alternative ways to finance and run the expressway. It seems IDOT has its feet firmly planted in the 1950s model of how to finance, build and operate roads. It is a sad day when Indiana outpaces Illinois in creativity and foresight when it comes to transporation issues.

There also is a gap in the natural course of the expressway, between I-57 and I-80. The Illinois Tollway seems the natural candidate to do this stretch, by extending the I-355 South Extension through to I-57. Presumably, the Tollway could do the whole Illinois portion of the project, but more likely IDOT will dither while land acquisition and construction costs go through the roof. Who knows how this will play out.

In any event, there is a real chance of a major new expressway in the region, one that could have congestion relief and other benefits. Those benefits will come at the price of increasing the centrifugal forces of sprawl.

In sharp contrast is recent news at the CTA. Mechanical breakdowns on its rail lines cause major delays. Another article reports that the CTA Board rejected management's recommendation and tabled a contract that would push forward with the scaled-back Airport Express. The Board also expressed frustration over untimely notice of an essential contract proposal, leading to some unseemly finger-pointing.

What a tale of two cities. Momentum builds for a major new transit artery in the "edge city" region. In the central city, the CTA rail system appears to be falling apart and management competence is being questioned by the CTA's own board. Momentum behind a major new transportation initiative for the central city--the so-called Airport Express--appears to be weakening.

Maybe this news is a coincidence or maybe it is a further indication that the RTA's dream of better funding the status quo under the guise of building a "world class" transit system is based on a very dated vision of the dynamics of this region.

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