Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Elgin X-Way/O'Hare Bypass--Update

Joe Ryan has an article in today's Daily Herald that outlines the long and tangled history behind the non-completion of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway and the O'Hare Bypass.

The gist of the story is that almost 20 years ago the communities nearest O'Hare, especially Bensenville and Elk Grove, fought off these projects as part of their effort to halt the expansion of O'Hare Airport, perhaps the most important economic asset of this State. At that, IDOT threw up its arms and focused on more important things, such as building airports in places where no one wants to fly (MidAmerica Airport) and not building airports at all (Peotone Airport).

As Ryan recounts:

For the last 17 years, state officials have done nothing to plan for that extension or the connecting western bypass, which would head south from I-90 along the western edge of the airport, creating a ring road with the Elgin-O'Hare.

IDOT apparently hopes to lull the recalcitrant local communities into acceptance of major transportation improvements serving the O'Hare area with years of hearings and public meetings:

Instead of moving right into designing the new routes -- which have been on the books since the 1970s -- state officials have decided to spend the next three years talking to local leaders and coming up with a variety of projects to address traffic issues. The final list could range from new transit to small expressways or large privately-owned toll roads.

In 2011, state planners will then start working on how to pay for the projects and precisely where they would be placed. That means actual construction might not start until 2016 or later, nearly 30 years after the original battles over the Elgin-O'Hare extension.

It will be all but impossible to placate the community holdouts, which are nothing if not vociferous in their efforts to save the State from thousands of new jobs and a shot at nurturing a global city within its boundaries. According to Ryan, the O'Hare expansion project will be done by 2016. It makes good engineering sense to get the associated road and transit improvements in place--or at least well underway--by that point. After all, why move dirt twice and draw out the adverse construction impacts over many years rather than just a few?

"Rick Powell," who commented on yesterday's post, argues that IDOT's seemingly glacial pace is in fact required by law:

These days, however, it is very difficult to wind through the maze of NEPA regulations and state-mandated "Context Sensitive" processes that are designed to consider all reasonable alternatives, to examine every possible environmental impact, and to involve the community extensively in the process. Can you think of any communities that might have issues with this potential project? You may not like it, but this is the legal and political environment for large scale transportation projects today.

It may be that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of "paralysis by analysis" but if so, it will probably take awhile for it to swing back the other way. Meantime, "public private partnerships" do not yet have the legal standing in IL to do a slash-and-burn design/build highway project with eminent domain powers, and even if they did, they would likely be subject to the same procedural issues as the public agencies must operate with.

Is this assessment accurate? Can it be that the federal government accepts that its $140 million earmark will be used to fund years of studies and public meetings and not a single transportation improvement in the area?


Rick Powell said...

1. EOE is not the only transportation project in the Chicago area to wind a slow, grueling course. O'Hare Expansion, the IL 53 north extension, South Suburban airport, evven the nearly-completed I-355 south extension, have all seen their study delays, legal challenges, funding issues, etc. Again, you may not like it, but it's the way of the world-at least this part of it.

My reference to the People's Republic of China in another post was not flippant - they are building 1,000 miles of freeway every year. They also do not operate under the NEPA process, the Davis-Bacon Act, "Context Sensitive Design", or other principles which are long-standing and emerging processes followed in the U.S. If the people of the U.S. want authorities with "czar-like" powers to perform massive transportation projects in a slash-and-burn fashion where transportation needs highly trump environmental and community concerns, they will let their elected representatives know. I don't see the trend going that way.

2. There is something to be said for transportation money following the path of least resistance. Downstate projects like the Mid-America Airport you mentioned, and the 4-laning of U.S. 67 and IL 336 in Western IL, have met little opposition, and have conversely gained political support and funding in those areas. You can usually count on any major project in the Chicago area to be highly controversial, and these concerns must be addressed in today's operating environment (not that everyone will be 100% happy all the time).

3. I highly doubt the entire $140 million earmark (which requires an additional 20% state match, BTW) will be spent on engineering studies, even at today's prices. There should be a very healthy remainder left over to move utilities, buy property, and maybe even do some initial construction.

Anonymous said...

You believe that an earmark constitutes the (collective) publics' best interest---with out a studied evaluation? If the feds (congress) earmarked a nuclear launch pad for the region we should just do it? Also, because it is earmarked it is better than other potentially more needy investments without an earmark/chinaman? Do you know that earmarks still have to meet all the federal planning and environmental requirements and thus are just a political gimmick to be deployed on the bumpkins back home? Do you believe earmarks are consistent with some of your postings on local governance, reform and decision making? What happened to you? Ah sunlight.

Anonymous said...

So, with a mind toward transit advocacy, should I be disgusted that the EOE got the earmark, or thrilled that it may take forever to get built?

Anonymous said...

How do "we"... the region know that EOE should be our priority given the huge funding constraints that we face? How do we know it and when will we know it? Big screen TV or shoes for the kids? Well, for the big screen, we have a coupon!

Amy Mayer said...

This is all a bunch of craziness. I don't know if it's just because Chicago is so corrupt or what, but I cannot understand why an O'hare expansion is even on the table.

Any of the other suggestions are better: Force the airlines to send passenger planes rather than just cargo to Rockford; build Peotone or a Kankakee Airport; build high-speed rail roads to transport people between cities or to other airports such as Gary and Midway; quit with the over booking; or any other number of ideas.

New York city needs three airports to operate. Chicago is expanding too. How long can we really put off building another airport?

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