Monday, October 1, 2007

Elgin X-Way/O'Hare Bypass--"Very Theoretical"

It looks like the $140 million earmark the region got in the currrent federal transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU) for the construction of (a) an extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway to one or both of those destinations and (b) a western bypass road behind O'Hare Airport connecting the Northwest Tollway and the Tri-State Tollway will be used to fund plenty of studies and plans over the next decade. Just what we need.

The three major papers in the Chicago area all had stories today (here, here, and here) that IDOT is going to do a very thorough study that will take until at least 2010 to put together a "priority list" of highway and transit improvements in this land beyond O'Hare. "Then, for three years, they will look at how to finance the top projects and identify the general areas to locate them." After that, if the financing comes through, "the officials will start the long process of further engineering, alternative studies, environmental impact analysis and land acquisition."

Clearly this is not a project on a fast track and the question is why not. After all, the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway and O'Hare Bypass projects already have been the subject of years if not decades of studies and debate. One would think that our transportation officials would have a pretty good idea by now about what to do. And why have they not viewed the $140 million earmark from the current federal transportation bill as a clear federal direction that the State and region should get cracking on these transportation improvements, which are expected to deliver major economic and transportation benefits to the region and thus the nation. (See 2006 West O’Hare Corridor Economic Development Study here.)

The State already has spent $5.4 million of this $140 million earmark. Rather than spending more years and substantially more dollars putting together a "priority list," then more years and more money looking for financing, and then still more years and more money doing alternatives analysis and the like, maybe the State should be looking for ways to compress the process and do these tasks as simultaneously as is legally possible. Why not shoot for a big slug of federal transportation dollars in the next federal transportation bill for serious engineering and construction work rather than wait on two more six-year federal transportation bill cycles to get construction going full bore as seems likely given IDOT's current plan?

Business Leaders for Transportation proposed last year that the Expressway and the Bypass be constructed in a much more timely fashion using a public-private partnership. (Report here.) Certainly there are fully public options as well (e.g., public operating authority financing construction by charging tolls).

Senator Don Harmon's bill (SB 378) to give IDOT and the Toll Authority the power to enter into public-private partnerships is stalled in the General Assembly. Given IDOT's go-slow approach to the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway and the O'Hare Bypass, such power likely would be wasted on that agency anyway.

$140 million is a lot of federal money. Is it a worthwhile investment of those valuable transportation dollars to pursue a plan that makes it just a "very theoretical" possibility, according to Pete Harmet, an IDOT area programming bureau chief, that construction will even begin by 2016? After all, the earmark is for "Construction of O'Hare Bypass/Elgin O'Hare Extension" and presumably not for a decade's worth of expensive priority lists and preliminary plans.

As IDOT knows all too well from its Dan Ryan project, construction costs in recent years have risen significantly faster than the rate of inflation. Waiting to do these projects are not going to make them any easier or cheaper.


Rick Powell said...

In today's People's Republic of China, or the highway-building environment of the U.S. in the late 1950's, it would be very easy to do as you suggest.

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.

Anonymous said...

Again proves that SAFETEA-LU is just a consultant's relief act. Highways are apparently no different than transit.

Rick Powell said...

anon 7:21:

Actually SAFETEA-LU provides some streamlining of the environmental review process. But it doesn't eliminate the requirement to dot all the i's and cross all the t's. This is a litigous society, especially for controversial transportation projects. The "go slow and involve the community" methodology of today seeks to spend more time up front of projects, to reduce problems at the back end. As you suggest, this leads to more intense engineering, environmental and community involvement (and usually more consultants as agencies are not staffed at 1970's levels these days) - but this is the legal and community environment we operate in in 2007. The SAFETEA-LU bill has little to do with it.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I'm sorry that you're not Bob Moses. That day is over, and the rest of us are pretty glad for it; after all, why should "we" spend money bulldozing entire towns when our existing roads and rails are literally crumbling to dust?

Rick Powell said...



I was trying to explain to the OP why "Bob Moses" methodology doesn't work today. Transportation planners and designers work in the environment of the day, whether it be "Katie Bar the Door" or "Context Sensitive Design." If you are a consultant, you are likely getting paid much more these days than you would have in Moses' era for a similar project, even with inflation factored in - so the "industry" doesn't necessarily want to go back to the old days.