Sunday, November 11, 2007

I-355 South Extension Opens: Cause For Celebration Or Mourning?

The South Extension of I-355 opens tomorrow after today's festivities. The South Extension runs about 13 miles from I-55 to I-80 in New Lenox, mostly in Will County. While much of the corridor is still rural in character, subdivisions are replacing cornfields and there is much commercial development along the corridor, including at least two developments of around two million square feet apiece. In short, the Chicago metropolitan region is sprawling some more.

From all accounts, Will County residents are generally in favor of the South Extension. A Sierra Club lawsuit stopped construction in the mid-1990s, but no environmental group filed such a challenge this time. (Timeline here.)

Should we view the South Extension as a welcome addition to the region's transportation system or is it an investment in auto transportation that is a reckless gamble when oil prices are continuing their climb to $100/barrel and beyond? Is the increase in convenience for Will County residents outweighed by the environmental costs associated with ramming an expressway through a rural area and the sprawl-type development that will inevitably result? Why did the Sierra Club (and other such groups) take a pass on challenging the South Extension this time around?

Final question: The South Extension cost about $750 million. Is the region better off with this investment or would the money have been better used on fixing the region's public transportation system?

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for I-57 to be renamed the George Ryan Memorial Freeway (so long as the legislature is renaming the others, such as the Jane Addams and Veterans Memorial Tollways).

Rick Powell said...

Since the extension was financed with tollway bonds to be paid back with proceeds from the users, it is difficult to make the argument that the money should or could have been invested in other modes without also making the argument that the tollway structure and its applicable state laws should be revised to make it a cash cow for those modes rather than the self sustaining agency it is now. As it is, ISTHA is in the best financial shape, and puts the least burden on taxpayers, of all transportation agencies in the state and region.

BTW, I toured the I-355 extension about a week ago prior to its opening today. I would describe its general character as "suburban" rather than "rural". There are several already-built housing subdivisions snugged up to the right of way, with noise barriers in place. The petrochemical plants along the Des Plaines are within plain view when the river is crossed. Only at the south end is there a lot of existing open agricultural land, and the housing tracts of New Lenox are on the frontier south of I-80 as they have been for quite some time.

Justin said...

Rick, you make a good point about toll revenues.

As it is, ISTHA is in the best financial shape, and puts the least burden on taxpayers, of all transportation agencies in the state and region.

However, this statement takes an extremely narrow view of "burden." You mean costs on paper, i.e. ISTHA doesn't draw much from the General Fund.

I'd argue the new highway is "burdening" the Chicago metropolitan area in many other ways that don't show up on its balance sheet. For example: the cars on it are spewing greenhouse gases and toxic pollution into the air; the cars on it are burdening hospitals and public safety agencies with increased accidents and fatalities; it's enabling commuters to live in Will County and impose congestion on drivers well beyond Will County's borders; the list goes on. None of these burdens are reflected in the tolls, and ISTHA might look less self-sustaining if it were forced to carry these external costs.

More importantly, continued road construction and sprawling development will keep Chicago "locked into" an ultimately unsustainable and undesirable form of development, that will be a competitive disadvantage in an urban, information-based economy.

Anonymous said...

And to be clear, this extension is being paid for by the users of the other parts of the system, not the users of the I-355 extension.

Rick Powell said...

Justin,

Good case for the externals. All projects and modes have them, and 355 is no exception.

I would offer the following as mitigating factors: 99.99% of the cars on I-355 south extension this morning were on the road and emitting the same pollutants as they were yesterday, only they are redistributed today, and may have less cumulative effect if stop-and-go driving has been reduced on balance; the real solution here has to do with the vehicle fleet rather than the roadway. I-355 could very easily be a net saver of lives due to controlled access highways being inherently safer than arterial roadways, and allowing area residents increased access to emergency treatment centers. 355 also opens up job access to the largely minority populations of the south suburbs who already live there.

And the case could be made that 355 is less sprawling than it looks on the surface, because the nearby open land is more contiguous to the already developed land in the Chicago metro area than a lot of other far-flung suburbs and exurbs. It could be considered as more "infill" than "spread" development, at least for the land near the new tollway. "Infill" is one of the characteristics that compact development strives for.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this new "closer in" accessibility will take some of the development pressure off the Prairie Parkway Corridor!

pc said...

Rick makes a good case for the present -- but we have to consider the entire lifespan of the tollway. Over its lifespan, "each extra lane-mile [of highway capacity] will increase emissions of carbon-dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years" according to the Sightline Institute in Seattle -- even assuming fantastic increases in fuel efficiency. Even though a few car crashes may be averted by pulling traffic off the arterials, the overall increase in traffic (as demand increases to fill the added capacity) and the sprawling new auto-dependent development along the tollway will result in more crashes.

Every other developed nation on earth, and even many other States (not to mention the city of Chicago), use toll road revenue and auto taxes & fees to "subsidize" other modes and other government programs. This is a sensible way to promote a balanced transportation policy, since cars externalize many of their costs whereas transit and other modes externalize many of their benefits.

Rick Powell said...

PC-

2.86c of every gallon federal gas tax (18.4c/gal) goes to FTA's Mass Transit Account as a deduction from the Highway Trust Fund. Not sure of the share of state tax, which is 20.1c gas or 22.6c diesel/gal. It may or may not be enough, but it is being done. Also, IL's state sales tax on gasoline goes into the General Revenue fund, not to highways, and some of that $ may circle back to transit-related expenses as well as a myriad of other uses.

The tollway system is a net generator of gas tax revenues, since its users generate state and federal gasoline and sales taxes but do not consume them (except at limited locations like overhead bridge reconstructions). I have heard many complaints over the years of the unfairness of this from tollway users.

Rick Powell said...

PC-

50 years from now will be 2057/2058. I would not be surprised if there are very few fossil-fuel vehicles on the road by then, and if there are, the cost to operate them will probably be a limiting factor in traffic growth (or an accelerating factor in its decline). I can see the point about additional highway capacity promoting more driving than would be there if capacity were more constrained, but the net effect on opening additional capacity is usually diversion from crowded, less efficient routes to less crowded, more efficient routes. I hear the Lemont Ave. bridge over the Des Plaines River was a lot easier drive this AM than usual, probably due to the new 355 taking some of the through traffic off of it.

UChicagoDomer said...

Rick -
What about the negative externality created by multiple-acre tracts of single-use-zoned cookie cutter boxes with aluminum siding, no sidewalks, little park space, not within walking distance of a grocer, a school, a park, a church, a bar, a cafe, etc, abutting a concrete box of a Wal-Mart adjacent to a multiple lane freeway. It would be one thing if I-355 and its car-centric ilk induced deliberative suburban development, but I am afraid it does not. From your post it sounds like the Will County region is already chalk full of tasteless cheaply-built plywood monstrosities, constructed without much thought about more measured ways to structure our communities. 21st century America - at least Chicago's version of it - really can't seem to make up its mind about whether it wishes to be urban-minded and focused on pedestrians, aesthetic beauty, and self-sufficiency, or whether it wants to continue to indulge its 50s and 60s frantic suburban escapism that promises true "escape" only until the next batch of escapees arrive converting the previous batch into the NIBMYs of tomorrow.

Rick Powell said...

UC domer:

355 is a moot point now, it's done. What isn't done is the development pattern that accompanies the surrounding area.

The 355 communities have a choice. They can either: use their new found desirability as leverage to extract massive concessions from developers in adherence to their communities' vision; take the first dollar that comes, no matter what it's attached to, or; something in between.

I understand there was an effort to do some regional planning along the route, but it had no enforcement power. Other corridor concepts that had regulatory teeth have been studied in IL, and enacted in other states. It would take some change in the political climate in IL to develop an enforceable corridor plan. Still, a loose agreement where communities agree on general density and use plans might be better than no agreement.

An amusing side note: I was watching TV at my brother's house in Jackson, MS and I saw an impressive ad for a large smart growth, walkable development with mixed-use, above-average density neighborhoods. The car-centric Deep South is the last place one would expect to see such a development promoted.

Other than gentrified Chicago neighborhoods or the famed Prairie Crossing subdivision in Grayslake, you don't see much of it in this area. "Mixed use" and "density" are still poisonous words in the burbs, although "transit friendly" seems not to be unless it invokes one of the other two. I visited Prairie Crossing once, and noticed the low density, even as I noticed the bike paths and proximity to Metra.

http://www.prairiecrossing.com/

Anonymous said...

well, im sure all the folks in will county are happy about the tollway opening -- just like the french were when they finished the maginot line....

UChicagoDomer said...

Rick -

you said:
""Mixed use" and "density" are still poisonous words in the burbs, although "transit friendly" seems not to be unless it invokes one of the other two."

why is this the case? is it that difficult of a logical leap to observe that low density sprawl w/o compensating transit yields increased traffic yields headaches for drivers, which in turn undermines the very convenience that leads one to want to settle in this region anyway? or am I missing an important point? do anti-density suburbanites see some virtue in strip malls, parking lots, and cheaply built homes that I an unable to see?

Justin said...

I take your point about land use - not being a Chicago native, I'll take your word for it! I also take your point on economic development to the south suburbs - I don't see a good rebuttal, admittedly. But I will pick out this:

99.99% of the cars on I-355 south extension this morning were on the road and emitting the same pollutants as they were yesterday, only they are redistributed today

This is true for this morning, or in a static transportation model somewhere, but it's certainly untrue for our future, which is what I'm concerned about. Read Cervero on induced demand: expanding highway capacity does not simply redistribute existing demand, it guides future demand growth through land use over time.

I agree that vehicle technology must be part of the solution to greenhouse gases - but it's only half the solution. In the last thirty years, all gains in fuel efficiency and cleanliness have been offset by absolute growth in VMT, so transportation's overall impact on the earth has been unchanged. I see little reason that this trajectory will change significantly, especially as governments continue to enable VMT growth by expanding highways.

We need auto and fuel technology to simply tread water, and we need other solutions on top of that to make real progress towards environmental sustainability.

Rick Powell said...

UC Domer-

From what I can gather in my many experiences with planning and zoning issues -

Density is seen as a potential strain on school districts (pack in more houses = more kids = higher school expenses = higher taxes). There is also the traffic generation issue, if people or the developments do not use the density to its maximum advantage.

Mixed use is seen as a nuisance next to residential, even if the initial proposed use is benign. If commercial/office is allowed in the mix, a future council might allow it to be a 24 hour convenience store, gas station, etc. There is a strong tendency to see the worst in every possible scenario when someone's quiet residential neighborhood might be "violated" with the presence of something other than a house. This fear of the unknown extends to items like multi-use trails at times.

I forgot to mention the 3rd "third rail" of suburbia/exurbia, "affordable housing", which probably needs no explanation for the fears it might cause.

It's really a matter of education and using real-life successful examples if a change in the mind-set is to be accomplished. And from what I see, it will occur, but it will be a slow process.

You mention low density sprawl w/o compensating transit. If you want an example of low density development with transit, look at the Elburn or Manhattan of today, or the Richton Park or Harvard of 40 years ago. The transit takes a share of commuters downtown, most people are still in cars, and it could be argued that transit accessibility encourages far flung development rather than mitigates it. However, the Richton Park of today has some dense development near the Metra stop. It took 30 years for the area around the station to start densifying.

UChicagoDomer said...

It's really a matter of education and using real-life successful examples if a change in the mind-set is to be accomplished. And from what I see, it will occur, but it will be a slow process.

How much education does one need? Do suburbanites like to drive to shop for basic amenities? Do they really abhor walking to church, school, and stores? Do they enjoy serving as chauffeurs for their pre-16 year old children because their children can't reach their destinations on foot/bike? You still haven't answered my basic question of why suburbanites like this sort of lifestyle. Maybe you have and I'm still missing it. Perhaps the average 56 minutes/day in one's car is just a trade off for the verdant green lawn on an acre of land.

and why is density associated with traffic? eventually all those collector roads lead to an arterial , which will be packed if the developments are spread out.

I forgot to mention the 3rd "third rail" of suburbia/exurbia, "affordable housing", which probably needs no explanation for the fears it might cause.

Even "affordable housing" isn't that compelling a fear. As you said in your last post, gentrified Chicago neighborhoods and Prairie Crossing are the only areas that incorporate "mixed use" and "density." One could also add Evanston to that mix, as well as downtown Oak Park and downtown Wheaton. Are there really reasons to fear that "affordable housing" will crop up in those areas (other than west Evanston, I suppose)? Are they any less gentrified and exclusive than Wicker Park or the South Loop? So why can't new suburbs pattern themselves on Evanston or Wheaton or on North Street in Tinley Park? Why do they continue to adhere to the same old ugly model and insist it's not ugly?

As for education, if you have half an hour to read an article, here's a great one on extreme commuters and trade-offs:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/
2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_
paumgarten

Rick Powell said...

UC Domer,

You are asking me questions I don't have answers to. I'm sure there are a lot of surveys on what attracts people to a suburban lifestyle. And the issues I mentioned keep coming up, whether they are based on real or imagined negatives. Don't blame the messenger!

FWIW, I am not a city dweller, a suburbanite, or an exurbanite, but I grew up in the south suburbs, worked in Chicago, and deal with the exurbs now. I view it all from a distance, but with experience in each; not sure whether that makes me more or less objective. Even out here, I had a neighbor who worked in downtown Chicago and another who worked in Elk Grove Village. Eventually, one moved closer to his job, and the other found something closer to home. I agree a 2 hour commute each way, whether by car, transit or a combination, is not an appealing lifestyle.

UChicagoDomer said...

Rick -

apologies if my post seemed militant. I didn't mean to "blame the messenger." I appreciate your very informed input.

Rick Powell said...

UC Domer-

No offense taken. Thanks for the link to the New Yorker article - it adds testimony to the real-life examples of my 2 neighbors who gave up their long commutes (2 hours one-way is way beyond a sprawl commute...it's a cross-country trip at that point) for a higher quality of life.

FWIW, my one way commute is 10 minutes (really). I laughed at the article when the author suggested "When a commuter says, “It’s an hour, door-to-door,” tack on twenty minutes." And I was fascinated with the commute of Judy Rossi, who has made a value judgment where the commute maybe puts some meaning in her life. Again, I can't see it, but to each their own.

At the end of the article, I am reminded that Pace has an excellent plan for qualified volunteers to organize van pools with a Pace-supplied van, and the driver basically gets a free commute out of the deal.

http://www.pacebus.com/sub/
vanpool/default.asp

Anonymous said...

The "famed Prairie Crossing" was built in the middle of nowhere, just like all the other sprawling suburban subdivisions. Prairie Crossing isn't mixed use, although it has a few boutiques around the train station. The people who live there certainly don't work or do their grocery shopping there. It is basically a wealthy suburban enclave with great landscaping.

Rick Powell said...

Here's one of the most famous "mixed use" developments in US history, and right here in our back yard.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Pullman%2C_Chicago

You could live there, work there, go to theaters and churches there, and buy all your needs from the neighborhood stores. Unfortunately, the developer was somewhat of a tyrant and the seemingly utopian town was soon resented by those who lived there.

It's a nice slice of history, and I often worked in the neighborhood during my railroad days.

Anonymous said...

80% of the money that was spent on this project couldn't have been used on public transportation. That's the way federal funding is set up. We also couldn't repair expressways with transit funding.

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Sheila said...

It won't succeed as a matter of fact, that's what I believe.