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Why Your Commute Stinks

Randy Blankenhorn, the executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency, breaks down why travel times have increased so much in the city.

Photo: Bob Stefko

It’s not your imagination: Your trip to work really has gotten worse. That’s according to a new study from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which has called on the state to create a $300 million infrastructure fund. The agency’s executive director, Randy Blankenhorn, explains.

Just how bad is congestion in this city?

In 1982, the average Chicagoan spent 18 hours a year in traffic. Now it’s 71 [according to CMAP’s study]. That’s 5 percent more congestion every year for the past 30 years.

How did it get so bad?

Chicago’s metro area nearly doubled its population over a 50-year period but didn’t build any more commuting capacity. Also, our commuting patterns are different now: Our business centers are not just downtown anymore. And people drive more [than they did decades ago].

What’s the biggest transportation challenge the city faces?

Whether it’s transit, highways, bridges, freight, or sewer, much of our infrastructure is 50, 60, even 100 years old. Infrastructure here takes a bigger beating than it does in the South because we have this freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw thing. But the main reason is we haven’t had the political guts to get improvements done. The public understands the need, but I think it’s unwilling to raise taxes.

Yet your group is advocating a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax in the six-county area. Why would the legislature bite now?

It’s a realization that the federal government is not going to solve our problems. In the old days, when we needed to rebuild the Kennedy Expressway, we went to Congress and we got $600 million. Those days are gone, and they’re not coming back. [The $300 million a year the tax could raise] won’t solve all of our problems, but it’s big enough to make some headway in modernizing our transit system.

Where would you like to see this money go?

The Elgin-O’Hare Expressway still has a $200 million gap in funding. We’re not going to give all that to any one project, but part of the $300 million could help get this thing to the finish line.

Governor-elect Rauner emphasized infrastructure in his campaign, though he was light on specifics. Have you bounced your plan off him?

We have not talked to him personally. We’ve talked to some of his transition people. I don’t think he’s jumping on any proposal yet.

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