Maybe you were one of the dreamers parked in the express lane on the Dan Ryan, listening to news radio during your morning drive, hearing talk of the stimulus spending going to roads and trains, and you thought, Wow! Wider roads, new highways, more and faster trains—traffic might finally get better! Well, sorry.
The $935 million in federal stimulus money filling the coffers of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) will be directed to “shovel-ready” projects—those that can start immediately—and IDOT’s shovel-ready projects are mostly maintenance work. “A majority of projects selected from this region for the ARRA program [the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a.k.a. the stimulus package] are resurfacing projects and bridge rehabilitation projects,” says Pete Harmet, of IDOT. “These are projects that have had plans completed and did not require additional engineering or land acquisition to allow for implementation.”
Of the $693 million IDOT has designated for specific projects, the largest sum for Cook County, $21.11 million, is to reconstruct the 2.3 miles of 159th Street between the Tri-State and Halsted. The next greatest sum, $10.9 million, will go toward resurfacing the Bishop Ford east of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to 130th Street. Similarly, Will County will receive $28 million for noise barriers, and DuPage County plans to use $4.04 million for road resurfacing.
Large-scale traffic solutions have been stuck in neutral for several years, largely because the state has not passed a capital-spending bill. A recent study by the traffic-information company INRIX revealed that the average delay in the Chicago area is the third worst in the country. On average, what would be a 45-minute trip traffic-free takes 54. During the week’s peak travel hour, Thursdays between 5 and 6 p.m., that trip takes just over an hour. Big infrastructure projects that would untie major traffic snarls can take as much as ten years of planning.
“The stimulus needs to be spent quickly, and the quickest work that can be done is resurfacing and rehab projects,” says James LaBelle of the civic interest not-for-profit Metropolis 2020. No Circle Line el. No Eisenhower carpool lanes. No freeway from Evanston to O’Hare.
So as you’re sitting in the construction traffic from all this road resurfacing, still grinding your teeth, repeat to yourself that maintenance actually can ultimately reduce congestion. “When you have a road riddled with potholes, you can’t go very fast,” LaBelle says.