Chicago's transportation infrastructure weakening

Commuters on West Wacker Drive near West Lake Street in Chicago. (José M. Osorio/ Tribune)

Wacker Drive near Lake Street in downtown Chicago offers a panorama of an incredible transportation metropolis that huge numbers of people rely upon every day, yet often take for granted.

Cars, buses, trucks, taxis, bicyclists and pedestrians use both levels of Wacker to crisscross the downtown. Water taxis and other boats do the same by plying the Chicago River under a series of elegant drawbridges that accommodate vehicle and foot traffic.

CTA trains cross the Lake Street elevated rail bridge over the river, and trains circle the Loop tracks before fanning out across the city and into neighboring suburbs. Where the river bends south, Metra commuter and Amtrak long-distance trains can be seen crossing Clinton Street as they enter and leave downtown train terminals.

Above it all, airliners serving two uniquely different Chicago airports paint contrails over the Windy City skyline. Just out of view to the west are some of the busiest expressways in the U.S. and miles of railroad tracks used by more than 500 freight trains a day operating through the city.

The mayors of many big cities, and presumably the candidates vying to become Chicago's next mayor, would crave the opportunity to preside over the rich variety of transportation assets found in Chicago. But on closer inspection, they would be worried that so much of the aging infrastructure here — from roads and bridges to the CTA — is deteriorating rapidly. The public funding available isn't nearly enough to maintain a state of good repair, let alone expand the transportation system to improve traffic flow, make Chicago more attractive to businesses and nurture an intangible that defines a great city: livability, transportation experts say.

Even O'Hare International Airport, which has been operating amidst a massive runway reconstruction project for the last five five years, is running out of money to complete the expansion. City officials and their airline counterparts have fundamentally different views about how and when to proceed and how much money each side should contribute. A cemetery in the middle of a new runway the city is trying to build seems to symbolize the state of deadlock.


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The transportation agenda that the next mayor of Chicago will set in motion must at least provide a feasible blueprint for resuscitating the modernization of O'Hare and the rest of the existing transportation system, transportation experts and business leaders said.

On a broader scale, improving the city's transportation network will provide a means to help spur economic development, employment growth and, in turn, improvements in Chicago public schools, the experts, civic leaders and community activists agree.

But improving the transportation system is a lot to tackle. It was clearly one of Mayor Richard Daley's biggest challenges.

"Every dimension of the picture suggests that Richie Daley isn't leaving the mayor's job because everything is going great,'' said Joseph Schofer, a transportation professor at Northwestern University. "He has some tremendously difficult problems to deal with and not any easy answers.''

Yet there is ample guidance available and relatively simple fixes the next mayor should make a priority and get done quickly, many experts said. Expanding synchronization of the city's 2,700 traffic signals and building more left-turn lanes at bottlenecked intersections would help ease congestion, said experts who include advocates for improving pedestrian and bicycling safety.

Neighborhood retail districts where the same cars are parked outside stores all day are a sure sign that parking rates in those areas are underpriced and the precious curb lanes could be better used to benefit merchants, drivers, CTA buses and residents, these experts suggest.

There is also strong public demand for expanding the city's network of bike lanes and its bicycle-sharing program to broaden transportation options, and for making all city sidewalks accessible to disabled people. A coalition of eight environmental and transportation groups is urging mayoral candidates to make sustainable transportation a top priority to reduce automobile dependency.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning also recently issued its "Go to 2040" regional plan to help guide the city and all seven counties in northeastern Illinois through the 21st century.

Beyond these opportunities for low-cost innovation, Chicago's next mayor will inherit a Chicago Transit Authority that will need $7 billion to replace antiquated equipment and facilities, experts said. The immediate threat to transit riders, however, is that the CTA is shrinking. In the wake of service cutbacks in 2010, the transit agency will likely face another budget crunch in 2011.

Increased funding at the local, state and federal levels, including perhaps a hike in the gasoline tax, and shifting some highway funding to mass transit would help ease transit problems, some transportation experts said. These are not moves the next mayor could unilaterally impose, but the mayor's influence should not be underestimated, they said.

"There is a $17 billion backlog to bring the CTA, Metra and Pace up to a state of good repair. Every year, we are adding $300 million to that backlog under the current funding levels,'' said Steve Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority.

One opportunity for the next mayor exists in leading the charge to reorganize or replace the current RTA system, some transit professionals say. The RTA is responsible for providing financial oversight to the CTA, Metra and Pace, as well as fostering better coordination between the transit agencies.

But the current system is far from seamless from the standpoint of commuters who complain that CTA and Pace buses routinely pull away from rail stations minutes before Metra trains loaded with connecting passengers arrive. The RTA's efforts to establish a universal fare card system, in which commuters could use a single type of fare media on all three transit systems, have yet to lead to even a pilot project.

"It makes a lot of sense and it's long overdue for the transit agencies here to work better together,'' said Peter Skosey, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council for the Chicago region. "Mayor Daley could have made more headway on that front to improve coordination and cooperation.''

Meanwhile, commuters can bank on more cars and trucks entering the traffic mix each year. Dozens of miles of city arterial streets were resurfaced within the last two years using federal stimulus funds, but they represent a fraction of the major thoroughfares that will be bursting with potholes by the time the next mayor takes office.

The expansion of O'Hare, a $15 billion project that was supposed to be among the top achievements of Mayor Daley, is only halfway completed and grinding toward a possible halt.

While airports from Seattle-Tacoma International to Dulles International outside Washington have each recently added one new runway to solve their flight capacity constraints — an option also given to Daley for consideration in 2001 — the mayor instead chose a complicated redesign of the entire O'Hare airfield.

O'Hare expansion was originally supposed to be completed in 2012, and now Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino confirms a 2014 deadline will not be met either. Only one new runway, a so-called delay-reduction runway, has opened.

"I would advise the next mayor to be real cautious about pushing aggressively on O'Hare expansion,'' Schofer said. "I'm not sure the benefits are there to offset the cost. Even though the city has sunk a lot of money in the project, it really makes sense to rethink it and ask if there are better ways to make this airport, as well as this entire city, work.''

jhilkevitch@tribune.com