Talking Transit: Minding the gap on infrastructure - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking Transit: Minding the gap on infrastructure

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Chicago's Lake Shore Drive.

Published monthly, MPC’s Talking Transit provides updates about transit-related activities around the world.

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2014 is an important year for the future of the Chicago region’s infrastructure. MAP-21, the U.S. federal transportation funding bill, is expiring. The 2009 Illinois state capital bill is reaching the end of its life. And the metropolitan area’s roads, bridges and transit networks continue to fall into further disrepair.

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is working with local, state and federal policy leaders to advance new approaches for financing and investing in metropolitan Chicago’s transportation system. Over the next three months, Talking Transit will explore these issues, beginning here with a discussion of the need to improve the metropolitan area’s infrastructure and continuing with a detailed look at current funding sources and a review of MPC’s policy priorities for 2014.

Did you know?

The State of Illinois has more than 7,000 miles of roads that need repair, and about a third of the City of Chicago’s rail network operates along “slow zones,” according to the Transportation for Illinois Coalition. These infrastructure deficits are the result of years of underfunding for some of the state’s most important assets. Yet transportation accelerates the region’s economy; every dollar invested in public transit generates four dollars in economic returns. 50 percent of all rail freight in the country traverses Chicago, while traffic congestion costs our region at least $7.3 billion annually and 87,000 jobs not created. We must begin to address these issues now, or face a declining economy and an impaired mobility system.

Illinois’ big infrastructure gap

The fact is that much of our state’s urban transportation systems were completed decades ago and are now in need of major repairs. The Eisenhower Expressway running through Chicago, for example, was completed in the 1950s and has yet to be completely renovated; the Blue Line El train that runs in its median is similarly old. The State of Illinois plans a modernization of the facility, but those improvements will take years and billions of dollars.

Similarly, the northern section of Lake Shore Drive is at the end of its useful life and due for a complete upgrade. With tens of thousands of people in buses on the Drive every day, MPC believes that any redesign should move everyone—not just drivers—faster, but there is no current funding for renovations or multimodal improvements. Without these essential transportation arteries functioning at their full capacity, the regional economy will suffer.

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition’s analysis documents very significant infrastructure needs and huge funding gaps across Illinois and in all transportation modes. For state-owned highways and bridges, the report notes that between $31.8 and $42.5 billion is needed to fund capital improvement projects over the next five years; $20.8 billion is needed for local roads; and $16.5 billion is needed for the public transportation system in the Chicago region.

These dollar figures play out in specifics in terms of the on-the-ground functioning of the transportation system. A 2013 report by Transportation for America showed that Illinois has more than 2,300 bridges that qualify as structurally deficient; those bridges carry an average of more than 8,000,000 vehicles each day. At the same time, the most recent data from the Chicago Transit Authority show that more than 10 percent of system track is speed-limited due to failing infrastructure; about half of those sections are limited to a painful—and economically unproductive—15 mph or less.

For comparison, five-year capital plans currently show that only about $5 billion for statewide roads, $2.8 billion for local roads and $3.5 billion for Chicago regional transit are available. All in all, an additional $12 to $15 billion per year is needed to pay for the capital upgrades our transportation system desperately needs.

The CREATE project, designed to improve speeds and connections among the railroads in the Chicago region, has been a success thus far in making rail freight—an engine of local commerce—more viable. But about $2 billion in unidentified new funding is required to complete the program in order to realize the full benefits.

Illinois is not alone in suffering from aging, dysfunctional infrastructure. The American Society for Civil Engineers’ most recent assessment of national conditions suggests that the nation needs to invest some $3.6 trillion in all sorts of improvements. Though this national report card suggested the nation’s intercity rail lines were in decent condition (a C+ grade), the country’s roads and transit systems both have practically failing grades (D grades for both), suggesting major need for reinvestment and improvement.

Unfortunately, as we will describe in the next Talking Transit, we currently do not have the resources to fill this funding gap. The consequences will inevitably mean declining quality of service on roads and transit, slower travel speeds and less capacity.


  1. 1. David May from La Grange on February 22, 2014

    Extend the sales tax to retail sevices purchases. Require the recipients of the new revenues -State, counties and municipalities- to first use the proceeds to fund their pension plans. Require RTA to use its portion for capital programs.

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