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Monday, February 26, 2007

They would be creamed

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

If all goes according to plan, the bulldozers will arrive sometime after midnight to start knocking down thousands of Chicago homes to clear a path for the Crosstown Expressway.

That's an exaggeration, of course: The destruction of entire neighborhoods, with their homes, businesses, schools, churches and parks, won't be as easy as Mayor Richard M. Daley's midnight obliteration of Meigs Field.

Still, the revival of the Crosstown Expressway project--running from the Edens-Kennedy Expressways junction, along Cicero Avenue to Midway Airport then cutting east to the Dan Ryan Expressway along 75th Street--was sprung on the tens of thousands of people who would be creamed by the expressway with all the surprise of a midnight raid. House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) was the first to drop the bomb and Daley joined in, saying that the failure to build the expressway 30 years ago was a huge mistake--a proposition needing some proof.

Daley, with his usual aplomb, tried to soften the bombshell, saying it was only an idea and that the Crosstown would only be a two-lane, truck-only freeway. But Chicagoans with any memory will recall that the truck-only idea was considered 30 years ago, and junked. Not just because an accident would create a nightmarish truck jam, but also because it wouldn't be much less expensive or destructive than the full Monty.

And, so it is with all the other cockamamie permutations of the expressway that Daley's father and special interests dreamed up to overcome the strong grass-roots opposition. Someone suggested running the road below grade. Someone else seriously proposed double-decking it, with one level going north and the other south. All options were rejected as politically unfeasible, impossibly expensive and destructive.

Those same overwhelming problems of dislocation, cost and ineffectiveness remain with a project that would cut such a big swath through Northwest, West and South Side neighborhoods.

Take the old debate over where to run the south leg. Aside from causing significant destruction, the idea of dumping Crosstown traffic onto the Ryan at 75th was problematic: Besides creating a traffic bottleneck there, it was too far south to serve as an effective bypass that would connect with the Chicago Skyway. Then it was suggested, with a straight face, to run the leg south instead of east, connecting to Interstate Highway 57, following an even more destructive path that would completely nullify any claims that it is a bypass highway.

Then there's the cost, low-balled at about $1 billion, which today doesn't come close. Few new expressways are slashed through the hearts of cities anymore for good reason; the costs fly beyond anything reasonable or conceivable. Even if it were built as a toll road, how high would other tolls in the region have to be raised to cover the financing?

If not from tolls, then how to finance a mega-billion-dollar project? The Dan Ryan reconstruction, even without its outrageous cost overruns, has gobbled up a good hunk of Illinois' share of federal highway funds for years to come. Would the suburbs and Downstate tolerate another Chicago money grab?

And this: Before a cent in federal aid can be ladled out, the law requires convincing evidence that the highway is cost-effective. In other words, does the value of the highway's benefits outweigh the highway's actual cost, including the dollar value of environmental, social and economic destruction? I don't see how it can be honestly done.

Just about the only thing good to come out of the Crosstown fiasco was the law that now requires federal compensation of anyone, anywhere in the nation, who is uprooted by such a huge federally funded project. Still, as a practical matter, the law falls short of providing true dollar-for-dollar compensation for the loss of habitat or livelihood.

As if Daley doesn't have enough concrete to pour to keep him and his contracting buddies content for the rest of his lifetime reign. Maybe the city should buy up a bunch of vacant lots that he can pave over just to keep him and his pals happy. It certainly would be a better use of the money.

Thirty years ago, when a stake was driven through the heart of this bad idea, everyone thought it was so dead that, to this day, the Crosstown doesn't show up on the region's long-range transportation plans. But that won't stop the city's business and other elites from rushing forward to support this bad idea. If anything, the miraculous resurrection of the Crosstown proves that when it comes to government, no bad idea is truly dead.


Jake said...

good article, the crosstown would be a horrible idea. but what about a new El line instead? it would be expensive, but probably no more than the circle line. and unlike the circle line, it would bring service to a huge part of the city that has been neglected, and provide a link between the airports and between the blue, green, pink, orange, and red lines.

what i don't know about is how bad the displacement of people would be. seems like it needn't be too bad - two lines of elevated track is a tiny fraction of what would be needed for 8 lines of highway plus shoulders, exits, &c. do you have an info on this?

Dennis Byrne said...

An L line makes more sense, although it still would have to line up behind billions of dollars of capital improvements necessary just to make the existing system work the way it should. The L line has been talked about for decades, and with the city's interest in it rekindled a couple of years ago, it may have developed more concrete design and cost information. Common sense, of course, says that it would take less land than an expressway. I think that your point about the need for a midtown L line being greater than the downtown circle line is a good one. Maybe with the renewed interest, cost-benefit comparisons will be worked up. Thanks for the thoughts.

Jake said...

my understanding is that some funding sources can only be used in new construction. while getting adequate funding from springfield for existing infrastructure should be top priority, it shouldn't distract us from planning an ambitious expansion that might someday allow us to break our addiction to cars. especially when plans are already underway to pursue that funding but using it for a much less useful project, the circle line.