With billions to spend, Chicago’s infrastructure is about to get a historic overhaul
February 25, 2022
BY MARK GUARINO
Anyone who has sat nervously in traffic under a crumbling highway viaduct, waited in gridlock traffic on the Eisenhower or waited for a CTA bus that never showed up understands how much of a problem infrastructure is in Chicago.
City policymakers and their private partners want to solve all of the above. Starting this year, Illinois will receive nearly $18 billion in federal infrastructure funds, on top of the $45 billion the state already committed to repair roads, bridges, rails and more—a collective windfall for infrastructure that this area has not witnessed at any other point in its history.
“It’s massive,” says Gia Biagi, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. “Everybody recognizes this is a moment. It is a singular chance to shift fortunes and to scale everything up.”
It’s also a chance to get multiple interests to play well together and address some of the long-standing inequalities that contribute to the city’s glaring economic divide.
The physical assets that transformed Chicago into a global powerhouse are the same that pose the greatest threats to its sustainability over the next 100 years. The city and the surrounding region are home to many of the nation’s oldest highways, rail lines and water networks. Interstate 94, the first highway in this area, was ready for morning commutes starting in 1951. The Loop elevated line, which opened in 1897, is more than a half-century older. Chicago’s waterway system is older than both.
Like people, infrastructure can age gracefully if properly maintained with the right nips and tucks. But proper maintenance—”asset management” is what urban planners call it—was not part of the vernacular when ribbons of interstate highway started unfurling from coast to coast after the Second World War.
Instead, standards established in 1966 by the U.S. Department of Transportation called for the shiny new roads and bridges to be used until their useful life was no more and then just be built again.
P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois Chicago, says that mindset directly led to decades of deferred maintenance. “For too long they’d let an asset run down past its useful life and cancel it out,” he says. What early transportation experts didn’t understand is what researchers in his field discovered about 20 years ago: That maintenance every two to five years of a rail line, road, bridge or a highway “would actually pay off over the long run” and not lead to the crisis moment we are experiencing today. “The nation’s infrastructure is crumbing,” Sriraj says. “These assets have not been maintained or renovated as needed on a frequent basis.”
The failures are seen in the dismal infrastructure grade Illinois received from the American Society of Engineers in 2018, its most recent report. The state’s overall infrastructure received a C-; its bridges, dams, drinking water, ports, wastewater and rail were designated between C- and C+; and transit and roads each earned a D. The C- overall rating, the organization says, should be considered “an alarm” that the “prioritization of infrastructure has faltered, and the systems’ condition are starting to decline because of it.”
“Those responsible for the day-to-day design and maintenance of our infrastructure systems are struggling to effectively maintain the foundation of our modern society with inadequate funding in the face of increased usage, aging systems, and rapidly changing lifestyles and economies. As a result, many of our infrastructure systems are struggling to stay in adequate condition,” the authors of the report stated.
Local lawmakers not only need to restrengthen existing infrastructure inventory, but because of issues like climate change, they also must reimagine some of it. Among the existing projects are replacing about 400,000 toxic lead water lines, repairing the Lake Michigan shoreline from existing environmental damage and for protection against future erosion, providing citywide broadband access, converting Chicago’s bus fleet to electric, and extending CTA lines and other public rail systems to accommodate the migration of jobs from the city to the suburbs.
“We have more neighborhoods of concentrated poverty with no good public transportation. Even if you get that Amazon warehouse job, it’s nowhere where you live,” says John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center and nonresident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Segregation separates people from the economy if they aren’t connected.”
FUNDING SPIGOTS FLOWING
Of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed in November, Illinois’ share comes to roughly $18 billion, or 1.5%. That will go toward infrastructure rebuilding starting this year through 2026. And more than $4 billion will cover transit investments. Among other expenditures, the Illinois portion of the federal dollars will be used to:
•Mitigate the risk of recurring damage from extreme weather events, such as flooding and other natural disasters ($5.2 billion).
•Replace and support bridges ($1.3 billion).
•Improve highway safety ($533 million).
•Fund projects that incorporate natural infrastructure, like flood protection ($257 million).
•Support statewide freight highway projects ($257 million).
•Support carbon-reducing projects, such as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure ($226 million).
•Support alternative charging and fueling infrastructure ($149 million).
•Install protective devices at railroad crossings ($57 million).
The federal money will help cover the backlog of projects Gov. J.B. Pritzker earmarked with Rebuild Illinois, his own infrastructure program that set aside $45 billion over six years in 2019. The spotlight on infrastructure, and the opportunity to finally do something about it, “is very exciting and overwhelming,” says Laura Wilkison, deputy executive director of plan implementation and legislative affairs at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, which is helping to facilitate funding planning for the city. “We are at a moment in time where we’re fortunate to have funding, which has not been our M.O. in the past.”
The federal infrastructure act does not specify projects, so allocating which dollars go to which programs is a complex and competitive process and requires working tightly with federal partners, some of whom haven’t been friendly to cities that lean Democratic. That has changed, says Dan Lurie, chief of policy for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “We have for the first time in this administration a real partner in D.C. and in Congress,” he says.
Just last summer, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Chicago to tour sites that need federal dollars. “There is no better place to talk infrastructure than Chicago. Infrastructure made Chicago because Chicago made infrastructure,” he said at the time. “We have to support that with good policy.”
Kate Lowe, an associate professor of urban planning and policy at UIC, says the funding gives the region an opportunity to make big advances in green infrastructure and bicycle and pedestrian safety, all areas Chicago has been behind on compared to other cities around the world. One example is giving buses their own dedicated lane or incorporating a carpooling lane in the proposed I-290 construction project, which aims to mitigate one of the most clogged thoroughfares in the U.S. To solve congestion, “Cities can make choices. Instead of calculating a higher vehicle throughput, you can calculate a higher people throughput,” she says.
TAKING A HOLISTIC APPROACH
The Lightfoot administration is making it clear that infrastructure is not just about making repairs and building gleaming new structures. The mayor is framing the investments as opportunities to turn back the clock of historic segregation that has divvied up Chicago’s South and West sides for much of the last century. “We’ve got to think holistically about how we really make catalytic investments,” she said last summer at an event with Buttigieg. That wide lens has meant breaking down silos within City Hall and having multiple departments work in sync to spark economic rejuvenation in areas that have been dormant.
The project that serves as the best model for how the city views infrastructure is the 5.3-mile extension of the CTA Red Line south from 95th Street to 130th Street. When completed, the project will bring four new stations to the areas of the Far South Side that have long been isolated from the city’s transit system.
CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. characterizes the estimated $2.3 billion project not just to connect riders to the rest of the city, but also to enhance neighborhoods along the route. For this reason, he views public transit “as the heartbeat of the city.”
The CTA investments, which also include rebuilding the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations on the North Side, are conduits “that will ultimately transform” neglected communities. “What we’re trying to do is put all the pieces together.”
Another prominent project stitching together different elements is the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project. Located in a pocket of the Southwest Side that is dangerously congested by four industrial freight rail lines, Metra, Amtrak and the Dan Ryan Expressway, the project aims to untangle major bottlenecks, public safety hazards and environmental risks by reconfiguring tracks, constructing a pedestrian flyover and installing various crossovers, signals, road crossings and streetscapes. The project is a behemoth, requiring the coordination of a staggering number of private and public agencies and multiple levels of governments that, in the past, might not have been possible to manage. Transportation Commissioner Biagi says the project represents “a unique partnership that doesn’t exist in any other market in the country.”
To Alyssa Fisher, the city’s deputy director of intergovernmental affairs for federal affairs, the scope of the project has demanded “more silo busting” of policymakers. “We’re seeing opportunities which are forcing us in real positive ways to work collaboratively across the region to make sure there are gains holistically across communities,” she says. To see the project to completion, the city and state will pursue competitive rail grants under the infrastructure bill.
Much like other needs in the city, the federal money will be used to fill in gaps for projects throughout the area not fully covered by Chicago Works, Lightfoot’s five-year, $3.7 billion initiative to prioritize infrastructure needs, such as annually repaving 75 miles of arterial streets—double the amount in a typical year— and 500 side streets.
Under Chicago Works, the city also plans to repair underpasses, viaducts and bridges; replace 300 blocks of streetlight infrastructure; modernize traffic signals; repair sidewalks; install wheelchair ramps at intersections; and fulfill 24 streetscape projects, which will involve planting 12,000 new trees.
Funding the first two years, 2021 and 2022, is $1.4 billion in general obligation bonds. The federal money is also accelerating large-scale projects, like the Englewood Line Trail, a proposed 1.7-mile elevated walking path along an abandoned rail line that could evolve into a network of trails—the ultimate goal of community partners, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Park District. “We could do a bunch of one-offs, but if we are going to get to scale and connect communities, we’ll need to think regionwide. This funding is an important step in that direction,” says Lurie.
STILL NOT ENOUGH
The certainty of money directed toward infrastructure in the Chicago area will keep workers busy for coming years, but most policy consultants say it’s still not enough.
CMAP, for example, estimates that the federal revenue pouring in remains insufficient to cover long-term priorities. Wilkison of CMAP says better legislation is needed at the federal level for sustained infrastructure support over the next 30-plus years. The federal motor-fuel tax, which supports road infrastructure, has not increased since 1993, she says. “Even with (the Biden infrastructure bill), we’re still underfunded. It’s a cycle we’ll continue to be in.”
Sriraj at UIC agrees that funding “has to be led by the feds.”
“It’s not enough,” he says of the $18 billion Illinois is receiving, especially due to its role as the central freight hub of the entire country. “The impact of Illinois on the nation’s economy cannot be overstated.”
Controversial private-public partnerships generated under the Daley and Emanuel administrations would sour the public on similar funding fixes. Sriraj says that Illinois can change funding legislation to support the CTA through the payroll tax instead of forcing it to run itself primarily through ridership revenue, a risky measure especially when the pandemic has forced ridership to decline.
The pandemic, however, is also giving agencies like the CTA an opportunity to experiment with alternative models, which might serve riders more efficiently. One example: A new fleet of electric buses to replace the old. “You’re not going to make up for decades of disinvestment in one bill,” but it “will absolutely make a dent,” Carter says.
No matter what the ridership levels may be in future years, “the need for people to move around in a large urban environment is never going to go away; the question of how and where it works is what the future will be about,” he added. “It ultimately becomes about the quality of living in the city of Chicago and what we’re willing to pay to achieve that.”