Don’t add lanes to I-55 without more public discussion

Adding more toll lanes would likely make traffic and pollution worse. Transportation planners should be focusing on clean air, reviving public transit and finding other low-cost alternatives to driving.

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The Stevenson Expressway in 2015, when traffic was backed up by construction on the Jane Byrne interchange.

The Stevenson Expressway in 2015, when traffic was backed up by construction on the Jane Byrne interchange.

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In the closing days of the Illinois General Assembly, some lawmakers are supporting a dubious idea: adding managed toll lanes to a section of Interstate 55 between the Dan Ryan Expy. and I-355.

What transportation planners really should be doing is focusing on clean air, reviving public transit — in line for big post-pandemic funding cuts — and finding other low-cost alternatives to driving. Transportation is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Illinois, and it also releases particulate matter and other pollutants. Expanding interstates is not going to fix that.

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The Illinois House dusted off a years-old pre-pandemic idea and on Thursday passed a resolution to get the ball rolling on the I-55 expansion through a public-private partnership. The resolution calls for adding express toll lanes in each direction to increase road capacity and provide revenue. But the full details have not been made public, critics say.

This is no way to build a highway. Normally, planners would come up with a thorough, updated proposal and present it to the public for comment at numerous hearings. Lawmakers would debate it in depth. But when the House approved the resolution on Thursday, a lot of people were taken by surprise.

A statement from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization said, in part, “We struggle to find anyone in impacted communities ... who was contacted and meaningfully involved in public comments.”

I-55 does suffer from traffic congestion, especially where the road shrinks from three lanes to two. Intermodal facilities on the Southwest Side have added to the truck traffic. But urban planners have long known that adding lanes to deal with congestion also puts more vehicles on a particular road — which in this case would increase vehicle emissions on the Southwest Side. And where is the discussion of adding infrastructure for electric vehicles?

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The most successful route to reducing congestion is to provide people with alternatives, including safe, reliable and frequent public transit. Any move for public-private financing demands a lot of discussion to make sure it benefits the taxpayers.

An idea with such a big impact on Chicago should be done carefully, not jammed through at the last minute.

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