Infra bill is more car-centric than expected, but will benefit Chicagoland


Last Friday, the passage of the $ 1.2 trillion Law on investment in infrastructure and employment in Congress provided a much needed victory for President Joe Biden. However, advocates of sustainable transport have pointed out that much of the legislation extends the car-centric status quo through allocate tens of billions of dollars for the conduct of projects, including nearly 110 billion dollars for highways. Still, there are a few benefits of the walking, cycling, transit, and intercity train bill in terms of new funding and better policies. Streetsblog Chicago spoke with local transportation advocates and experts to get their thoughts on the impact of the agreement on active transportation in Chicagoland, for better or for worse.

Active transportation alliance

“The infrastructure bill provides a historic opportunity to improve and expand transit in the Chicago area,” said ATA spokesperson Kyle Whitehead. “Long-promised projects such as the Red line extension and a priority street network for buses should be developed with strong community engagement and transparency. “

However, Whitehead argued that overall, the bill does not go far enough in setting the transportation funding and policy allocations needed to make real progress on climate and equity challenges. our region. “It maintains the inequitable 80/20 distribution of expenses related to highways and public transport. There are very few strings attached to road spending and could be spent on projects that would take us in the wrong direction. It will be essential to keep our elected officials, [the Illinois and Chicago transportation departments] accountable for their climate and equity commitments by spending these funds. “

Whitehead added that it will be crucial for Congress to pass the Rebuild Better Act set of initiatives on climate change and social services, which includes $ 40 billion of targeted investments to advance racial and environmental justice in transportation. “Items include $ 10 billion to support public transit access to affordable housing, $ 4 billion to reduce transportation emissions and $ 1 billion to reconnect communities isolated by road projects. “

He praised the new Accessibility program for all stations, which is spending $ 1.75 billion on upgrading historic transit stations like CTA’s ‘L’ stops to make them wheelchair accessible, as well as digital upgrades, such as creation of new guidance applications and services for people with cognitive problems. “Thanks for [Illinois U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth], who defended this program with the support of [the local disability advocacy group] Living Access and advocates for the rights of people with disabilities and public transport across the country.

Regarding walking and cycling, Whitehead noted that the bill also includes a 60 percent increase for the Alternative transportation program, which has funded numerous walking and biking projects in the Chicago area. “This could be used to advance a community informed vision for an urban network of protected cycle paths in Chicago and safe and connected trail networks that extend to the suburbs.

Metropolitan Town Planning Council

MPC Director of Transportation Audrey Wennink provided the following list of notable aspects of the bill (its language, edited slightly for clarity.)

  • Given that Chicago is the nation’s second-largest transit system, the infusion of transit funds is exciting. However, the Chicago area needs to have an integrated regional vision on how to build the transit system of the future and not just focus on the health of our existing systems, as has always been the case. with the way the Regional Transportation Authority has allocated funds. Additionally, the bill fails to address the challenges of the looming transit operations funding crisis that looms once COVID relief funding runs out.
  • Highway Safety Program ($ 11 billion), which is desperately needed to reverse the trend of steadily increasing deaths and injuries on our roads, especially among pedestrians. However, all road spending should be directed towards improving safety, and not just the funds for this program.
  • A small sum ($ 1 billion nationally) to reconnect communities affected by the construction of highways, which has unfortunately been sharply reduced by $ 24 billion.
  • Investments in the national Amtrak network will be of great benefit to Chicago, one of the largest Amtrak centers in the country. Amtrak has released its vision plan in the spring, which highlights a number of desired route extensions, increased frequencies and increased speeds for the Midwest.

“The reality is that our world is changing rapidly,” Wennink added. “We need to be open to new ways of solving our extremely complex infrastructure needs. We have to use methods like Value planning develop more sustainable, affordable, community-driven and user-friendly infrastructure solutions. We don’t just have to rebuild the transport infrastructure of the last century when we now have to mitigate climate change, adapt to the impacts of climate change that are already happening, like heavy rains and extreme heat, reduce the damage created by our old infrastructure such as highways crossing communities and 40,000 deaths per year on our road network and tailor solutions based on communities.

Additionally, Wennink said that as new federal funds are pumped into the transportation system, it will now be up to states and communities to prioritize how the funding is spent. “This is where the action takes place. It will be more important than ever for us to have the right methods for deciding how we spend transportation dollars to achieve the outcomes people want and need, such as providing multimodal access to destinations, improving safety and improve equity. And whenever we undertake a maintenance, reconstruction, or capacity project, we have to ask ourselves how we can rebuild in a sustainable way that improves communities – we have to be much more forward-thinking than just repaving and rebuilding all of them. routes in the same format. that we have now.

Wennink concluded: “We will need the federal government to play a much larger role in holding states accountable for prioritizing maintenance in the first place, focusing on safety outcomes, providing solutions multimodal fairness and by not extending the kilometers of motorway lanes that will not solve congestion and will contribute to the increase of anti-climate driving. “

PS Sriraj, Director of the UIC Urban Transport Center

Sriraj argued that although the infrastructure bill has been significantly reduced from the original version, it still offers significant opportunities to improve transportation in Chicago and Illinois. “The country’s infrastructure is rated C according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Given this below-average state of infrastructure, any investment to improve existing infrastructure is welcome.

He noted that the bill includes $ 149 million for expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Illinois. “In addition to these dollars allocated by the federal government, there will also be competitive opportunities for investments in bridges, electric vehicle charging stations and other investments. “

Joseph Schwieterman, Director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development

“There will likely be an uphill struggle between those who advocate that the funds be used to upgrade existing transit routes, many of which are oriented downtown, and those who are calling for funds for ‘fresh start’ projects. “Less downtown focused,” Schwieterman predicted. “We need to fund both types of investments, but tradeoffs are important as working models evolve in response to the pandemic. “

He argued that the extension of the red line and the Phase II of the purple modernization program are “slam dunks” for significant funding. “Metra executives are undoubtedly relieved that the railway’s deferred maintenance issues are at least partially resolved. “

“Chicago is uniquely positioned to benefit from an injection of funds into Amtrak,” Schwieterman added. “Considering how serious things were for Amtrak only a year and a half ago, the turn of events is remarkable.”

One downside, he said, is that “Chicago doesn’t have a large-scale ‘out-of-the-box’ project designed to weave our somewhat rambling bus and rail systems together. The connections between the CTA and Metra trains remain delicate. This could prove to be a significant missed opportunity for our region.

Check out the Biden administration’s fact sheet for the infrastructure deal here.

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