If you have traveled through metropolitan Chicago by car, truck, train, or plan, you know how difficult it is to negotiate. Being situated near the base of Lake Michigan makes it a natural choke point for travel and distribution. As a result, congestion on the expressways, railways, and runways is a near constant problem, unless you don’t mind passing through in the middle of the night. And… unfortunately, we don’t have Reverend Mother from The Sound of Music to help us solve this problem.
What amazes this author is regardless of the delays and costs associated with them, few paradigm-shifting alternatives have been attempted. Add in the ever-rising charges along the tollways and tollroads in the area, and the cost(s) operate continue to increase. Meanwhile, massive distribution and fulfillment centers continue to rise, particularly along and near the Interstate 80 (I-80) corridor. Railroads keep trying to untangle their spaghettiesque mess, and O’Hare International Airport is a special nightmare unto itself, particularly in winter. So, what can be done…if anything?
Here are a couple of ideas, some of which may sound ludacris, but given the number of migraines that emirate from the Windy City, perhaps they are not so far-fetched.
To this planner, the absolute worst highway bottleneck on a consistent basis occurs along the southern periphery of Chicago – the I-80/90/294 corridor from east of Gary (near Portage), Indiana past Joliet. Known locally as the Borman Expressway in Indiana and the Tri-State Tollway in Illinois, there’s rarely a time when this stretch is not choked with traffic, much of it cross-country truck traffic. In September 2020, the 24-hour traffic counts showed more than 214,000 vehicles per day using the highway near Kennedy Avenue in Indiana, up from 189,000 in 2015 and 177,000 in 2012. Counts greater than 200,000 vehicles per day are commonplace along the Borman Expressway. Numbers for the Tri-State are only slightly lower – in the 180,000 to 185,000 vehicles per day range. However, the inclusion of toll booths can and does create extra congestion, particularly when factoring in those not familiar with the system.
Unlike the western segment of the Tri-State Tollway, expressway alternatives do not exist unless you wish to drive through downtown Chicago, which can be a nightmare unto itself. From time-to-time ideas have been suggested of a new bypass expressway arcing further south (see above). While this has some merit for linking I-65 to I-94 near Michigan City or possibly linking I-65 to I-80 or I-355 near Joliet, it is questionable if this would solve the problem of heavy east-west thru-traffic along I-80 because it requires truckers and drivers to travel substantially out of their way. Suggested alternative solutions include:
- Construct a truck-only priority corridor that adjoins or closely parallels I-80, between Portage, IN and New Lenox, IL. This would be similar to the truck-only freeway proposed between Atlanta and Macon, Georgia to alleviate congestion along I-75 there. The rationale for no tolls is that as they increase over time, tolls tend to divert interstate truck traffic onto nearby state and federal highways. An example of this occurs along the Indiana Toll Road (I-80/90), where the rates have gotten to the point where many trucks don’t bother using the toll road and take either US 20 or US 6 instead. This traffic puts added pressure and congestion onto highways that were not designed for such a heavy burden. It also hurts the toll road as it loses revenue. If the goal is to move goods more efficiently, then there needs to be a carrot to draw the traffic off of the currently congested expressways and onto truck-only/priority routes.
- Add/designate truck only lanes along the I-355 Tollway. This should be done to entice thru-truck traffic away from the highly congested western portions of Tri-State Tollway (I-294). More available space along this corridor would allow for a less costly redesign of I-355 incorporating truck-only lanes in either direction.
- Remove the toll road segment along I-80/294 between the Indiana line and where I-80 splits off from the Tri-State Tollway east of Joliet. Any benefits attained by this small segment of toll road is not worth hassles and congestion it creates.
- Completely rebuild or replace I-80 through Joliet. If you have driven though here, you known this segment is extremely outdated. Even if the truck-only expressway is not built, this must be done.
Back in 2013, this blog author suggested that bypass container ports should be established between Wisconsin and Michigan as a way of avoiding the lengthy delays and bottlenecks taking place in Chicago. Such a link between Milwaukee and Muskegon or Grand Haven would be particularly competitive. Given the unresolved delays noted above and the comments below, it would seem that this is a doable and viable solution even eight (8) years later.
O’Hare and Midway are constantly clogged with flights and its only becomes worse when bad weather, particularly snow or ice occur. Here are several suggestions to address these problem:
- Add heating coils beneath runways. Runways are amazing pricey to build, upgrade, or extend, so when you are spending the money anyhow, add heating coils to melt snow and ice. Over time, the cost savings from reduced plowing, delays, cancelled flights, and airport closures should be substantial.
- Redirect air freight. Little or no air freight should be coming through O’Hare and Midway as they take up too many precious landing/take-off slots, unless air freight flights are strictly limited to overnight (post 10 pm/pre 6:00 am). Instead, Chicago/Rockford International Airport, Gary/Chicago International Airport, South Bend International Airport, and/or Kenosha Regional Airport could be established as the air freight hubs serving greater Chicago, much in the same way that DuPage Airport is utilized as a primary business and/or charter hub. Chicago/Rockford is already an important regional hub for UPS, so, it would not be that much of a stretch to establish more air freight operations there to serve the western portions of the metro area, while Kenosha with upgrades could serve the north, and either Gary or South Bend the east. Gary is currently served by UPS for air freight, while South Bent is served by FedEx, FedEx Feeder, and UPS. If necessary, Greater Kankakee Airport could be upgraded to serve the southern parts of the metro area. Both Gary and South Bend have the advantage of being connected to the South Shore Line commuter railway.
- en.wikipedia.org for each airport