CHICAGO – The Chicago region could unsnarl its traffic mess and generate $2 billion in economic activity by 2040 by undertaking 11 major road construction projects with a $52 billion price tag paid for with new toll and user fees, according to a report from a libertarian think tank.

The California-based Reason Foundation unveiled its proposal in Chicago Thursday. The group’s answer to the Chicago area’s transportation needs is focused on adding 2,400 new lanes of expressways without raising taxes.

Expressways make up just 18 % of the Chicago region’s road network while handling over 53% of the vehicle miles traveled, and between 1982 and 2010 travel demand increased 126 % on expressways as the number of lane miles increased by just 57 %, according to foundation vice president Adrian Moore.

“The people who use these roads and tunnels will pay the costs to build and maintain them — as it should be,” said the report’s author, Samuel Staley, who is also a managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University. “By using variably priced tolls, Chicago can guarantee both free-flowing traffic conditions and a sustainable revenue stream that ensures the long-term health of the road network.”

The group said many of the projects might prove suitable candidates for financing under Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new Chicago Infrastructure Trust. The trust is aimed at tapping private financing for public projects that have a revenue stream that can be leveraged.

The group’s plan calls for construction of a $12 billion regional high-occupancy toll lane network of 275 miles and 1,100 lanes on various existing tollways. The toll rates in the special new lanes would vary based on traffic conditions.

The group also floated a $7.1 billion, 11-mile crosstown tunnel and a $5.8 billion, nine-mile elevated Midway Airport extension that would connect to the Chicago Skyway toll bridge. The group also proposed a $5 billion, 76-mile outer beltway expressway through Cook, DuPage and Will counties, with three toll lanes in each direction.

The plan also calls for a 40-mile, $2.6 billion extension of an existing interstate to provide another highway between Chicago and northwest Indiana and spending $11 billion on new tunnels paralleling existing expressways. The group also is promoting a new bus rapid transit network to take advantage of new toll lanes.

Officials from Chicago and the Regional Transportation Authority of Illinois did not respond to requests for comment. The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority said it is still reviewing the report.

The local organization, the Metropolitan Planning Council, believes the plan is too narrowly centered on new roadway construction to address the area’s transportation needs.

“We can’t, as this study suggests, build our way out of congestion. It doesn’t take long before new roadway capacity is simply filled up with more cars, adding to problems like traffic congestion, sprawl and the jobs-matching mismatch,” said Peter Skosey, a vice president at the council.

Skosey participated in a panel discussion along with the RTA board’s chairman, John Gates, on the foundation’s report.

“We agree with the report that pricing is a smart strategy for allocating resources, but we can and should use other strategies to help manage transportation demand,” Skosey said.

The full study is available at http://reason.org/studies/show/chicago-mobility-reduce-congestion http://reason.org/files/chicago_transportation_plan.pdf.

Gov. Pat Quinn recently signed legislation providing $1.6 billion in new borrowing for statewide transportation projects.

The RTA, which oversees the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra commuter rail and Pace suburban bus service, has a five-year capital program that totals $3.9 billion, but it has warned that $24 billion of work is needed over the next decade.

The tollway authority is beginning work on a new $12 billion, partially bond financed 15-year capital program for maintenance and expansion projects that is being paid for with a steep increase in tolls.

Subscribe Now

Independent and authoritative analysis and perspective for the bond buying industry.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.