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Planners put $7.3 billion price tag - and climbing - on congestion
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/5/2008 12:05 AM

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Think congestion's bad in the region?

You have no idea.

A new report issued today by the Metropolitan Planning Council puts the problem in terms of wasted dollars, air pollution and extra jobs that could be added to the metropolitan area if it didn't take us so long to get around.

Researchers conclude that $7.3 billion is lost sitting in traffic. And if the trend continues, the figure could grow to $11.3 billion in 2030.

Moreover, the study estimates that 87,000 jobs could be added to the economy if gridlock were eliminated.

Planners are hoping the numbers convince state, city and municipal leaders to make significant changes to improve public transit and the network of highways and roads in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.

"We're not unique in terms of dealing with congestion," planning council Vice President of External Relations Peter Skosey said. "Where we can gain the advantage is if we resolve the problem first."

The report entitled "Moving at the Speed of Congestion," was prepared by HDR Decision Economics for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit, civic and business organization that focuses on planning and development issues.

So how does congestion end up costing so much?

Planners estimate that every time trucks or cars sit idling on clogged streets, it's costing consumers and employers in diesel and gas. But more than fuel, long commutes make it harder for employers to recruit workers and stymie job growth. Traffic is also detrimental for businesses from pizzerias to plumbers to delivery companies that make their money from dispatching services and goods.

For example, UPS has had to hire more drivers and add delivery runs to handle growing congestion, the report notes.

"If you have an employee who spends 22 minutes getting to a meeting, you're paying for those 22 minutes," Skosey said.

"Moving at the Speed of Congestion" also examines commuting patterns. Researchers found that most of the cars coming into Chicago during the workweek come from outside the city.

Overall, Cook County is the biggest magnet for workers. For example, 41.5 percent of DuPage residents work in Cook. In Will, that figure is 40 percent compared to 35 percent in Lake, 31.6 percent in McHenry and 27 percent in Kane.

While highways and tollways often get the most attention on traffic reports, planners found that 73 percent of the region's lost time happens on arterial roads, such as LaGrange Road, Roosevelt Road and Green Bay Road.

But fixing gridlock requires a unique approach, Skosey said. "Anything that moves traffic (from highways) to arterials is not going to work in this region," he noted.

Along with mega-traffic, congestion creates an estimated $33 million a year in environmental problems such as smog, respiratory illnesses and crop damage, the report states.

While detailed in outlining the challenges posed by traffic, the planning council study doesn't dwell on fixes.

The solutions, such as improving public transit and moving jobs around the region, are out there, Skosey said, but it will take regional leadership to remedy the situation.

"The main objective is to better understand the magnitude of the problem and where it's occurring," Skosey said. "The region that solves congestion problems first will have the competitive advantage."

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