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Transit projects expected to get economy moving
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

Tollway officials are reviewing that project along with a score of others including expanding Route 53 north of Lake-Cook Road and an interchange with I-57 and the Tri-State to alleviate gridlock in areas like Gurnee.


Vincent Pierri | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/15/2010 10:24 AM

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In the Chicago suburbs, there's no shortage of ideas for new road and transit concepts that supporters envision will not only improve how people get around but drive economic growth.

And that's the key that might propel some long-stalled public works projects off the back burner in the near future.

Take the example of the Elgin-O'Hare extension and western bypass around the airport. This would push the highway from its terminus in Itasca to O'Hare then connect with the western bypass, stretching from I-90 in the north to the Tri-State in the south. The price tag is about $3.6 billion and includes options for transit along the extension corridor.

Western access and the bypass are projected to create 44,000 jobs by 2030 and add more than $10 billion to the regional economy. The positive impact is anticipated to greatly benefit airport communities such as Bensenville and Elk Grove Village. In addition, towns along the new extension route like Wood Dale expect new interchanges will generate a boom in economic development.

Backers of the extension are lobbying the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority to adopt the western extension. Tollway officials are reviewing that project along with a score of others including expanding Route 53 north of Lake-Cook Road and an interchange with I-57 and the Tri-State.

The agency will be looking for ideas that create jobs and help the economy, tollway Executive Director Kristi LaFleur said.

"One of the criteria we consider will be - what does this project do for the economy of the region and where can we promote growth without contributing to sprawl," she said.

"I do think that infrastructure and having the right infrastructure is a big benefit to businesses and spurs economic activity," she said.

Not every public works initiative will automatically succeed in igniting growth, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn pointed out.

"It's not a given," he said.

CMAP is finalizing its Go To 2040 comprehensive regional plan, that will include prioritizing transportation projects in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.

"There's a bunch of needs and a lot of good projects out there," Blankenhorn said. The ideal project will be able to generate not just construction jobs but long-term employment.

Citing the federal economic stimulus program, he noted "if the purpose was to put people to work today it was successful. If it was to build long-lasting economic value, it was less successful."

Despite the sluggish economy, towns along the tollway's recent I-355 extension south to I-80 are seeing some resultant growth, LaFleur said.

And there's spinoff from I-88 improvements such as the new Eola Road interchange. For example, Peerless Industries Inc. announced it will build an expanded operations center in Aurora near the interchange.

Another capital initiative expected to jump-start the local economy is the STAR line - a proposed commuter rail system linking about 100 communities in the North and South suburbs. It would run along the I-90 corridor from O'Hare International Airport to Hoffman Estates, then turn onto the old EJ&E tracks proceeding through towns like Naperville and Aurora, ending in Joliet. It will cost more than $1.1 billion.

Metra has estimated the new rail line could give 1.2 million people a new transit option to get to work. It should open job centers such as Navistar, Motorola, the Woodfield Shopping Center, and Fermilab among others to a new labor pool.

It's also expected commerce will spurt up along the STAR line. Schaumburg has already developed a business plan that envisions shops, restaurants and condominiums at a future stop.

The snag is finding the revenues to pay for the commuter line.

With limited dollars for construction, many hopes rest on the federal government to fund projects such as the STAR line when it passes the new surface transportation funding bill.

The Metropolitan Planning Council's Vice President Peter Skosey said priorities have fortunately evolved so that the government is starting to look favorably on projects that incorporate public transit into the picture.

"In years past, we spent a lot of dollars on highways in the 1950s and 1970s, but with mass transit there wasn't much invested at all. We weren't actually approaching it from the perspective of what projects move the economy forward."

Now, "we want projects that reduce congestion and unclog roads and trains," Skosey said.

Extending I-355 south to I-80 has generated economic development along the corridor.