Congestion costs area motorists billions, study finds

CHICAGO To say that congestion carries a hefty price tag would seem to be a statement of the obvious. But the methodology in this study for the Metropolitan Planning Council is more detailed than past efforts. It's meant to give a truer picture of what we really lose when we're stuck in traffic. And the big number is pretty sobering.

Have you wondered, putting along in traffic, what gridlock costs you in wasted gas and lost time? The new study says it averages about $1,600 a year per driver. Bill Cantrell may not have known that number, but had already decided that driving his SUV downtown from South Elgin everyday was fiscally unwise.

"It was running me roughly about $800 a month plus parking. Which was brutal," said Cantrell. "Not to mention parking. I take Metra now, $150 a month, plus $1.25 a day for parking. That's a no-brainer for me."

Despite growing mass transit ridership, the numbers show that road and rail congestion in the Chicago region exacts a huge toll in wasted gas, wasted time and environmental degradation. In dollars lost, it's $7.3 billion.

"If we do nothing as a region, this number will grow by 55 percent by the year 2030 to almost $11.3 billion. That's twice as fast as population is expected to grow," said MarySue Barrett, Metropolitan Planning Council president.

The Metropolitan Planning Council's report is meant to define the problem, spark some debate. It does not recommend specifics on what the region should do but offers food for thought: 2,000 miles of new lanes have been built in the last 20 years and rush hour commute times have still doubled.

"We cannot build our way out of this with roadways. A, we don't have the dollars to do it. B, we don't have the space to do it," said Peter Skosey, Metropolitan Planning Council.

Five years ago, London started charging motorists who drove downtown as a means of lessoning gridlock. New York had considered congestion pricing in Manhattan, but the state of New York rejected it.

In Chicago, congestion pricing may be part of the discussion, but perhaps not the solution.

"In the situation here in Chicago, the CBD, the central business district, is not the problem. You've really got the problem in the ring around it," said Paul O'Connor, former World Business Chicago president.

Indeed, congestion is more pronounced on major arterial streets and in the suburbs where roads were not built for the volume they now have.

So, back to Bill Cantrell, who's ditched the two-hour drive commute for the train.

"I'm (downtown) in one hour. It's a beautiful thing," Cantrell said.

The thinking behind this study was to expose the depth and breadth of the congestion problem, not to make immediate recommendations on what to do about it for fear that all the debate would focus on costly remedies, and then the big picture gets lost.

The Metropolitan Planning Council says that whatever ultimately is done about congestion can't be patchwork, it's got to be a regional solution.

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