24.7.10

POUND YOUR FIST AGAINST THE DASHBOARD. Years ago, the Chicago and North Western sponsored Chicago radio traffic reports with messages extolling the convenience and comfort of their Commuter Streamliners. In those days, the service (perhaps with a bit of creative accounting) turned a profit. Today, Metra operates bilevel successors to the Commuter Streamliners with tax support. Suburban commuters are more favorably disposed to so spending their taxes.

Most suburbanites support investing more in mass transit than roads, sharing the long-held stance of a large majority of city residents, the poll found. Suburban residents also said they are driving less and taking more advantage of expanded suburban train and bus service in communities where the automobile has been king.

Drivers who said they would back spending more on mass transit cited the growing stress associated with congestion; high gasoline prices; and, to a lesser degree, the environmental and financial benefits of riding transit instead of inhaling belching emissions from cars.

Growing stress? Those North Western commercials stressed the stress forty years ago. I suppose forty years of residential and population growth with only incremental expansion of the expressways would augment the stress.

The opinions represented in the poll mark a reversal from the prevailing attitude dating to the 1970s in the suburbs. Back then, residents and their elected officials complained that there wasn't enough transit service to justify the amount of taxes collected outside Chicago to subsidize mass transit. They opposed seeing any of their tax dollars going to the Chicago Transit Authority.

But worsening traffic congestion — the Chicago area is one of the three most-gridlocked regions of the U.S. — may have a lot to do with the shift in public opinion.

Drivers using the Eisenhower Expressway (Interstate Highway 290) since the spring have suffered through some of the longest travel times in memory when some lanes were closed for a resurfacing project. It got so bad that even some of the most die-hard motorists parked their cars and rode the train, boosting Metra ridership on several rail lines.

Traffic congestion is worse than it was five years ago, according to 45 percent of suburban residents in the Tribune/WGN poll, conducted July 8-14, and a slightly smaller percentage of Chicagoans who were polled. Only 13 percent of city and suburban residents — men and women equally — said the stress caused by traffic congestion is not as high as it seemed a few years ago.

The article notes substitution effects from rising parking charges downtown —bid-rent curves just won't go away — and from rising fuel prices. It also quotes a Metra passenger who would like to see some circumferential rail lines to supplement the radial lines, something that would help Joliet residents with jobs in Naperville, or Great Lakes recruits headed to Elgin or Aurora on liberty. It also notes that Illinois's pay-for-play culture hurts the reputation of the three transit authorities.

On the other hand, that construction-induced congestion is simply repairing damage to the existing lanes or perhaps converting shoulders into an additional lane. There is probably no combination of tolls and excise taxes that can cover the full cost of additional expressways, even if the politicians can find room for them.

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