An expensive and sizable project aims to solve the train congestion in the Chicago region:
CREATE takes an incremental approach to fixing rail gridlock in the suburbs and Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub.
One overpass here, two extra tracks there, and eventually freight trains will be chugging along instead of noisily idling in your neighborhood while emitting diesel fumes.
The downside is the cost — a staggering $4.4 billion to fix the region’s outdated rail infrastructure.
Despite funding challenges, 29 out of 70 CREATE projects in the region have been completed with $1 billion spent, Association of American Railroads Chief Engineer for CREATE William Thompson explained during a recent tour…
The Chicago region handles a whopping 25 percent of freight traffic in the U.S. That means almost 500 freight trains and 760 Metra and Amtrak trains pass through the region daily. Completing the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program that builds bridges and new track will mean the metro area can host 50,000 more freight trains a year by 2051.
The Chicago area is a critical railroad hub for the entire nation. Yet, given the amount of development in the region, making significant changes is difficult. For example, construction at O’Hare Airport is held up by a dispute over railroad land adjacent to the busy facility. Or, suburban residents and communities do not like it when freight traffic is increased near them even if benefits the region as a whole. Or, getting rid of the many at-grade crossings is a slow process. This is another good illustration of how foresight – addressing these issues decades ago as the region was growing at a face pace – could have cut off numerous later issues.
Also, I am intrigued by the last line from the article quoted above. I assume most of the region’s residents would assume that the amount of time and money poured into this project would eventually mean that they would encounter fewer trains. And this might be the case if more bridges, underpasses, and routes around the outskirts of the region limit the vehicular contact with trains. Yet, increasing the number of freight trains by 50,000 means more noise and possibly more traffic issues at the points in the transportation grid where trains and vehicles still come in contact. Would the majority of residents want 50,000 new trains? I would guess no even if it is essential to their day-to-day lives (delivering goods and food, etc.).
The Chicago Crime Commission recently published a report that includes information on how gang activity is changing in the Chicago suburbs:
A breakdown of traditional hierarchies, the growth of social media and the ongoing opiate crisis has led to gangs further spreading their influence — and violence — into the suburbs, according to the commission.
“No suburb is immune from gang crime,” Andrew Henning, the crime commission’s vice president and general counsel, told us. “Violence has no borders. Drugs have no borders. Jurisdictional boundaries mean nothing to a gang when there’s profit involved.”…
Of the 122 suburban police departments responding to the commission’s survey, 80 (about 65 percent) had a gang presence in their town. And there appears to be growing activity in affluent suburbs where gangs hadn’t traditionally been seen, according to the commission.
Gang activity, once considered an “urban problem,” has spread throughout numerous metropolitan regions.
This reminds me of a neighborhood meeting I witnessed years ago. One resident said he was concerned with some graffiti nearby. He then explained his response: he would keep moving further and further out from the city until these problems disappeared. Our neighborhood then had minimal issues and a move further out may not have solved his problems.
New Census data displayed in the Daily Herald shows the change in population by race and ethnicity between 2010 and 2017 in the six northeastern Illinois counties in and around Chicago:
Daily Herald graphic of 2017 Census data.
The headline points out one clear trend of the data: the absolute numbers and percentages of non-white residents continues to increase in every Chicago area county. (The one exception is a decrease in the black population in Cook County.) Many of these collar counties had few non-white residents just a few decades ago.
But, there is another possible headline here: as the minority population grows, the white population has decreased in every county except for Kane County which had a very small increase in the white population. It is not required that the white population must decrease when the minority population increases so this is notable.
As the population changes in the Chicago region, it is due to both increasing minority populations and decreasing white populations.
A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:
The STAR Line
The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.
But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.
The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”
Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.
I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:
- It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
- It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
- It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.
Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:
- A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
- Control of the EJ&E tracks.
- Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.
The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.
The pace of apartment construction is at the highest in the Chicago region since 2004:
Rental construction reached its highest level in more than a decade last year in the Chicago suburbs, and 2018 is shaping up as another busy year. More than 4,200 units were completed in 2017, and about 3,900 more units are projected for this year, according to data from Marcus & Millichap and MPF Research…
The rental resurgence is the result of several factors, including a rising disparity between suburban and downtown rents, pent-up demand after little new construction over the past decade, and declining home ownership, industry experts say…
Unlike downtown Chicago, where much of the development is clustered together, many suburban projects are miles from another new development, meaning they face minimal competition for new renters…
“Now, with condo development just about going away, you’re seeing towns and cities giving building permits to apartment projects they wouldn’t have considered a few years ago. Also, I think apartments have lost some of their stigma because now they’re so damn nice.”
Three quick thoughts:
- While this may be an increase in apartment units, this is still behind the construction of single-family homes. For example, the Chicago region had 6,000+ new housing starts for single-family homes in 2016.
- It is interesting to note where the apartments are being built: probably in desirable communities (relatively wealthy, close to jobs and amenities) and often in downtown areas (this is cited in this same article). To flip this around, apartments are not desired everywhere or by all suburban communities.
- Will the trend toward apartments in the suburbs continue to increase? This might be a correction to a lack of apartment construction in the last decade or it might represent an enduring change as suburban residents desire more rental units.
Overall, apartments in the suburbs are relatively unique compared to the overwhelming preference for owner-occupied units. Thus, the numbers regarding apartment construction in the suburbs bears watching.
A piece extolling the virtues of living in the suburbs of the Chicago region emphasizes that the suburbs provide easy access to the city of Chicago. There are 16 reasons provided for the greatness of the Chicago suburbs but only 1.5 of them actually highlight suburban institutions: Portillo’s began in Villa Park and Brookfield Zoo (1 of 2 zoos mentioned) opened in 1934. (I’m not sure what to do with the inclusion of Lake Michigan on the list: suburbanites can go to the lake in the suburbs – in three states even – or in the city.)
Since Americans prefer to live in small towns (see two recent posts on the topic here and here), a piece like this reinforces this definition of suburbs: geographic and cultural spaces where Americans can feel some qualities of small town life while still accessing the best of the big city.
We almost need a companion piece to this one titled something like: “The Reasons I Live in the Chicago Suburbs Even Though I Think Chicago Is So Great.” Are the suburbs only subordinate to the big city or do they have their own noteworthy amenities, attractions, and sights?
(Side note: if we are extolling the virtues of Chicago as suburbanites, I would add more to this list: access to two busy airports that offer reasonable prices to many destinations; great restaurants in Chicago (beyond pizza); all sorts of interesting neighborhoods whose atmospheres are difficult to duplicate in the suburbs; the roots of modern urban architecture; boating opportunities – river and lake – in an urban setting.)
(Second side note: this might serve as a great argument for increased metropolitan revenue sharing and metropolitan governance. If suburbanites love the city so much as use both its amenities and infrastructure, perhaps they should help pay for it more.)
Suburbs may not dominate lists of where travelers want to vacation yet tourism is up in the Chicago suburbs:
Growth in tax revenue attributed to tourism from 2015 to 2016.
State receipts Local tax receipts
Cook County +4.5% +6.8%
DuPage County +3.7% +6.1%
Kane County +1.9% +4.2%
Lake County +3.3% +5.6%
McHenry County +6.5% +8.9%
Will County +29.6% +16.1%
Sources: Illinois Office of Tourism, The Economic Impact of Travel on Illinois Counties 2014, a report prepared by the Research Department of the U.S. Travel Association.
It helps that every suburban region has carved out its own niche, focusing on different travelers. While they all woo convention and business travelers, Rosemont targets the international travelers who come through O’Hare International Airport; DuPage County emphasizes its forest preserves and natural spaces; Aurora focuses on attracting national youth sports tournaments; and Schaumburg eyes business travelers and mall-loving shoppers.
McHenry’s tourism — which saw the biggest gains in the latest reports — developed a niche with agritourism and fall festivities. Things like Richardson Adventure Farm’s world’s largest corn maze; giant fall festivals at local farms; and Quarry Cable Park, the newly renovated wakeboard park in Crystal Lake; are attracting more visitors to the area.
If you can get outsiders to come spend money in your community (rather than just relying on local revenues), it seems like a win for suburbs. Yet, there may also be downsides to increased suburban tourism:
- Some people move to suburbs to get away from people and crowds. Bringing in people might change the local atmosphere.
- More visitors may lead to a need to construct more infrastructure to support those visitors. This could include everything from roads to new facilities.
- As the article hints, this could turn into another venue for competition as suburbs try to draw visitors from other suburbs.
All of this highlights the changed nature of suburbs in recent decades: they are not just bedroom suburbs (and arguably never were) but rather are a diverse set of communities with a number of different attractions (from entertainment scenes to office parks to varied housing types to racial/ethnic and class diversity).