76 yrs later, county reboots transportation plan

1940. Think about how much our world has changed since then.

Global population, alone, has more than tripled. So, naturally, the modes of transportation needed to move all these new humans also have changed. Which makes it all the more surprising to learn that the nation’s second most populous county — Cook County IL (pop. 5.2 mil.), which includes the City of Chicago — had not updated its own long-range transportation plan since the summer of 1940. That’s 76 years.

Well, this summer, that document has finally been brought into the 21st Century. Entitled Connecting Cook County: 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, it foresees a much better connected region. Not surprisingly, it emphasizes public transit, bicycling and walking, and even aims to help people in job-deprived communities to travel more easily to employment-rich areas.

Rather than present an extravagant new wish list of big projects, the new 25-year plan focuses first on the modest but necessary goal of repairing and upgrading existing infrastructure. But its tilt toward non-auto alternatives, coupled with an aggressive advocacy agenda, still promises to shake up transportation planning in Chicago, throughout the cash-strapped State of Illinois, and perhaps even across the U.S.

“[It goes] against the centrifugal force that puts investments further out… and stands for improved alternatives to auto”

— Frank Beal, transportation planning expert

The new plan goes “against the centrifugal force that puts investments further and further out, and it stands for improved alternatives to auto,” says transportation planning expert Frank Beal, a senior executive with the nonprofit Civic Consulting Alliance, and an adviser to Cook County on the plan. Beal also sits on the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which in its own current regional plan espouses the philosophy that the county is now putting its weight behind.

Connecting Cook County represents a “call to action,” says Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who launched the effort 18 months ago. Since then, she has been proactively paving the way for change, last year ending the County’s practice of diverting its share of local motor fuel tax funds into other uses. Starting in 2017, that will mean an additional $45 million per year for county transportation work. She also changed the name of the Cook County Highway Dept. to the Dept. of Transportation and Highways, reflective of its expanded mandate. “For too long, Cook County sat back while others made decisions affecting our residents and businesses,” writes Preckwinkle in the plan’s introduction.

One outlet for the county’s new assertiveness will be greater influence with the 15-member Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which consists of representatives of Cook County, the City of Chicago, and the region’s five other counties. Thanks to its size, Cook County holds five of the RTA board seats. The plan calls for better coordinating these board members to press for its policy agenda. “The county voice has been non-existent at the RTA; I expect to hear a Cook County voice now,” says Beal, who believes that input will help RTA to perform its role better. “Of the six largest transit systems, ours is growing slowest and is least well run, compared to LA, Denver, Houston and others that are expanding.”

The county’s willingness to champion RTA reform has impressed Joe Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. “If they’re willing to step into that hornet’s nest, it shows that this plan is not just another promotional document pushing for more money for everybody,” he says. “It’s asking hard questions.”

“ New automotive tech will also change the transportation landscape. A new generation of ‘smart cars’ will have automatic warning or braking systems that reduce the risk of accidents, one of the leading causes of traffic congestion”

— Connecting Cook County, 2040 long-range transportation plan

Air support infrastructure

However, since Cook County does not control airports, the new plan does not directly address the future of O’Hare International Airport, easily the area’s most famous transportation asset. Last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel reasserted its importance, announcing $300-million plans to build nine new gates for the international terminal, as well as expanding other ongoing work. The city also announced that it is finally getting its airline partners to the table to begin serious planning for a major, multi-billion dollar makeover of O’Hare’s Terminal 2.

The program’s urgency was underlined by Chicago Dept. of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, who said, “In order to grow, innovate and continue to provide excellent service in a dynamic global aviation system, O’Hare needs to significantly expand and modernize.” An engineer, Evans is no stranger to tall orders, having overseen 22 years ago all construction on the $4.8-billion Denver International Airport.

Of course, even though Connecting Cook County does not deal with runways and terminals, its aim to improve ground transportation infrastructure is essential for O’Hare’s future, as well. In particular, the county already is rebuilding Touhy Avenue, an important component of the ongoing Elgin-O’Hare Western Access project. Overall, the plan says that a minimum of $60 million per year is needed just to bring Cook County’s roads up to “good condition.”

Another critical area of emphasis is rail freight. While the Chicago region is the busiest North American freight hub, it’s also the largest freight bottleneck. Cook County holds most of the region’s intermodal yards, where railroads bring land/sea containers from all over the world to sort, store, transfer and reship. About half of all freight coming into the region goes out again, the report says.

  • Below, select illustrations from the new Cook County plan. For the entire document, click here.

Keeping pace with history

The new plan’s focus on maintenance and auto alternatives shows how times have changed since the heady days of highway building in the 1950s and ’60s. Then, Cook County Board President Dan Ryan Jr. was on the vanguard of the nation’s massive expressway expansion, sparked by the Eisenhower Administration’s Cold War push for an Interstate Highway System. Ryan was able to draw on federal funding to breathe life into the 1940 plan, which had called for expressways extending through Chicago and Cook County to distant suburbs and beyond. Today, the focus is on keeping that vast system in good repair by whittling down the maintenance backlog, even while emphasizing greater use of transit and other alternative modes of both personal (bicycling/ride share) and public transportation.

“while autonomous vehicles may be a decade or more away from widespread use, they have the potential to dramatically alter both the demand profile for transportation services and the capacity of transportation systems to meet these needs”

— Connecting Cook County, 2040 Long-Range Transportation Plan

Connecting Cook County now awaits approval by the county board. Once adopted, it will help the county to qualify for more federal transportation funding. And the plan will give the county a framework to seek new strategic partnerships and investments. It will need these, of course, because the $45 million in reclaimed annual motor fuel tax revenue that is set to come available next year will barely scratch the surface of anticipated needs.

Looking beyond Illinois, the document also may well spur other U.S. population centers behind in their own planning to update their long-range thinking. After all, if Cook County can finally get with the program after three generations, what excuse can they possibly have?


Based in Chicago, the author is a nationally published writer, researcher and urban planner specializing in metropolitan challenges and regional development. In 2009, he co-authored Beyond Burnham: An Illustrated History of Planning for the Chicago Region. Contact him at alanm240@yahoo.com.