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updated: 12/31/2012 5:16 AM

Planes, trains and automobiles: A look at 2013

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  • Will 2013 give rise to cheaper gas and increased flights at O'Hare International Airport after years of scaling back?

      Will 2013 give rise to cheaper gas and increased flights at O'Hare International Airport after years of scaling back?
    Daily Herald file photo

 
 

Today we will journey -- to the future! Sort of.

Four experts have lent their visionary powers to this column to forecast the major transportation stories of 2013.

But first, best wishes for a safe and prosperous New Year. Drive carefully this winter. Always expect a train. And keep sending your thought-provoking comments, questions and advice to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Planes

2013 marks the deadline for Chicago to resolve a dispute over expansion at O'Hare with United and American Airlines. The city "could make a strong argument that we're ready for finishing the project but ... I think American's bankruptcy is a fly in the ointment that may mean putting off hard decisions for another year or two," DePaul University Professor Joseph Schwieterman said.

Schwieterman, who also heads up DePaul's Chaddick Institute of Metropolitan Development, predicts "we're going to have good news on fuel costs and that could mean big crowds at O'Hare. There's some speculation fuel could drop to the 60s (dollars per barrel), which would be remarkable. It could go the other way too. I think the airlines are excited about getting relief and being able to put more planes in the air."

Northwestern University economist Ian Savage agrees that "2013 will be a crucial year for American Airlines. The merger with US Airways looks most likely -- but it is not clear to me that this will be a salvation. I would expect (American) to emerge from bankruptcy one way or another in 2013. It is an amazing story of how a company can fall from best to worst," he added.

Savage also thinks deliveries of the new Boeing 787 and its competitor the Airbus A350 "have the potential of introducing a whole new set of nonstop routes particularly in international markets with its expanded range and smaller size. It is possible that we may see new nonstops from Chicago to smaller Asian and European cities, avoiding connecting through hubs," he noted.

And although the push for a third airport near Peotone lost a supporter with Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.'s exit from politics, "the Peotone effort will regroup," Schwieterman said.

Trains

Could 2013 bring less of the Union Station shuffle for Metra passengers?

Metropolitan Planning Council Vice President Peter Skosey thinks relief is in sight for passengers tired of trudging along crowded platforms. "If you're at the end of the train and have to walk -- it's a long walk," he said.

But Amtrak is considering a redesign that would eliminate out-of-date baggage platforms, creating a wider space for disembarking riders, he said.

"You could unload faster and reload trains quicker, resulting in more runs per day," Skosey said.

Automobiles

The Illinois tollway will spend about $412 million for widening the eastbound Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) in 2013. The work ultimately could mean one lane is subject to congestion pricing, meaning drivers would pay a premium to go faster during rush hour.

Skosey said planners need to let drivers know what will happen soon. "If we don't toll it or set up expectations that the added lane is different right from the get-go, it will be hard in three years (to charge a fee) when traffic has increased on it."

Savage also said a debate about possibly "introducing time-varying tolls on the Jane Addams to mitigate congestion" is simmering.

Meanwhile, Steve Schlickman, former RTA Chairman and head of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Urban Transportation Center, expects more details forthcoming on the necessary but painful reconstruction of the Circle Interchange where the Dan Ryan, Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways converge in a big-time traffic jam.

Preliminary plans should be completed by May, Schlickman said. "The big issue is will it make congestion worse during construction?"

Politics

As Congress and the president teeter on the edge of the fiscal cliff, Schlickman hopes spending on infrastructure will be part of the final deal.

"This could mean a new windfall of funding for highways and mass transit, which are very important to Chicago and Illinois. We're very short of capital funds so it would be good to get this shot in the arm."

Skosey expects "the fight over funding on the federal level is going to come to a head in some form or another" in 2013.

He predicts Congress will start talking about a new transportation fund bill since the latest two-year version expires in 2014.

That must include discussion of how to prop up the Highway Trust Fund, which relies on an 18.4-cent gas tax to pay for highways and transit but is going bankrupt.

"Increasing the 18 cents is a logical thing to do," Skosey said. "People are also looking at (taxes on) natural gas ... it's untaxed territory and a possible revenue raiser."

Congress also could decide to give states greater authority to convert freeways to tollways, Skosey said.

As for Illinois, Schlickman thinks lawmakers will legislate a new capital bill as the current program is almost kaput. "If you're talking about new revenues -- it's better to do it in the first year of a new legislative assembly."

What else?

Savage thinks pension liabilities "hanging over the CTA will be a big story," while Skosey projects 2013 will be a year for bus rapid transit projects in Chicago.

But bus rapid transit doesn't just mean Chicago, Schlickman said. "Pace needs to continue to push with their BRT plans on arterial roads in the suburbs so I would hope for major advancements next year."

And, credit to Skosey for prognosticating on a little-known authority -- the Illinois International Port District. It has jurisdiction over barge traffic on area rivers and also runs a golf course (go figure). Although considered "rather unrobust," Skosey predicts a turnaround at the port district in 2013 under new leadership. This could mean hiring a private management firm to increase river traffic, he thinks.

Your voice

Faithful reader and chronicler of traffic Judd Hanson wants to know "do you get any comments about the worst intersection in Lake County? Yesterday I made the mistake of taking Route 134 east to Route 120. Here's what I noticed while waiting a long time to turn left onto 120 east.

"A lot of commuters are coming from Route 12 and many are turning left onto Hainesville Road. The left-turn lane only holds a few cars but there was a line of about 20 cars waiting, which when our light would turn green, there was nowhere to go. After a few green lights we were able to get past the backup by going around the line on the shoulder. Bad, bad intersection!

"That intersection needs to be widened with longer turn lanes. And the traffic westbound was jammed all the way to Allegheny Road!!!!! I can't believe when I contacted IDOT that they replied nothing is planned to improve this area. It's MADNESS I tell you!"

Got some traffic madness to share in 2013? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

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