Are bus lanes more realistic than a STAR line?
It is one job of government to dream, to conceive of economic development regions, housing developments and public parks, buildings and highways. But does it really have to cost so much? We find ourselves nagged by that question as we contemplate the $780,000-plus that the Illinois Tollway and the Regional Transportation Authority have agreed to pay, much of it supplied by the federal government, in order to study the feasibility of incorporating dedicated bus lanes into the Chicago-area's transportation mosaic.
It's a good idea, to be sure, deserving of study, at least. But it appears to supplant another good idea proposed years ago that has generated millions of dollars of revenue for consultants and researchers but remains little more than a transportation pipe dream. The Suburban Transit Access Route -- the so-called STAR line -- has been on the planning table for more than a decade. It was (is?) envisioned to ring the Chicago area in an arc from Joliet to O'Hare International Airport, with a possible additional arm stretching from Schaumburg to Waukegan.
First proposed in 2003, the line has been integrated into numerous forecasts of the region's future, including some by the Northwest Municipal Planning Conference and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, not to mention many of the scores of suburbs it aimed (aims?) to connect. It won a blessing from Congress in 2005, but has never gained financial traction.
Now, the most promising thing anyone can say about the STAR line is, to quote Leanne Redden, senior deputy executive director of RTA, "there are no plans for taking the project further." There's something sad about that. We would be among the first to agree that this is not the time to sink hundreds of millions of dollars -- actually the STAR line was estimated to cost at least $1.2 billion and take 10 years to build -- in a supplementary rail project. But we also recognize there is value in the notion of a suburb-to-suburb light-rail hookup. It gives us pause to consider that, if you'll forgive the metaphor, the end of the line may be near for the STAR idea.
That's not to say we're disappointed in the Tollway/RTA proposal to incorporate dedicated bus lanes into the Tollway's $12 billion upgrade and expansion just getting under way. STAR line or no STAR line, we clearly need to explore every idea possible to consolidate options and get vehicles off the roadways. Dedicated bus lanes could do that, as could carpool lanes, so it's great that agencies are studying these alternatives.
It's just that we can't help feeling a little sticker shock at the cost just of creating the new vision of the region's transportation grid and fear of potentially losing the money spent creating the previous one. Certainly, we'll all be happier if spending several hundred thousand dollars saves long-term mistakes in a project costing tens or hundreds of millions. But we're still hoping these new dreams find their way into the reality of our daily lives sometime in the reasonably near future.