Transportation experts' predictions for 2018 in Chicago, suburbs

 
 
Updated 1/1/2018 8:58 AM
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  • Will plans to convert more freeways into tollways emerge in 2018? That's what some experts are predicting.

    Will plans to convert more freeways into tollways emerge in 2018? That's what some experts are predicting. Daily Herald File Photo

  • If state funding is cut for transit in 2018, Pace and other transit agencies could raise fares again.

    If state funding is cut for transit in 2018, Pace and other transit agencies could raise fares again. Daily Herald File Photo

  • An automatic braking system will start coming on line on some Metra trains in 2018.

    An automatic braking system will start coming on line on some Metra trains in 2018. Daily Herald File Photo

  • The RTA has a list of priorities starting in 2018 that includes new buses for Pace and updated train cars for Metra.

    The RTA has a list of priorities starting in 2018 that includes new buses for Pace and updated train cars for Metra. Daily Herald File Photo

Goodbye to 2017, a bumpy trip for fliers, drivers and riders.

Turbulence began early with a passenger being hauled off a United Airlines flight at O'Hare, and the year ended with Metra, Pace and the CTA approving fare hikes. Halfway through, the Illinois Tollway approved a controversial $25 million study of the Route 53 extension.

What will 2018 bring? In a world of uncertainty, you can count on one thing -- our annual, never-fail transportation predictions by expert prognosticators.

We'll start with DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman who predicts "O'Hare will regain its mojo for international service as airlines add new nonstop destinations at a relatively rapid pace.

"This will restore nonstop service, for example, to many European destinations."

For Metra, Pace and the CTA, the prognosis is less rosy. Fare hikes on the systems are set for 2018 partly because of cuts in state funding and limited federal aid. Will anyone ride to the rescue?

"My prediction is no, there won't be new (state) capital funding ... but we do need it," Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Leanne Redden said.

Political gridlock in Springfield and a primary election likely spells budget dysfunction. That could destabilize agency budgets midyear, experts said.

"I think there will be continued fare raises or service cuts unless there are radical measures to reduce costs," Northwestern University rail expert and economist Ian Savage said.

The University of Illinois at Chicago's Steve Schlickman expects there "will be a strong incentive for Chicago Democrats to restore transit operating assistance that was cut this year. The CTA budget is predicated on that happening."

Schwieterman thinks "we'll face targeted cuts in bus service on the region's system due to persistent weakness in sales tax revenue.

"Rail service, however, will not be affected and will, in fact, experience rising traffic," added Schwieterman, director of DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

On the federal side, President Donald Trump's proposal to allocate $200 billion over 10 years for infrastructure is underwhelming, Redden thinks.

Details should come in January, but reports suggest the plan isn't just for transportation; it would include all public infrastructure, such as water and the electrical grid, and involve a competitive process.

While campaigning, Trump spoke of a $1 trillion program, but experts say the president wants state and local governments to chip in the remaining $800 billion.

Even if public transit is thrown a bone -- with 50 states competing for $20 billion a year, the prospect is "slim pickings," Redden said.

Meanwhile "if it includes any taxes to raise revenues, such as the federal gas tax, it will be very controversial," said Schlickman, an adjunct assistant professor and former head of UIC's Urban Transportation Center.

"I predict it will be very hard, harder than it was for the tax bill, for Trump to achieve his infrastructure plan."

Savage doubts Congress will act to prop up the dwindling Highway Trust Fund and anticipates "more expressway lanes (will be) converted to tolled lanes."

"The proposals for the Stevenson Expressway (Interstate 55) mirror a trend in the nation, and are a harbinger of what the future will look like," Savage said, referring to a plan to add an express, tolled lane to I-55 in DuPage and Cook counties.

The new year marks a deadline for major railroads to install positive train control, an automatic braking system that stops rail cars when a crash is imminent.

"There is no doubt that it will prevent some collisions and derailments," Savage said. "But it is not the silver bullet. PTC cannot detect broken rails; that is a major cause of derailments."

Switching gears, talk of an express train from downtown to O'Hare will "capture the limelight ... but will ultimately prove unworkable," Schwieterman said.

What else in the new year?

• Expect more details on the tollway's plans to widen the Tri-State.

• Renewed concerns about jet noise will emerge as the city decommissions a major diagonal runway this spring.

• A lease agreement at O'Hare with American and United Airlines ends in 2018. This should play into negotiations over new gates and a possible western concourse.

Wish list

The RTA is looking far into the future with a strategic plan listing priorities from 2018 through 2023. Wants and needs include new buses for Pace and the CTA, updated train cars for Metra. To learn more, go to rtachicago.org.

• Got a prognostication for 2018? Send an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

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