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How congestion pricing can help Chicago's infrastructure

Crain's Chicago Business

Imagine a Chicago with less crumbling infrastructure, fewer congested roads and more extensive transit and bicycling options. Envision the Windy City with local transportation to match its world-class stature as a place to live, visit and do business.

Then confront this cold reality: Mayor Lori Lightfoot has few good options when it comes to finding revenues to pay for such improvements. In the wake of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s capital plan, further boosts to fuel, parking and real-estate transfer taxes appear to be untenable, at least in the near term. Markedly higher residential property taxes would generate much pushback. Sales taxes are already among the highest in the country.

Fortunately, attractive opportunities exist in the area of "congestion pricing." Such incentive pricing would improve the quality of life and accelerate Chicago's transformation into a bona fide "Smart City," i.e., a place relying on advanced technologies to promote the efficient use and maintenance of infrastructure. Fees to manage congestion within the city and on certain expressways would generate funds for street enhancements, transit service, cycling and walking improvements, and innovations in mobility. Innovations could include promoting much-needed microtransit (e.g., flexible and demand-responsive services using small buses and vans) to fill gaps in our transit system.

For too long, Chicago has lagged behind other cities in using variable fees to manage its roads, rails and parking. Many metro regions have adopted congestion pricing on expressways, and Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Seattle are actively considering it for downtown streets. Recently, [Joseph Schwieterman] joined experts at the Active Transportation Alliance, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Metropolitan Planning Council, Shared-Use Mobility Center and ride-share provider Via as well as University of Illinois at Chicago researchers in urging Mayor Lightfoot and relevant committee heads to study the possibility of congestion pricing.

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