How will Chicago be able to Maintain Bikeways for Bicyclists if it can’t even properly Maintain Roadways for Motorists?

The increase in bicycling throughout the Chicago area over the past decade has been tremendous. With hundreds of miles of pathways and trails, as well as shared, protected and buffered on-street bike lanes currently in place, and hundreds more expected by 2020, it would be logical to assume that infrastructure will continue to increase as ridership grows. As this occurs, many have concern over the City’s preparedness to keep up with bikeway maintenance issues, both at a financial and planning level. Chicagoland’s current roadway issues are atrocious in comparison to other major metropolitan cities. This holds true when considering only vehicular use. Add bicyclists into the mix and an equation for disaster seems foreseeable in the years to come. In short, how will Chicago be able to handle the additional burden of maintaining its bikeways for bicyclists, when it is already falling behind in maintaining roadways for motorists?

Few would dispute that ‘Chicago’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020’ is one of the most comprehensive bikeway planning efforts in the nation. It calls for a “645-mile network of biking facilities to be in place by 2020 to provide a bicycle accommodation within ½ mile of every Chicagoan.” The plan, though, as comprehensive as it is, focuses predominantly on the implementation, construction, development, and creation of planned bikeways, as well as expansion and revamping of existing bikeways. Although the issue of bikeway maintenance is addressed in the initial plan, it does little more than simply acknowledge that upkeep will be necessary in both the short and long term, and that strategies for doing so will need to be established. It is this minimalistic ‘to be determined’ approach that has left many concerned.

Certainly each and every maintenance issue could not have been addressed in the initial plan. Rather the initial plan merely served as a starting point. The old adage ‘Rome was not built in a day’ can be applied here. As the plan notes “routes will be refined, projects will be deemed unfeasible for various reasons, new opportunities will arise, and some bikeways will need additional improvements.” At the same time, the three core issues identified to facilitate plan implementation-phasing, funding, and maintenance—are clearly lacking at a long-term level, and arguably at a short term one as well. Further, because maintenance and funding are intricately linked, it seems the plan implementation goals, superfluously entitled “making it happen” have left out two of the three components identified to actually ‘make it happen.’

Consider funding sources. The plan identifies three methods to implement projects. The first—federal funding. The initial $32 million grant provided under the Congestive Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (matched with $8 million in local funds) has and will continue to go to construction, expansion and upkeep—but this fund will almost certainly have been exhausted by 2020. Additional federal funding, whether under CMAQ or otherwise, would require 20% of project costs to come from local funding. The second source, funding from the Arterial Resurfacing Program, will go primarily to issues only along arterial streets, and must be shared with funding needed to address other IDOT roadway maintenance issues. The third source, funding from the Aldermanic Menu Program, allows each of the elected officials of Chicago’s 50 wards to allocate funds (~1.32 annually as of 2012) to address infrastructure needs specific to their community. Again, these funds must also be shared with other roadway repair and upgrade projects.

Now, consider maintenance strategies. The 2020 plan identifies three: (1) establish practices for clearing protected lanes; (2) coordinating with utility companies; and (3) securing reliable and sustainable funding for upkeep. In essence, the plan concedes that solutions need to be created, but apparently at some point in the future. Stated differently, the city intends to complete its nearly 700-mile network of bikeways, yet remains unsure as to how maintenance will be carried out, let alone the sources from which such upkeep will be funded.

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