What Congestion Pricing Could Look Like in Chicago

In her “State of the City” speech last week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she wants to reduce traffic congestion in the city – and make money in the process. 

“We are exploring options to address rampant congestion that solves the problem of traffic, pollution, and other issues while simultaneously bringing in a fair share of funding,” Lightfoot said Aug. 29 during a prime-time speech at the Harold Washington Library.

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Some transit advocates hope one of those options will be a fee targeting people who drive downtown at certain times, a practice known as congestion pricing.

It’s an idea that has existed around the world for years. Cities like London and Singapore currently charge drivers to enter specific zones. And starting in 2021, cars driving below 60th Street in Manhattan in New York City will be charged a fee electronically, through a toll transponder or by license plate photos.

But could that model – or some version of it – work in Chicago?

DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman thinks it can. He says for a city burnt out on property and sales tax hikes, congestion pricing would be an “untapped source” of revenue. 

He adds that congestion pricing would also be an effective tool to decrease car use.

“We’re seeing a surge in driving again. Transit [rates] are flat, fuel prices are down, vehicle ownership is up, and suddenly we have a quality of life issue that’s setting us back. We’re a great global city, we have to have some sort of reasonable amount of mobility on the streets,” he said.

If adopted, one challenge Chicago would face is where to draw the boundaries of a congestion zone.

Schwieterman says a boundary wouldn’t necessarily have to include all of downtown, but could focus instead on areas with particularly overcrowded streets.

“There are certain areas where congestion is getting intolerable, [like] along the river, the Magnificent Mile, parts of River North. And you have to do something, it’s just going to get worse, and congestion pricing is well suited for that.”

Follow Quinn Myers on Twitter: @rquinnmyers

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