Highway Interchange Land Use Comparison

Below is the letter I wrote to my state senator about land use for highway interchanges in the Chicago area:

Dear Senator Collins: 

As one of your constituents and a practicing civil engineer, I would like to bring to your attention a gigantic source of waste in our roadway construction industry: the amount of land consumed for roadway projects.

The enclosed “Land Consumption Comparison” exhibit shows two highway interchanges in the Chicagoland area and how much land each interchange consumes.  The recently constructed southwest suburban interchange between I-355 and I-55 resides on approximately 137 acres more than the downtown Circle Interchange between I-290 and I-90/94.  

For the 55/355 interchange, 137 acres has been needlessly taken by the public.  The land will not be taxed and will require public maintenance in perpetuity.  These 137 acres of land could have been kept as private land, put on the tax rolls, and generated property tax instead.

The benefit used to justify this extreme waste of land is that motorists can make any turn between highways without the need to slow the vehicle to make the maneuver.  Civil Engineers design these interchanges based on manuals and guidelines that prioritize maximizing speeds and reducing delays above all else. 

While these objectives are very worthy, I believe they need to be balanced by common sense imposed by politicians who understand that the value of increased speed at highway interchanges may not be as great to the public as the value of the tax dollars received by privatizing the land.  Despite the fact that a motorist must slow down to navigate the downtown Chicago Circle Interchange, the Circle Interchange represents a responsible balance of traffic speeds and land use.  It is clear that the only consideration for the 55/355 interchange was traffic speed, with land use being dismissed entirely. While it’s true that motorists traveling 70mph on I-55 can make a left turn onto I-355 without the need to slow down, this value to motorists imposes a cost to taxpayers.

Commercial real estate near the intersection of I-355 and I-55 has changed hands for $130k per acre (a low estimate).  The 137 acres of real estate needlessly used for the interchange has a market value of approximately $17.5M (again, a low estimate) even in a depressed economy.  Of course, that $17.5M is only the upfront cost of the land, and does not represent the sales and property tax that would be generated from the land every year.

The objective of large scale public land use planning should be to minimize the amount of “money absorbing” public land, thereby minimizing the burden on taxpayers to fund it with their “money generating” private land.

I believe that this form of government waste is not widely recognized by politicians or the public.  Bureaucrats at IDOT and ISTHA, as well as County and Municipal engineers and planners consistently grab excessive land from private land owners in the name of improvements.  This is land that they simply do not need. 

I hope that you view this wasteful use of land the same as I do.  I would be happy to discuss this subject further with you in hopes that we can save Illinois taxpayers the burden of constructing more wasteful intersections in the future. 


Robert J. Bielaski, P.E.

P.S.   For the purposes of focusing on land use, I have avoided bringing up the additional construction costs in building, maintaining, and replacing oversized interchanges (the ramp from westbound I-55 to southbound I-355 is a full 1.5 miles long!).  These costs will forever loom over the state as the interchange deteriorates and needs repair and replacement.

In case my comparison of the 55/355 interchange to the downtown Circle interchange is called into question, I have also included an exhibit showing the 55/355 interchange land use compared to I290/Route 53 interchange in Schaumburg that is a comparable distance from downtown.  The 55/355 interchange uses twice as much land as the 290/53 intersection. 

I have also included an exhibit showing the size of the 55/355 intersection compared to the nearby Promenade Bolingbrook mall.


A thoughtful post and

A thoughtful post and well-articulated plan. You may be interested in this previous post on how "Roads aren't the problem. It's hidden cost and design."


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