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Mayor Lightfoot looks to downtown congestion and traffic for revenue answers

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Mayor Lightfoot revealed the $838 million shortfall Thursday night

Cars on an expressway with red brake lights lit up head towards a city’s downtown with tall towers in the distance collected together against a cloudy sky.
Chicago traffic on an expressway.

On Thursday night, Mayor Lori Lightfoot disclosed Chicago’s budget gap: $838 million. While the mayor didn’t lay out a specific plan for dealing with the incredibly large shortfall, she did say one of the revenue ideas the administration was considering involved downtown congestion and traffic.

The mayor only briefly mentioned the city’s terrible congestion during her 30-minute speech, which left some wondering exactly what ideas the administration was exploring. Transportation advocates have been pushing the mayor to consider congestion pricing, but that’s not something Lightfoot has discussed openly yet.

Following her address, the mayor met with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board for an interview where she was asked to clarify some those new revenue ideas related to downtown traffic.

“We don’t have a rush hour. We have a rush day,” Lightfoot said Friday morning. “It’s a challenge for mobility, it’s a challenge for pollution, it’s a challenge for the stress on our infrastructure.”

Chicago’s traffic has only worsened in the recent years and ranks as one of the top cities most affected by congestion in the country.

Lightfoot said she’s considering a “menu of options” that will make people smarter about the way they travel in Chicago. She elaborated on issues with rideshares: lots of single-person rides from downtown and ride-hailing drivers idling downtown waiting for the next ride. These situations add to congestion, make it difficult for downtown buses, and cause pollution, the mayor said.

The hope is that deterring certain types of ride-hailing trips with a new or increased tax could incentivize people to use public transportation more. The administration said it is also thinking about people in areas of the city in “transportation deserts,” who might not have easy access to bus routes or train lines.

Currently, the city charges a 72-cent tax per ride-hailing trip which has funded CTA improvements in the past.

The transit advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance is supportive of congestion pricing and deterring so many ride-hailing trips into transit-rich areas. After the mayor’s address spokesperson Kyle Whitehead said, “Fair pricing and greater walk/bike/transit investment could provide lasting congestion relief while boosting neighborhood health, sustainability, and equity.”

Active Transportation was one of several organizations that wrote an open letter to the mayor after her inauguration urging her administration to consider the benefits of congestion pricing. While critics say it is a regressive policy, many major cities such as New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angelos are all debating it.

On a final note answering the editorial board’s congestion question, Lightfoot said that the revenue created from traffic and congestion downtown, whatever that final package of options turns out to be, will be put into Chicago’s infrastructure, roads, bridges, and transportation.