Who would buy something that doesn’t look like a bridge, doesn’t act like a bridge, but is offered for sale like a bridge? That’s what Atlas Arteria recently did. The Australian company spent $2 billion to acquire a 67% stake in the Chicago Skyway.
The word “bridge” suggests a structure that spans a river or lake. Maybe the train tracks. But for most of its 7.8 miles, the Chicago Skyway, officially a toll bridge, simply looms over cross streets buried in its path.
Stretching between the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Illinois-Indiana border, the Skyway has a similar effect to the Berlin Wall, which separated East and West Germany, in the way it divides Chicago’s southeast side. Looking up from the streets below, the mind conjures up a preteen Romeo living on the 7400 block of South Greenwood Avenue, cut off by the towering freeway of a 7500-block Juliet. Could their schoolyard romance survive the Sky way?
In 1966, Donald Bonniwell, a state highway commissioner, denounced the Chicago Skyway as “a concrete curtain blocking people’s access to the southeastern section of the city.”
Its construction was the result of a spitball that Indiana threw at Chicago in 1953.
The Cold War was underway, prompting the construction of intercity superhighways so that city dwellers could be evacuated if an atomic war threatened. Illinois planners assumed that Indiana’s freeway network would join their state’s network south of Chicago, thus avoiding the congestion of a metropolis.
Indiana then announced that it was building a cross-state toll road from Ohio that would abruptly end at the Chicago border, at 106th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard.
“Indiana has been selfish in its planning,” Ald. Emil Pacini of District 10, which included that intersection, protested to the Tribune.
Pacini’s neighborhood and adjoining neighborhoods were patchwork quilts of industrial plants and streets lined with workers’ homes. A subdivision in the neighboring community of South Chicago was known as “The Bush” because the houses were so densely packed they resembled bushes.
“The new superhighway would dump at least 18,000 cars a day into Chicago in a place that can’t handle traffic properly right now,” Pacini told his City Council colleagues.
It seemed clear that the southeast side needed a superhighway to disperse the traffic that Indiana would send to Chicago. But the Republicans who controlled the Illinois Turnpike Commission refused to pay for a superhighway connection to the Indiana Turnpike. Chicago, then as now, was a Democratic stronghold, and the GOP was not about to bail it out.
So Chicago had to finance a connecting highway. Under Illinois law, the city was prohibited from operating a toll road. But it could install a toll bridge, a legal distinction that allowed construction of the Skyway to move forward.
The Skyway had to cross the Calumet River on its way to the Illinois-Indiana border. That part was built with spans of steel plates supported by structural steel trusses, and the result looks like an illustrated bridge. Any bridge needs an entrance ramp, and the Skyway is wonderfully formidable: an embankment that stretches from Calumet’s western edge to State Street at 66th Street, where it meets Dan Ryan.
The construction of the Skyway was a tragedy for many who lived or owned a business along its route. In 1957, Adeline Field, a retired telephone operator, knocked on her door at 6815 Anthony Ave. with a shotgun in her hand. Every other building on the block had been torn down for the Skyway. They offered him $6,500 for his two-story apartment. Having refused, her house was condemned by the city. She was living without heat or water and was facing eviction.
“I think these older people feel like they’re being pushed, that something is being taken away from them,” one investigator said when Field refused to leave. “But I wouldn’t want to take it out. Not while I have that shotgun.
Chicago’s Last Department store sued for $100,000 in damages, alleging that the Skyway prevented customers from entering its building at 10520 Indianapolis Blvd. At the other end of the elevated highway, the Michigan Avenue Church of Christ claimed the skyway ramp Skyway’s entrance made it “dark, cramped, uncomfortable, unsanitary, and unsuitable for church purposes”.
But such complaints had little effect. At the opening of the Indiana Toll Road in 1956, Chicago’s mayor foresaw big news for its upcoming connection to what was originally called the Calumet Skyway.
“This upgrade is as valuable to Chicago as it is to Indiana,” said Richard J. Daley.
But when the Skyway opened two years later, call it what you will, a toll bridge or a toll road, it was clearly a white elephant.
Fewer than half of the motorists predicted to use it actually did so in April 1958, its first month of operation, and traffic remained well below expectations for years. That tore a big hole in the ledger in which the funding for the airway had been calculated.
Chicago had issued municipal bonds to raise the cash needed to pay the contractors who built it. A bond is a loan; the owner is owed the amount of the loan, plus interest. That’s why they bought the bond, to make a profit. Chicago bondholders had been assured that enough coins would be deposited in the Skyway collection boxes to keep payment deadlines on track.
But the numbers didn’t add up; the revenue generated by Skyway was far less than what was owed to the bondholders.
Some surmised that it was because the name of the road/bridge was confusing. Locals knew the area as the Calumet region, so the Calumet Skyway seemed like a logical choice. But the name was widely used, including by a Chicago suburb known for its raunchy bars.
“Calumet Skyway by itself is not a good name,” the Tribune editorialized. “To a New Yorker it might connote a route to Calumet City strip joints rather than Chicago’s central business district.” The newspaper suggested “Skyway Express” as an alternative.
Finally the name was changed. But the Chicago Skyway did not attract significantly more motorists than the Calumet Skyway.
Expensive engineering firms were hired to find out why. “But a truck driver, taxi driver or police patrol car could provide free advice,” the Tribune noted.
Indianapolis Boulevard paralleled the Skyway, offering a free route to Indiana. The Skyway was further damaged in 1964, when U.S. Interstate 94 in Indiana crossed into Illinois and connected to the Tri-State Expressway, giving motorists and truckers another way to avoid toll booths. Skyway toll.
By 1963, the Skyway bonds were in default.
But as time went on and more motorists chose convenience over cost, traffic on the Skyway increased, and in 2004 Mayor Richard M. Daley seemed to have found a way for the city to make some money off the highway. .
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Daley leased the Skyway to an Australian private fund that, in partnership with a Spanish construction company, paid $1.8 billion to operate the toll bridge for 99 years.
Ald. Ed Burke hailed the deal as “the single largest financial coup in Chicago history,” comparing it to buying the island of Manhattan from Native Americans for a few strings of beads.
But the Skyway’s problems, made worse by a scandal at the private fund that had bought the lease, continued. In 2011, investment bankers warned clients that it was worth zero dollars.
Skyway has changed hands a couple of times in the last decade, most recently with the Australian firm deal for a majority stake. Tolls have been rising steadily under private ownership and it looks like they will continue to do so.
However, Mayor Lori Lightfoot was the latest city leader to tout Skyway’s blessings, with her office calling the most recent sale a “win for the city, generating a tax payment in the tens of millions of dollars.” .
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