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The Government's Uneven Hand

State intervention in the 

transportation marketplace

Illinois Issues

October 1981

This examination of the State of Illinois's attempts to build and manage a viable public transportation system was one installment in a multi-author series on Illinois energy issues.  I wrote four others—on energy-efficient buildings, on ethanol, on synfuels, and a big-picture introduction. For the others, see "Illinois Issues energy series" here.

The many forecasts  by experts I reported in this piece were not wrong, exactly. It's just that the future they predicted is arriving very, very much more slowly than they, and I, expected. 

One never gets an article of this type quite right before going to print; the writing in this version is a little more right than the original. 


Will Illinois become the Saudi Arabia of the next century? Faced with continued high demand and increased dependence on imported sources of oil to run its cars, trains, buses, and airplanes, Illinois officials have turned to the task of boosting the production of petroleum substitutes from the state's rich supplies of corn and coal.

For the moment, even OPEC oil remains cheaper than synthetic motor fuels from coal or fuel ethanol distilled from corn and other agricultural products. But the price gap has been closing for years, with the result that alternatives which were dismissed as uneconomical just five years ago now may have a future.


Looking forward to that day, Illinois has set aside $70 million through the 1977 Coal Development Bond Act to help finance coal synfuels plants. Gov. James R. Thompson has set up a "fast-track" permitting process to speed approval of major energy projects. Major oil companies like Shell have been buying large blocks of Illinois coal reserves, presumably in anticipation of the day when they will get much of their products from factories instead of wells.


The manufacture of fuel ethanol from corn and other farm products offers similar possibilities. Largely as a result of the pioneering work by the Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) of Decatur, Illinois is the nation's leading producer of fuel ethanol, with production expected to hit 220 million gallons by 1982. It was largely to provide a stimulus to this industry that Thompson ordered the conversion of the state fleet to gasohol in 1979. But Thompson also vetoed bills to exempt gasohol from state motor fuel taxes, on grounds that the state's road fund could not afford it. He did approve a five-year exemption for gasohol from the state's four percent sales tax, however, ending in 1985.


Ultimately, what the state does or does not do for coal synfuels or ethanol may not matter much. For example, there are doubts about just how much petroleum they could replace. Even a large coal synfuels plant of the sort envisioned in Illinois by the Clark Oil Co. could replace barely four percent of the state's own petroleum consumption, and it would take nearly one hundred plants the size of ADM's to make enough ethanol to satisfy Illinois drivers. Worse, coal synfuels plants are extremely expensive to build and pose environmental risks, while a major shift of grains to ethanol production threatens disruptions in grain markets and upward pressure on food prices.


The biggest question, however, goes straight to the heart of the market-based philosophy of energy planning: Will petroleum substitutes ever be profitable? The Rand Corp. recently concluded that more than half the oil reserves in the U.S. have already been tapped and that the U.S. can maintain current levels of production for only 20 to 40 more years. Other estimates are slightly more optimistic, but the plain fact is that the expansion of domestic production predicted to follow deregulation hasn't happened. There just isn't that much oil left. Unless demand is dramatically curtailed, the U.S. is likely to remain dependent on OPEC oil for quite some time to come.


The world price of oil


What does this mean for Illinois's nascent petroleum-substitute industry? Both OPEC and non-OPEC suppliers, such as Mexico, have made clear their intention to match supply to demand, even if it means slashing output by up to 30 percent of current levels over the next ten years. (The "glut" of the summer of 1981 was manufactured by the Saudis in an effort to force down world prices to chastise OPEC's renegade members who were charging more; rather than weaken OPEC, the temporary glut was aimed at strengthening it.) The intent is to keep world oil prices at or below the cost of its alternatives. Rising oil prices will never create a market for substitutes as long as a cartel of suppliers can prevent prices from rising quite high enough.


This kind of manipulation of the market is hardly new, nor does it occur only outside Illinois's borders. In 1949, General Motors and several other large corporations were found guilty in Chicago of antitrust violations. They conspired to buy up and abandon the electric mass transit systems (streetcars and electrified buses known as "trackless trolleys") that served many smaller cities and replace them with motor buses. Acting through an "independent" bus company, GM bankrolled the takeover of trolley systems in Galesburg, East St. Louis, and Joliet, among many other cities. Notes Jonathan Kwitny in Harper's, such actions "created a transportation oligopoly for the internal-combustion engine" and showed "what can happen when important matters of public policy are abandoned by government to the self-interest of corporations."


There are dangers as well as dilemmas in trusting energy policy to a "free market" that is anything but free. For example, the State of Illinois officially acknowledges its willingness to intervene in the transportation marketplace in two types of cases: the regulation of monopolies (where market forces do not apply) and the subsidy of mass transit (which is justified on the grounds that mass transit serves a clientele who cannot otherwise compete in the transportation market). Beyond that, the state seeks merely to match the supply of transportation (chiefly through capital investments) to the demand defined by the market.


But whether it intends to or not, the state does more than just serve the market. It shapes it as well. Here is one example. When a new four-lane highway is built that connects a city with a distant suburb, the state is satisfying a market demand. But it also stimulates development of the land in between, spurring the flight from central cities by making outlying areas accessible, cheating urban mass transit of riders, and stimulating the demand for more cars—and more oil.


Another example: Critics often complain that the fees charged by the state to trucking companies do not cover the cost to the state highway system of truck-related wear and tear. Under-assessment of fees amounts in effect to a subsidy of the trucking industry by taxpayers and motorists. It also has helped divert freight from more energy-efficient railroads, which receive only minor subsidies. Similarly, until recently the users of the state's waterway system (which carries 11 percent of the state's intercity freight, including most of the state's exportable commodities) paid virtually none of the costs of maintaining and improving that system. Railroads, which can compete with barges on an energy basis, thus cannot compete so well on a cost basis.


The problem is not so much that the state intervenes in the transportation marketplace, but that it does so inequitably. "There is no effort from the state to intervene uniformly," explains Bruce Hannon, director of the Energy Research Group at the University of Illinois. "The state could tax trucks and/or truck fuel as well as waterway operators to try to equilibriate the various modes and make the marketplace simulate the real costs of each." It is true, as Yale economics professor Paul MacAvoy wrote recently, that "the imperfect market produces results faster and to a far greater extent than imperfect policy." The problem is that they might not be the results desired.


Still, even an imperfect transportation market has achieved significant—and unexpected—economies. One of the difficulties in making energy policy is that no one acts precisely the way they are expected to. A few years ago it was assumed that gasoline demand was fixed, or inelastic, but it has since become clear that it only seemed inelastic because no one had ever stretched it. Economists now say that for every ten percent rise in price there will be a 1.5 percent drop in demand attributable to price. Using Illinois's experience since 1978, during which time each ten percent price rise brought a corresponding 3.8 percent drop in consumption, demand may be even more stretchable.

Of course, the greatest fuel savings result when one doesn't use the car at all. At least it would seem so; mass transit ridership in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area has been increasing from two percent to three percent per year. Statewide, mass transit carries roughly 823 million riders annually (800 million of them in the Chicago area) aboard 12 commuter rail lines, 36 bus systems, and 11 rapid transit lines. As the recent legislative sparring over the Regional Transportation Authority confirmed, mass transit is vital to Chicago; an estimated 80 percent of all trips made into the Loop, for example, are made via mass transit.


From a social perspective, mass transit has many virtues, from cleaning urban air to relieving congestion to providing transportation to the poor. But since 1973 it has also been touted as an energy-saver. A team of researchers headed by Professor David Boyce of the University of Illinois recently completed an exhaustive analysis which yielded comprehensive energy accounts for urban transit in the Chicago metropolitan region. The study revealed that the direct energy consumption of the automobile was 4.63 megajoules (a megajoule is the equivalent of 737,500 foot-pounds of work) per person-kilometer, while that of public transit (an average of all types) was only 1.26 megajoules per person-kilometer. In Btus and miles, this works out to about 7,065 Btus per person per mile for cars compared to 1,923 Btus for public transit. Public transit, then, is roughly 3.7 times more efficient a people-mover than cars. Even taking into account the high indirect energy required for the construction and maintenance of mass transit systems, Boyce and his researchers found that public transit remains far more energy-efficient than the automobile (3.23 MJ/PK compared to 9.41 MJ/PK).


The right transit system


But any transit system is only efficient if it is used. Boyce learned that the efficiency of public transit varied considerably from place to place within the Chicago metropolitan area, depending on the system's occupancy. Rail systems are vastly efficient on crowded urban short hauls but on intercity runs a half-empty train can use more energy than a bus, no matter what its other advantages. Similarly, a fully loaded, standard 40-passenger urban bus can be more efficient even than a train, but running such a vehicle (which gets roughly six miles per gallon) on lightly traveled routes or at night is energy-extravagant. There is no "right" transit system from an energy point of view. The challenge of transportation planning is to apply the appropriate technology to a given need.


From the point of view of the individual, the chief advantage of mass transit over the automobile—indeed, the only advantage—is that mass transit is cheaper. But this is only because mass transit is heavily subsidized, in Illinois as elsewhere. (Fares provided only about 48 percent of the Chicago Transit Authority budget in 1979.) As mass transit costs rise, and pressure mounts to earn more of those costs from the fare box, the price advantage of mass transit erodes. The Milwaukee Road, for instance, has calculated that if ticket prices were revised to cover all current costs, round-trip fares from suburban Arlington Heights to Chicago's Loop would jump to $148.59 a month (somewhat less with a monthly ticket), while the cost of making the same trip by car (including parking) would be $157.50.


Even with subsidization by federal and state funds, however, mass transit in the Chicago area accounts for only 11 percent of the passenger miles of travel. The reason why more people don't ride the bus is the same reason why the consumer swing to smaller cars did not begin in earnest until about 1979, some six years after OPEC first boosted its oil prices. The reason is that until then gasoline was still relatively cheap. After adjusting for inflation and the rise in purchasing power, the price of gasoline in constant dollars in the U.S. (the so-called "real" price) declined in the 1960s and '70s and did not even reach the level of 1960 until late 1979. It has only been in the last two years, in other words, that price has begun to act as a rationing mechanism.


Mass transit illustrates the dilemma of transportation policy-making in the 1980s. In spite of its acknowledged advantages, mass transit has not won the endorsement of the market. The market prefers the automobile, since the dollar value attached by most commuters to the comfort and convenience that cars provide compared to mass transit makes the auto's nominally higher costs seem a bargain. For the sake of the broader, non-economic benefits offered by mass transit, the public (acting through its representatives) can contravene the market by maintaining ridership, keeping routes open and fares below their true cost. Or the public can allow the market to kill mass transit through atrophy, and pay what amounts, in effect, to a subsidy to OPEC through continued high oil consumption. The market will always allocate service according to cost. The trouble is, there is more than one kind of cost. Government can undertake to cover social debts left unpaid by the market. The question confronting transportation planners is how, and how much.


Transportation policy in Illinois is shaped by many hands—new inventions, traditional market forces, special interest politics, geography, Washington. Each transportation mode gradually evolved its own constituency, its own lobby, its own unique set of priorities, sometimes in competition with, yet still separate from, other modes. Energy played little or no part in the process, being cheap to all. The result is a "system" which is not so much a system as a collection of parts, with railroad tracks running parallel to interstate highways carrying trucks carrying the same kind of freight carried by trains, and rapid rail tracks running down the median of urban expressways, each carrying commuters to the same offices.


But it seems clear that neither government nor the private sector in Illinois will be able to afford to build so extravagantly in the future. The Illinois Transportation Study Commission (ITSC), which was set up to advise the General Assembly on such matters, notes that simply maintaining the existing ad hoc state system at "minimally acceptable" levels will take nearly $15 billion in new money over five years, and even that estimate assumes undiminished federal funding, which the commission admits is "an indeterminate but unlikely prospect." It seems likely that only essential transportation systems will be affordable, and one way to define "essential" is any system that can move the most people and goods at the least cost—including energy cost.


The need may not be to refinance transportation in Illinois but to rethink it. In the last 50 years, transportation has come to be dominated by the car and the truck, which offer unparalleled convenience at unparalleled cost in energy, land, wealth, and the environment. To an extent, the economies achieved to date have led the public and public servants to believe that transportation in Illinois can remain business almost-as-usual. But changes that affect the car affect virtually every facet of life, because the car has shaped everything from land use to lifestyles.


In many ways, local governments have outdone the state in recognizing the implications of the transportation energy problem. The Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, for example, has adopted energy-saving policies which are being incorporated into city and county master plans. Those policies call for stricter zoning controls and incentives to spur central city redevelopment, restrain urban sprawl, and encourage mass transit use in an attempt to slow the dispersion of the urban area and the consequent waste of energy in commuting. The policies recognize that land use and transportation are inextricably linked, that more roads are not necessarily the solution to urban transit problems.


Given transportation's pivotal role, having an articulated transportation policy is to have a de facto energy policy as well, even a land use policy. But there is not yet such a plan at the state level. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is required by state law to draft a comprehensive 20-year state transportation plan but so far has failed to do it. IDOT claimed last year that such a plan would be "inappropriate in these times of uncertain funding, rapidly changing energy and social conditions and pressing inflationary problems." IDOT's critics, while admitting the difficulties of planning in such unplannable times, accuse the agency and governors of wishing to remain able to promise to build roads according to politics rather than a plan.


"I concede that energy considerations are critical to transportation planning," explains Fred Schoenfeld, the executive director of the ITSC. "But in the absence of that document, it is difficult to go to the next step and address energy concerns. We're a long way from beginning to address the energy trade-offs between, say, rail freight, and freight transported on highways." Says the U of I's Hannon, "I don't know what the state is doing."


The real oil crisis


As the study commission notes in its 1981 recommendations to the General Assembly, "The entire set of beliefs, expectations and behaviors we have become accustomed to vis-a-vis highways should be now subject to re-evaluation. . . . On the horizon are dozens of technological adaptations and developments. These range from major shifts to alternative fuels such as alcohol to varieties of more esoteric vehicles." The commission concludes, "The real oil crisis is still perhaps 5 to 20 years away and what is going on now is largely an effort to avoid its fullest impact rather than come to grips with it." ●


Sidebar: Transportation modes, old, new, borrowed


How are people likely to get around in a world increasingly short of affordable oil? In the short term, experts agree that better management of the existing transportation system is the key—car pooling, more use of bicycles, more use of buses (which will vary in shape and size according to their role, from 100-passenger articulated models to small vans), more use of computer-assisted demand transit systems (similar to services now offered to the handicapped and elderly in some cities), and of line taxis.


Making more efficient use of present transportation technology will probably mean making social changes as well. For example, Milton Pikarsky, the former chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, recently noted that the high costs of private transportation have forced some Illinoisans to renegotiate what he calls the social contract covering transportation. Traditionally employees have been responsible for delivering themselves to work. As it becomes too expensive for workers to live up to that responsibility, employers such as Northbrook's Allstate Insurance Companies have supplied administrative coordination and initial capital investment for a commuter fleet of 56 passenger vans; employees in turn supply operating expenses (including labor as drivers) and fees to retire the purchase costs.


The automobile is likely to remain the key element in any transportation system for the foreseeable future. For the moment, cars will continue to run on gasoline. What will change is the efficiency with which that gasoline is used. The Ford Motor Co., for example, is already preparing to produce a two-seater that will get 70 miles per gallon on the highway.


But inventors are looking forward to the day, perhaps as soon as the 1990s, when cars will not use gasoline at all. Alcohol fuels (either ethanol from grain or methanol from coal or from plentiful cellulosic plant matter such as trees, crop residues, and sawmill wastes) continue to be the subject of federally funded research. In Illinois, researchers are exploring for ways to use the state's crop wastes, even weeds, as motor fuels, engine lubricants and fuel extenders. In another development with implications for Illinois, General Motors has unveiled an experimental car that runs on finely powdered coal; the fuel is efficient (almost twice as efficient as gasoline) and cheap, although air pollution remains as much a problem in cars as it is in power plants.


Coal is more likely to be used in cars in a different form—as electricity. Electric cars are nonpolluting, and they can be recharged at night when demands on coal-fired generating plants are lowest. An Italian businessman has installed an experimental system in Brussels using small electric cars and a network of garages. A driver "checks out" a car from one garage and checks it in at another near his destination, where it is recharged; he is billed for the time the car is in use at rates estimated to run one-third those of taxis. But storage batteries remain heavy, relatively short-lived, and expensive to replace, and the range of the electric car is limited to relatively short city trips.


There is, however, another type of electric car which does not use cumbersome storage batteries. Fuel-cell vehicles use a chemical fuel (such as hydrogen) which produces an electric current when combined with oxygen over an electrolyte; tests have already been performed using fuel cells to power city buses, delivery vans, trucks, even golf carts.

At present virtually none of the transportation energy in Illinois comes from coal. But electric vehicles, from high-speed commuter trains to streetcars and "trackless trolleys" or electric buses, once were common in Illinois. Electric systems are making a comeback in other states: San Diego, for example, recently debuted an electric trolley running between that city and Tijuana. There is talk in Illinois of harnessing coal for long-distance trips too. In 1980 the General Assembly authorized the High Speed Intercity Rail Passenger Compact with six other states to explore the feasibility of high-speed electric trains on various major routes, including the Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Milwaukee corridors. The report of that study is due in January. 1982.


Too "futuristic"? Hardly. In 1900, nearly 40 percent of all the cars on American roads were electric. Rudolph Diesel originally designed his new engine to run on powdered coal. Henry Ford's early models were made to run on either gasoline or alcohol. And sixty years ago, Illinois boasted 3,400 miles of intercity electric railway track which carried more than a billion passengers a year. Illinois' transportation energy dilemma is a result not of  what we don't know, but what we knew and forgot. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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