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The Illiana Expressway Will Eat Itself

If you asked me to paint a picture of a highway where no highway should exist, this is the picture I would paint. Image: ##https://pbworld.com/capabilities_projects/illiana_expressway_.aspx##Parsons Brinckerhoff##

The Illiana Expressway fails on all measures — expected revenue, projected traffic — when looked at realistically. Unfortunately, Illinois and Indiana don’t look at it that way. Image: Parsons Brinckerhoff

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. This is the final installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good.

Illinois and Indiana are proposing to build a new highway across the far southern extent of the Chicago metropolitan area at a cost of more than $1 billion and perhaps as much as $3 billion. Intended to divert truck traffic from Interstate 80, the tolls charged to finance the highway could instead discourage trucks from using the roadway.

The proposed Illiana Expressway would extend from I-55 in Wilmington, Illinois, to I-65 in Hebron, Indiana, at the southernmost reach of the Chicago metropolitan area, traversing a largely rural and thinly populated area.

The wisdom of the project has been questioned by staff of the region’s metropolitan planning organization, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which said the project “expose[s] the State of Illinois to extensive financial risk,” even as it offered “unsubstantiated economic development potential” and “negligible impacts on regional transportation performance.”

Further, the staff criticized the planning process for significantly underestimating potential costs — by at least 30 percent and possibly as much as 400 percent, compared to similar highway projects around the country. CMAP staff projections also show an economic impact only one-fifth as large in 2040 as that projected by the highway’s planners.

Despite objections from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the CMAP board’s resounding rejection of the tollway in a 10 to 4 vote, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is proceeding with the tollway on the basis of a vote of approval by CMAP’s policy committee. In October, the CMAP board will consider a regional comprehensive plan that includes the Illiana. Environmental groups have brought a lawsuit challenging IDOT’s continued development of the tollway, alleging that the committee vote violated the required approval process laid out in Illinois law.

Cost estimates for the highway range between $1.3 billion and $2.8 billion if related work on connecting roads is included. Illinois taxpayers are already on the hook for $250 million of that cost, and Indianans will pay an additional $80 million to $110 million, even though the road is set to be built and operated by a private company that will charge tolls and profit from the proceeds.

Those cost numbers are just starting points. To make the project attractive for potential private-sector partners, Illinois taxpayers would have to kick in between $440 million and $1.1 billion in subsidies, and Indiana taxpayers will need to contribute additional amounts. According to CMAP staff, too few details of a proposed public-private partnership are available to make a more precise estimate of the public contribution, but the lower the toll rates will be, the more public support will be needed. This is problematic because higher toll rates will reduce actual use of the road — and therefore reduce the road’s potential benefit to the transportation system.

Traffic projections work their magic yet again. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Traffic projections work their magic yet again. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

It is unclear how much demand there actually is from drivers for the new route. The financing of the road is premised on strong and growing toll proceeds, but many drivers — especially truck drivers — avoid toll roads, especially when tolls are high and there are toll-free alternatives. The larger the truck, the more likely it will go elsewhere. At even the lowest level of toll considered by the proposal, more than half the tractor-trailer trucks that would use the road if it were free are expected to avoid it; at the highest considered toll, more than 80 percent will use other roads instead.

Further undermining the arguments for the road’s utility are planners’ traffic projections for the 18-county region that is designated as being affected by the Illiana project. The data show that from 2001 to 2010, the number of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in the region grew by an average rate of 0.42 percent a year.

But official IDOT projections still anticipate rates of driving increase from the Driving Boom era. IDOT projects that from 2010 to 2040, VMT would grow more than twice as fast as the last decade, at an annual rate of 0.91 percent. So far, since 2010, the region’s VMT has actually dropped by an average rate of 0.49 percent per year.

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst at U.S. PIRG, and Jeff Inglis, policy analyst at the Frontier Group, are co-authors of the report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.”

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Evanston City Council Advances Key Projects From Bike Plan

On Monday night, Evanston’s City Council held a special meeting solely to address four bike infrastructure or policy measures, all of which will implement pieces of the city’s recently adopted Bike Plan. The council advanced new protected bike lanes along Sheridan Road and along Dodge Avenue, in spite of considerable opposition over the latter, while deferring a vote on two connecting paths.

Streetmix illustration of the sidepath proposed for the east side of Sheridan Road. Courtesy City of Evanston.

The Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue Improvement Project (PDF) will build a two-way protected bike lane on the east side of Sheridan Road. Although this item had already cleared the City Council, Sat Nagar, Evanston’s Assistant Director of Engineering and Infrastructure, said that the city could save money by deferring resurfacing, streetscape and bike improvements until after required water main construction is complete. Deferring the improvements would push streetscape design to 2015-2016, construction on the two-way protected by lane to spring 2017, and completion to August 28, 2017. Alderman Donald Wilson motioned to proceed with the new timetable, the council approved it unanimously. Alderwoman Judy Fiske also asked the city staff to consider maintaining use of the existing roadway at Sheridan and Northwestern Place versus expanding it.

The Dodge Avenue Biking Improvements (PDF) proved to be the most contentious issue of the evening. The city staff was requesting approval to submit revised improvements along this corridor to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Illinois Department of Transportation. Dodge Avenue offers a north-south route connecting the south end of Evanston with downtown and Evanston Township High School. Currently, Dodge has aged and worn-out conventional bike lanes.

Prior to the meeting, protected bike lanes had been approved by the council, CMAP, and IDOT, but public feedback regarding parking led city staff to revise their proposal to use buffered bike lanes instead. The stretch of Dodge to be improved currently has 532 parking spaces. Protected bike lanes would remove 103 spaces, while buffered bike lanes would remove 32.

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Transit Can Cut Car Traffic Much More Than Ridership Alone Suggests

Portland's Max Blue Line Light Rail helped reduce driving far more than its ridership numbers would suggest, a new study finds. Photo: TriNet

Portland’s MAX Blue light rail line helped reduce driving far more than you would expect based on ridership alone. Photo: TriMet

How much traffic does a transit line keep off the streets? Looking at ridership alone only tells part of the story, according a new study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association. The full impact of a transit line on motor vehicle traffic can far exceed the direct effect of substituting rail or bus trips for car trips.

Using data from the Portland region, University of Utah researchers Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi compared self-reported travel in an area where a light rail line was built to an area that saw no transit investment.

The team collected data on changes in travel behavior in the area served by the MAX Blue light rail line and in the area around SW Pacific Highway. They compared stats from 1994 — before light rail was built — and 2011 — 13 years after it launched. They opted to use the 2011 data in order to show the full impact of denser, transit-oriented development around the stations.

Ewing and Hamidi found that light rail led to an average of 0.6 additional transit trips per day among each household in the surrounding community. By itself that would have cut total driving mileage by about a half mile per household per day — not a huge impact.

But the effect on driving among households living near light rail was much greater than that.

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Judge Blocks Motion to Quash Arrest in Case Against Robert Vais

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Robert Vais.

At a hearing last Wednesday, Judge Nicholas Ford denied a Motion to Quash Arrest filed by lawyers for Robert Vais, the driver accused of fatally striking cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk.

Avalos, a 28-year-old former Marine and aspiring chef, was biking on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park on the night of December 6, 2013. Vais, a 54-year-old administrator at Stroger Hospital, allegedly struck him from behind. Tests found Vais had a blood alcohol content of .118, well above the legal limit of .08. He is charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the defense argued that the police officers who responded to the crash did not have probable cause to arrest Vais, according to Active Transportation staffer Jason Jenkins, who has been attending the hearings. If Ford had granted the motion, the case against Vais would have been thrown out.

At the hearing, a police officer gave testimony on why he decided to arrest Vais. When the officer arrived at the crash site, Vais stepped forward from the crowd of onlookers and said he was the driver, the officer testified. He stated that Vais smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes.

According to the officer, Vais also kept repeating himself, asking several times about Avalos’ condition, and claiming that he didn’t see the cyclist, who appeared out of nowhere. The officer said he suspected alcohol was a factor in the crash, so he arrested Vais and took him to a hospital for a blood draw.

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Is Austin’s Central Corridor a Smart Transit Bet?

This November, Austinites will be asked to vote for a $600 million bond issue to bring a new rail line to the Texas capital. Unfortunately, a lot of local urbanists aren’t that enamored with the $1.4 billion Central Corridor plan.

This map shows the relatively low density development surrounding Austin's proposed $1.4 billion Central Corridor rail. Image: Carfree Austin

Development surrounding Austin’s proposed $1.4 billion Central Corridor rail line tends to be relatively low-density. Map: Carfree Austin

Network blog Carfree Austin has been taking a hard look at the proposal in a four-part series (1, 2, 3 and 4). The gist is that the route would run through a lot of very suburban areas that aren’t well-suited for rail service, and where denser development will be tough to build in the future.

Here’s Carfree Austin on the pros and cons of the southern leg of the corridor, for example:

What it’s got going for it: There are plenty of apartment buildings. The new ones being built are denser than those they are replacing. Current residents ride transit more than average Austinites.

What it’s got against it: Existing single family neighborhoods are a substantial part of the station areas. They will likely fight against density, constraining transit oriented development to only certain areas. The Grove Dr. station is basically in an open field. (Austin’s first rural rail station will presumably feature the train yard where vehicles will be stored and serviced.) Other station areas have patchy development with large open lots in between. Existing apartment complexes are sparse and surrounded by seas of parking. Dense development can still be car dependent, and the existing density is decidedly not transit-oriented.

The conclusion? There are smarter ways to spend $1.4 billion to make Austin a less car-dependent, more walkable city:

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Today’s Headlines

  • CTA Plans to Rehab Forest Park Branch; IDOT Wants to Expand the Ike (Oak Park)
  • Residents Weigh in on the Wilson Red Line Rehab; Construction Starts This Month (RedEye)
  • The Past, Present, and Future of the Wilson Stop (RedEye)
  • Emanuel Proposes Taxi Reforms, But Fare Hikes Won’t Come Until After Election (Sun-Times)
  • Rahm Will Likely Tout Long List of CTA Achievements in Upcoming Election (Tattler)
  • An In-Depth Look at Metra Pedestrian Fatalities (WBEZ)
  • Paid Sundays Return to Lakeview; Meter Stickers Explain Why (Expired Meter)
  • Months After Pedicab Ordinance Passed, City Has Only Issued 15 Vehicle Licenses (Sun-Times)
  • Puplic Art Project Planned for Purple Line’s Davis Stop (Northwestern)
  • Final 4 Bike Rack Designs in Rogers Park Contest Look Pretty, But Not Functional (DNA)
  • Cleanup Planned for Viaduct and Mural Under Metra Tracks in Edgebrook (DNA)
  • After 4-Month Hiatus, LGRAB Is Back, With Musings on Autumn Bike Commuting

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New People Spots Are Part of Strategy to Energize Ho-Hum Stretch of Clark

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“Color Guard” People Spot by Osteria De Pizza Metro. Photo: John Greenfield

In July, two new “People Spot” mini parks debuted on an Lackluster segment of Clark near Wellington, as part of a larger campaign to revitalize the business strip.

The new parklets are located in front of El Nuevo Mexicano restaurant, 2914 North Clark, and Osteria De Pizza Metro, 2863 North Clark. They cost a total of about $35,000, which was bankrolled by the local special service area, and they’re manged by the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, according to executive director Maureen Martino. “Sometimes it’s a challenge to activate a street,” she said. “We’re hoping this will bring more customers for local businesses.”

Judging from a recent report by the Metropolitan Planning Council, the People Spots should help make this somewhat sleepy stretch of Clark livelier and more profitable. About 80 percent of the merchants surveyed said that the parklets, which occupy space in a parking lane, increased foot traffic on their block and helped bring shoppers to their establishments. Some credited the People Spots with contributing to a 10 to 20 percent increase in sales since they were installed.

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Parklet by El Nuevo Mexicano restaurant. Photo: John Greenfield

The parklet by the Mexican restaurant replaced a loading zone and one metered car space, while the one by the Italian eatery used two parking spots. In compliance with the city’s parking contract, the three spaces were replaced with new metered spots on nearby streets. The People Spots will revert to parking on November 1, and they’ll be reinstalled in the spring.

Both spaces feature café-style tables and chairs, plus free Wi-Fi. Duane Sohl, from Sohl.Architect, designed the one by El Nuevo Mexicano. It’s surrounded by metal planter boxes featuring framed panels designed by local artists.

The other parklet, created by Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design, is enclosed by a fence made of large PVC plastic tubes, which double as planters. The red, purple and green colors of the tubes playfully spill over onto the sidewalk as a rainbow-like paint puddle that leads to the restaurant’s storefront. The People Spot is titled “Color Guard,” and Martino said the name reflects the diversity of the neighborhood.

Signs on the People Spots make it clear that the seating is open to the public. However, since the spaces resemble sidewalk cafes, and are located by sit-down restaurants, some passers-by may assume that they’re reserved for paying customers. Martino said the chamber may change some of the seating next year to make the spaces more inviting for different uses, as is the case at more free-form parklets at Southport and Addison, and in Andersonville.

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To Destabilize Detroit’s Fragile Renaissance, Go Ahead and Widen I-94

Several historic buildings, including Detroit's oldest recording studio, would be mowed down to widen I-94 for no reason. Photo: Mode Shift via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Several historic buildings, including Detroit’s oldest recording studio, would be mowed down to widen I-94 for no reason. Photo: Mode Shift via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

Michigan highway planners want to spend $2.7 billion to widen Interstate 94 through the heart of Detroit, saying that the existing road needs not just resurfacing and better bridges, but also more space for traffic. State officials continue to push forward with the project despite Detroit’s rapid population loss and other woes, and despite the fact that traffic volume on the stretch being considered for expansion is no higher than it was in 2005. Expanding the highway might even make Detroit’s economic recovery more difficult by further separating two neighborhoods that have been leading the city’s nascent revitalization.

The proposal would widen a seven-mile segment of I-94 called the Edsel Ford Expressway, which runs in a trench through the center of the city between the Midtown and New Center neighborhoods. Those areas are important for the city’s revitalization because of their central location. Efforts there to boost arts and culture, retail and commercial space, and downtown living have been gaining steam in recent years.

In fact, better connecting the neighborhoods is one reason for a $140 million streetcar project that broke ground this July. Officials have already begun calling for expansion of that project, but funds are currently lacking.

The proposed expansion of the highway would have the opposite effect, widening the physical trench between the neighborhoods and removing 11 bridges across the freeway that would not be replaced. As a result, walking and biking in the area would become much less convenient, forcing people to travel as much as six blocks out of their way to reach destinations.

Transportation officials say many buildings would have to be removed to make room for the wider road. The project requires displacing or demolishing 12 commercial buildings, 14 single-family homes, two duplexes and two apartment buildings with 14 units between them, as well as three buildings either on or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, including the city’s oldest recording studio.

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Mapping Accessibility: What Can You Get to in 20 Minutes?

The map on the left shows the number of destinations available in the Minneapolis region in 20 minutes by car. The map on the right shows the same data but by 20-minute transit trip. Image: Streets.mn

The map on the left shows the density of destinations accessible in the Minneapolis region in a 20-minute car trip. The redder the map, the more stuff you can reach. The map on the right shows what’s accessible in a 20-minute transit trip. Maps: Streets.mn

In the U.S., one metric dominates the public discussion about transportation: traffic congestion. Rankings are published every year assessing how clogged the streets are in different cities, and transportation agencies devote a great deal of resources trying to reduce congestion.

The outcome of all this effort, however, doesn’t even help people get places. In metro areas like St. Louis, for example, average commute times have increased as congestion has fallen. That’s because all the infrastructure devoted to relieving congestion also encouraged people to live farther from work. So now people drive longer, faster — not much of a win no matter how you slice it.

David Levinson, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has developed a different metric — a way to assess “accessibility,” or the ease of reaching destinations.

Andrew Owen, a graduate researcher at UMN, writes at Streets.mn about efforts to formalize the concept so it can be used by local transportation agencies:

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Today’s Headlines

  • Evanston City Council Votes to Shelve Sheridan/Chicago PBLs Plans for 2 Years (Northwestern)
  • Active Trans Applauds the City’s Plans for Loop BRT
  • Why Will the 95th Street & Wilson Station Rehabs Be So Expensive? (RedEye)
  • Driver Fatally Strikes 87-Year-Old Man by Wilmette’s Plaza Del Lago (Tribune)
  • Taxi Driver Kills 20-Year-Old Man Near Elk Grove Village; No Charges (Tribune)
  • 58-Year-Old Man Killed in 4-Car Pileup on the Dan Ryan (Tribune)
  • Drivers in Emanuel’s Motorcade Rack Up More Speed Tickets (ABC)
  • Neighbors Say High-Rise Needs More Parking, But Parking at Nearby Tower Is Undersold (DNA)
  • Debris From Byrne Interchange Construction Causes Blue Line Delays (CBS)
  • Former Official From Chicago’s Largest Taxi Company Charged With Laundering Cab Titles (Sun-Times)
  • Risky Business: The Dangers of Driving a Taxi (RedEye)
  • Waukegan Coyote Survives Being Struck By Driver, Stuck in Grill of Car (News-Sun)

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