What Good Chicagoland Regional Planning Looks Like

CMAP at Round Lake Heights Village Festival
CMAP helps Chicagoland communities develop their own plans to implement the goals of GO TO 2040. Photo: CMAP

By now, Streetsblog readers know all about how the Illiana Tollway, a proposed highway that will see little use and cost taxpayers $500 million, has messed up our regional plan. Last October, the MPO Policy Committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning voted to add the Illiana to the GO TO 2040 plan, allowing the Illinois Department of Transportation to go ahead and build it, even though the project actually works against the plan’s goal of focusing growth near existing infrastructure.

This vote, like the Circle Interchange decision before it, threatened the integrity of regional planning in Chicagoland. The painstaking GO TO 2040 planning process involved countless partners who had agreed that other projects should get priority over these two highway expansions.

GO TO 2040 had been a widely-lauded plan. This year the federal Environmental Protection Agency presented CMAP a Smart Growth Achievement Award for GO TO 2040 (not the first accolade). The EPA touts GO TO 2040 as a “policy-based plan” that “actively engaged regional partners and local stakeholders” and got feedback from 35,000 residents.

The only good thing that came out of IDOT commandeering this regional planning process was a better understanding of how to prevent it from happening again.

This award-winning plan deserves first-rate implementation. It’s not much of a plan if the region doesn’t stick to it. So I asked three policy makers in Chicago to describe how GO TO 2040 should be implemented going forward. 

Amanda Woodall is the director of policy and planning at Active Transportation Alliance. She says that “implementation of any plan rests largely on two things: funding and capacity,” and “CMAP is out in front of both.” CMAP decides how to allocate certain funds, like federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds, which Woodall calls “a tremendous incentive for communities to tackle congestion mitigation and to create a world-class transportation system.”

Woodall mentioned CMAP’s Local Technical Assistance grant program as giving communities the ability “to take on these projects.” This program essentially allows communities and organizations to ask for help in creating plans that will attain the goals of GO TO 2040 at the local scale.

Active Trans has contributed to plans around Chicagoland, including Oak Pak’s Comprehensive Plan, Des Plaines River Trail Access Plan, and the Village of Wheeling Active Transportation Plan.

Currently, the University of Illinois at Chicago is also receiving support from CMAP for its multi-modal transportation plan, and the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area – on which I serve as a committee member – is working with CMAP to create a parking management innovation plan.

MarySue Barrett, president of Metropolitan Planning Council, said that GO TO 2040, while “laying out a compelling vision for a more competitive, sustainable, and livable region,” lacks the “tools to help communities implement their goals and financial rewards that reinforce actions consistent with our regional plan.”

For example, we’ve adopted a bold goal of doubling transit ridership. Today, only 23 percent of housing across the region is within a 1/2 mile of transit. What we need to do is modernize zoning and provide development incentives to locate more housing close to transit, where it makes environmental sense and is convenient to a growing slice of the population demanding transit access.

One obstacle to this, she says, is that CMAP’s core funding comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation, but regional plans, here and across the United States, are more than transportation plans, so other agencies should be coordinating with U.S. DOT to fund them. “It makes sense that [implementing agencies] receive a small slice of support across a range of federal agencies,” Barrett said. She added that federal agencies could work together to reward local funding requests that support GO TO 2040’s goals, which would “reinforce coordinated action.”

Randy Neufeld, director of the SRAM Cycling Fund and a godfather of active transportation advocacy in the region, also mentioned the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program as a model. “It shows that we are capable of a decent, multi-modal regional process,” he said. “When a specific amount of money is put on the table for a specific goal, we do a pretty good job figuring out how to fairly and effectively use it.” Neufeld also pointed out that the distribution of CMAQ funds is up to CMAP, not the Illinois Department of Transportation.

IDOT could do itself a favor and devolve more funding decision-making to the region. This is the [California DOT] model, where most programming is done at the regional level. In Illinois it probably just makes sense for the Chicago region and possibly the St. Louis area. It wouldn’t require any legislative action and IDOT could shed some of the costs of programming and managing funds.

It could happen gradually one program at a time so the state develops trust and our region develops programming competence. It is low risk for IDOT because they have a huge role in our region’s decision making and they can always take the programming back if it doesn’t work out. And there’s a precedent, regional programming of CMAQ was an IDOT choice.

Neufeld said “a natural first step” would be for IDOT to relinquish control of Highway Safety Improvement Program funds to the region. He also thinks safety goals should be incorporated across the board. “I’d love to see an annual CMAP Safety Summit where we look at the data, evaluate progress, and propose solutions that impact all programming processes,” he said.

CMAP, and everyone who contributed to the GO TO 2040 plan, deserve the awards, because the initial planning process was inclusive and built on good research and data analysis, and it produced policies that will lead to better quality of life. Now we need to strengthen the implementation of GO TO 2040 and avoid the counterproductive blunders like the Circle Interchange and Illiana Tollway.

  • Rob Rion

    I don’t think the problem was IDOT telling CMAP what projects to include. Illiana was added by locals who thought they were left out. The problem is we don’t need CMAP in the middle. IDOT should be the planning organization. It should be reformed so that it works better and involves all types of transportation from cars, peds, bikes, and all public transit. It can create a real statewide plan that benefits everyone instead of the hodgepodge approach we have now.

  • Ryan Wallace

    1) The majority of real locals (aka residents) didnt actually want the project. 2) IDOT would do a horrific job trying to take over what CMAP does.

  • Rob Rion

    So we just invent another org to do it ‘right’. I am all for balanced transportation but just creating something else doesn’t work. That was the problem described above. Iliana and the Circle didn’t get in orginally and IDOT got them in. If IDOT was doing their job correctly then CMAP would not be needed. Most people don’t even know about CMAP and what they do. IDOT should be running a transportation network statewide.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    CMAP seems to be some kind of quasi government entity that gets taxpayer funding but no one knows (from the public’s point of view) who runs it, who gets appointed to it, what they do and how they are accountable to the taxpayer. Same for Metropolitan Planning Council.

  • Ryan Wallace

    Just the opposite. If IDOT was in charge, those projects would have gotten into the plan without legitimate public input. IDOT does what’s in its own best interest, CMAP does what’s in the best interests of the region. CMAP is not unique to Illinois or the nation. Most if not all large metro areas have MPOs (metropolitan planning organizations).

  • All “urbanized areas” with more than 50,000 people are required by federal law to have an MPO. There are over 300 across the United States.

  • CMAP receives funding from the federal government to operate. It doesn’t collect taxpayer funding, but instead uses a public planning process, committee meetings, discussions with municipalities and non-profit organizations, to decide which projects should receive taxpayer funding (from the agencies that collect it, like IDOT and the U.S. DOT).

    CMAP is there to ensure that projects regional entities want to build, and want federal funding to pay for it, are funded are in line with the GO TO 2040 plan.

    Here’s a better description of the process:

    1. Kane County wants to build an underpass on Randall Road to build a bike path under Randall Road. They submit an application to CMAP to have this project paid for with federal CMAQ funds.

    2. CMAP collects all of the applications and ranks them according to its established policy. Staff review each application to ensure that it’s written well and would be acceptable to the U.S. DOT, which ultimately has to fund the projects.

    3. Various committees then vote to approve certain projects and forward these to the U.S. DOT.

  • This is somewhat related to future NE Illinois Transit Planning and Funding: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-transit-task-force-met-20140313,0,6282303.story

  • Thanks for sharing this article. We’ve been covering this developing topic here: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/04/01/final-state-task-force-report-dives-into-transit-reform-details/

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Preckwinkle, Environmental Groups Want CMAP to Drop Illiana

|
The Sierra Club and other organizations intend to petition the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to remove the Illiana Tollway from its regional plan, effectively disallowing the state from building the new highway. The deletion is possible because CMAP, the federally-designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for this region, is finalizing a mandatory update of its GO […]