3 Big CDOT Projects Have Been Postponed, But the Delays Are Reasonable

Divvy Bike Share Station
Sorry, Chicago won’t be getting any new Divvy stations until 2015. Photo: Steve Chou

In early June, I dubbed this the Summer of the Big Projects. The Chicago Department of Transportation was planning to start construction on, and/or complete, a slew of major infrastructure jobs this year. Now it seems more like the Summer of the Big Postponements.

Over the last month, we’ve gotten word that three major initiatives – the Bloomingdale Trail, the Central Loop BRT, and now the Divvy expansion — have been put on hold until 2015. That’s disappointing, but most of the reasons given for the delays are completely understandable.

When I interviewed CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld back in May, she expressed confidence that these projects would move forward as planned. The Bloomingdale, also known as The 606, is currently in the thick of construction, as you can see from photos Steven Vance and I took on a recent tour. The 2.7-mile, $95 million elevated greenway and linear park was slated to open in its basic form this fall, with additional enhancements being added next year.

However, on June 20, CDOT announced that the Bloomingdale opening was being postponed until June 2015, when the trail and its access parks will open in their completed state. They had a legitimate excuse: cold spring temperatures and frozen soil forced crews to delay the relocation of utilities and structural work. That, in turn, delayed the installation of new concrete in some sections, and forced the department to wait until next spring to do landscape plantings.

The transportation department had also been planning to start building the $32 million Central Loop BRT corridor later this year, with service launching in 2015. The system will run between Union Station and Navy Pier, including dedicated bus lanes on Canal, Clinton, Washington and Madison, as well as a new transit center next to the train station.

In May, Scheinfeld told me CDOT was still planning to start construction this year. However, the timetable seemed a bit optimistic, because the city was still discussing the design with downtown property owners and merchants. Some of them had kvetched that creating dedicated bus lanes would slow car traffic, and that the extra-large bus shelters would obscure their storefronts.

CL Platform on street 12-18-13
Rendering of the Loop BRT on Washington Boulevard.

Three days after the Bloomingdale announcement, there was another buzzkill when City Hall announced that the Loop BRT construction had been postponed until at least next year. Scheinfeld told the Sun-Times that the design and outreach process had been taking longer than expected.

It’s also possible that the decision to delay this bold initiative until after the 2015 mayoral election was politically motivated. Walter Hook, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which is consulting on the Loop and Ashland BRT projects, has said as much. “Recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has gotten beat up politically,” he told Citiscope in March. “And so he’s sort of pushed a couple of the more aggressive BRT proposals to after the next election.”

In May, Scheinfeld also told me that she anticipated the Divvy system would expand from 300 to 475 stations in 2014. This was despite the fact that Montreal-based Bixi, which supplies the bike-share equipment to Divvy concessionaire Alta Bicycle Share, had gone bankrupt. “We are moving aggressively to try to still meet our goals for expansion this year, so I expect we still will,” she said.

At a June 17 Streetsblog reader meet-up, I discussed the expansion with Alta principal Mia Birk. She told me, off the record, that Bixi bikes were becoming available again. However, due to pipeline issues, Divvy would probably not expand until spring 2015. When I asked CDOT spokesman Pete Scales whether this was correct, he said that the matter hadn’t been settled yet.

So I wasn’t surprised when Birk recently went public, telling American Public Media’s Marketplace that Alta probably won’t be expanding any of the existing systems it runs, or launching new ones, until 2015. It’s likely CDOT will soon make an official announcement that Divvy won’t get new stations this year.

“With The 606, the Loop BRT, and now the Divvy expansion, ‘wait until 2015’ is becoming a common refrain,” lamented Streetsblog Chicago reader David Altenburg after I posted a link to the Marketplace story. “Maybe the Cubs will be contenders then, too!”

While it’s certainly a bummer that Chicagoans have to wait several more months for these transportation amenities, we shouldn’t get too discouraged. After all, Divvy was supposed to debut in the summer of 2012, but the launch was pushed back a year. When bike-share finally arrived, the system soon proved to be wildly successful, and now the delay is a mere footnote.

Assuming we get more Divvy stations, the Bloomingdale, and the Loop BRT next year, it will be a landmark year, and these amenities will be better late than never. In the meantime, we can still get excited about other transportation projects that have recently been completed or are well underway, like the nifty new protected bike lanes on Broadway and Harrison, the Green Line’s Cermak station, the Navy Pier Flyover, and the Chicago Riverwalk.

  • ThisManIsRight

    bummer. i let my Divvy expire recently after it failed to move closer to my ‘hood in the first set of expansion. I want them to succeed, and hope they can continue to pick up users within the existing footprint for the next year. I’m curious how many annual passes they’ve managed to pickup this summer.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Have you heard anything about the status of the Clybourn protected bike lane? Is that still on the table for 2014?

  • what_eva

    when is the 2014 mayoral election? (hint: 2015)

  • skyrefuge

    According to http://www.marketplace.org/topics/sustainability/bike-sharings-big-problem-missing-bikes there are currently 23,118 Divvy members, up from 12,242 at the beginning of the year.

    June 2014 was the biggest gain ever, adding 3196 members. (and last year, July and August were much bigger months than that June, though that pattern might not hold this year since June 2013 was just the second month of operation).

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    My only question/comment with the Alta Bikeshare bankruptcy, has any payments made by the city been lost due to the bankruptcy? Or are all payments made to the company for services/equipment that has been totally completed. I would hate to see the taxpayers lose money for services/equipment paid for but tied up by the bankruptcy.

  • JacobEPeters

    Alta is solvent, it is Public Bike Share (aka “Bixi”) which went bankrupt. This bankruptcy disrupted the supply chain, undoubtedly there are contingencies in contracts that stipulate financial penalties for not delivering product on schedule. I’d like to know what those specifics are for CDOT’s contract, but I would guess it would result in us saving money, not losing money.

  • cjlane

    “It’s also possible that the decision to delay this bold initiative until after the 2015 mayoral election was politically motivated.”

    It’s also possible that it was motivated by an invasion of body snatchers. Or the influence of Barney (Dinosaur/Fife/Gumble–take your pick).

    Take a look at Washington bt Clark and LaSalle. Tell me if you think it is practical to begin construction of BRT facilities when *that* will be there for 6 months plus.

  • Kevin M

    Re: “Take a look at Washington bt Clark and LaSalle.”

    What, specifically, are you referring to?

  • It seems logical that the consultant for the BRT project would know the inside scoop on this, so it’s not just guesswork on my part.

  • What am I happy that has happened this year? Plenty of bike lane refreshes that were sorely needed.

  • Which is a direct result in increased inconveniences, I anticipate they are working to improve balancing. Even in the few instances that I’ve Divvy’d, full or empty stations has happened more than not.

  • Roland Solinski

    Is this a weird reference to City Hall or the man sitting on the 5th floor?

  • Roland Solinski

    I don’t know why you think it’s “reasonable” for CDOT to postpone important BRT projects because Rahm is watching his back.

    Technical problems, unexpected issues, etc are reasonable. Political fright is weakness.

  • I said *most* of the reasons are completely understandable. The political one is arguably the exception. However, you could also make an argument that if BRT is implemented in the Loop and then Rahm doesn’t get reelected, we might not see BRT on Ashland or other streets anytime soon. So maybe it makes sense for him to proceed with caution.

  • Which lanes were you thinking of?

  • kastigar

    New projects are always needed, but how about maintaining and restoring some of the older projects?

    The bike lanes and shared lanes on Lawrence Avenue, going west from Western Avenue are so badly faded as to be called missing. There are few signs along the street as well indicating bike lanes.

  • I think there are Plans for that stretch of Lawrence, such that it’s been “on hold” for a couple of years — at this point, put down some new paint NOW and then reengineer it LATER too, imho! But I don’t run CDOT.

    Even right in front of the alderman’s office, the bike lanes are insultingly bad. They repaved the intersection at the library there and repainted in the crosswalks (at least), but not the bike lanes, not even on the new asphalt.

  • Thank you for this story, John! My next Divvy question would be: how has the supply bottleneck affected repairs and replacements? I have a sense (totally unscientific) that there are fewer bikes on the street this year.

  • I’m not sure that there are fewer bikes on the street instead of more people using them. Divvy has been enjoying record-breaking ridership recently.

  • cjlane

    Brain cramp. Madison, not Washington.

  • cjlane

    It seems logical that he would attempt to assert political pressure by accusing Rahm of bowing to politics, too. He’s not merely a consultant.

    Besides–if these BRT proposals are so unquestionably awesome, why would Rahm want to delay them? Hmmm.

    PS: Were I Rahm, if there is any truth to it, I’d fire him for airing dirty laundry like that. But I would probably wait until after the election.

    PPS: Looked at the City’s contract database–I don’t see Walter or ITDP listed–do you know under what contract Walter is acting as a consultant?

  • cjlane

    Are you suggesting, by replying to me, that I think any of it has anything to do with Rahm “watching his back”?

  • cjlane

    “So maybe it makes sense for him to proceed with caution.”

    The guy you say knows better says that the delay is *because* Rahm is getting beaten up other issues, has turned tail on confrontation, and can’t take the risk of pushing it right now, bc it might jeopardize his re-election. And you say that it is logical that he knows the ‘inside scoop”, so we should credit his opinion as being the real deal.

  • Correct. Hook, an insider, says Rahm has postponed the Loop and Ashland BRT projects because Rahm is worried about reelection. Therefore, it’s possible, perhaps likely, that this is the case.

    The question is, is it “timid” of Rahm to do this, as Hook said in the interview, or prudent? Here’s the full quote from Hook:

    “In North America, they’re on the cusp of a pretty good system in downtown Chicago. And there’s a second corridor we were hoping would reach gold standard in Chicago on Ashland. But recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has gotten beat up politically because of crime and the teacher’s strike and he’s gotten more timid. And so he’s sort of pushed a couple of the more aggressive BRT proposals to after the next election.”

  • Roland Solinski

    No, I was responding to John’s headline. Seems like you and I agree that Rahm is not living up to his promises on BRT with all this stalling, and he shouldn’t be excused for this.

    However, it is difficult for me to figure out your real opinion when you keep couching it in sarcasm and rhetorical questions. Online commenting demands a more direct approach.

  • Perhaps I should have said “most delays are reasonable,” but it would be hard to cram into one line.

  • ITDP is listed as a “partner” on the BRT Chicago website: http://www.brtchicago.com/partners.php Not sure what the financial relationship is, but ITDP has been advising the city of Chicago on its BRT projects.

  • cjlane

    How is Hook an “insider”? Does he expect to remain an insider now that he’s called Rahm a wuss?

  • cjlane

    Here’s direct:

    I do not believe *at all* that the delay of Loop BRT has anything to do with the politics of the election.

    I think that suggesting otherwise (especially when it goes so far as calling Rahm “timid”) is a *big* bet that Rahm won’t get reelected, as *no one* likes that, and Rahm doesn’t forget things.

    And, if the advocates are willing to paint Loop BRT as such a questionable project that completing it would be a *negative* for Rahm’s reelection, then I have much much concern about how the project will actually function.

  • cjlane

    Oh, also, why would there be backlash? Isn’t the Loop BRT supposed to make it easier for *everyone* to get across the Loop?

  • cjlane

    Ok, and … How is it logical that that relationship makes the CEO of the organization an “insider” on Rahm’s political decision making?

    Is Ron Burke of ATA also in on that intel? Patrick Phillips of ULI? Terry Mazany might be, but he wouldn’t talk about it.

  • Shlabotnik

    I think it’s very logical. Suppose Rahm’s team and the ITDP team meet every so often to discuss the project. You don’t think ITDP might come around to the point, either because of an explicit or tacit admission, that mayoral politics (particularly election politics) is having an influence on the project timeline? Seems perfectly reasonable to me.

  • cjlane

    Yes, Rahm and/or someone from his campaign team certainly are attending BRT meetings.

    Much more likely is some Rahm-disliker on staff made some remark about ‘politics’. Because, you know, it’s always about politics and that everything that is *actually* stated–even when perfectly reasonable (ie: not blaming the new ORD traffic pattern for the delay)–is just a pretext.

    And diagnosing Rahm as ‘timid’ was similarly based on insider info. Wait–not “insider info”–Hook’s *personal* *status* as an “Insider”.

  • cjlane

    Oh, AND, if it is *not* design issues holding things up, then someone should be able to explain how the right turn lanes are going to be handled.

    And someone should be able to explain how the construction is supposed to work on Madison b/t Clark and LaSalle, with an elevator in the street, prbably until srping.

    And someone should be able to verify the locations of the stops.

    Sure, sure, everyone went into total ‘do nothing’ mode, because Rahm is so scary (to work for) and scared about *BRT* will be the tipping point killing his re-election.

    Guess the current (undisclosed) design and engineering of Loop BRT is so unbelievably ghastly that Rahm will lose hundreds, nay thousands, of votes over that single issue.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Here’s another couple things to ponder. For years plans have kicked around for downtown circulators and express busses. Now there’s suggestions for using the riverfront. What’s never been fully worked out is how do you accommodate the deliveries, the new construction, the taxis, the buses, the bikers, the auto drivers, the utility work and so on. If you sqeeze out one lanefor the BRT, one lane for the loading BRT and a bike lane, deliveries one one side on each of the east west, leaving what you have left for everything else including emergency vehicles and utility work. Previous bus only lanes didn’t work well.

    Next, when you want to attract big time companies like Motorola to headquarter in downtown, the CEOs aren’t going to ride the bus. And will they sit in crazy traffic. Sure the underlings can ride their bikes, but the top guns don’t.

    And if you plan to tear down parking structures to build new yeah, they may have to use the street too.

  • “Walter Hook, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which is consulting on the Loop and Ashland BRT projects…”

    Lots of bold street reconfiguration projects have a short-term backlash, which in this case could conceivably have an effect on the election, even though they’re likely to be viewed as no big deal, if not a major improvement, in the long term.

    Think of of the Dearborn protected lanes. When it debuted, mainstream news outlets ran articles featuring lots of quotes from people on the street about how converting a lane of Dearborn to a different use would cause gridlock. Now, everyone takes that street reconfiguration for granted, and lots of people love it, but perhaps Rahm would have thought twice about doing that project in an election year.

  • No, the divvy thing isnt reasonable. They picked Alta/Bixi because of political connections, even though everyone knew that both companies were having serious issues. In return, Chicago got a one year delay, and then a one year expansion delay….hey, thats familiar, its what happened in Boston, and NYC, and everyone warned Chicago it would happen to them too!

  • cjlane

    But isn’t it just as (I would hope *you*, John, would say ‘much more’) likely to be *great* right off the bat, especially if they can figure out all of the design and engineering (traffic and otherwise) challenges?

    I think it’s really damning that the advocates for BRT think that the project is (1) so fully baked as to be buildable today, notwithstanding what CDOT sez, and (2) so likely to be poorly received that Rahm is worrying about a few hundred votes that might be swung on the (really quite minor) issue of BRT.

  • cjlane

    “Next, when you want to attract big time companies like Motorola to headquarter in downtown, the CEOs aren’t going to ride the bus.”

    That’s why the corps with CEOs in Chicago mainly office on/near Wacker or N or W of the River. Bc then they needn’t deal with the crazy cross-Loop traffic.

    “What’s never been fully worked out is how do you accommodate … and so on.”

    Like the parking spots that belong to someone else and *MUST* be replaced by other spots in the Loop with similar usage rates? This is a significant complication, too.

  • You could actually track Divvy’s real-time station & bike availability data to see how many bikes are available at any given time. (You would have to look at the data over a period, and not just once.)

    http://divvybikes.com/stations/json

  • Nathanael

    I mostly want to see the revised streetscape around Union Station (Canal St., Jackson St. bus station, Clinton St.) Canal St. in front of Union Station is a MESS. Surely this part can be built first? It doesn’t have any adjoining businesses to complain about anything!

  • I’m bummed, too. There was supposed to be a Divvy station at the end of my block in Avondale and now there won’t be!

  • Yes, there was a public meeting on July 24 about this, and I published an article about it here.

    http://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/07/25/cdot-proposes-chicagos-first-curb-separated-bike-lane-on-clybourn/

  • cjlane

    Guess the “political fright” has evaporated, since construction is starting March 16–before the actual election.

  • Roland Solinski

    Or Rahm is going all-in… Perhaps he has decided that the glow of having several major transit projects under construction in the Loop outweighs the shade from motorists who are stuck in Loop traffic.

    Many of those drivers are suburbanites anyway, and the ones that live in the city are presumably (by virtue of driving to work in the Loop) wealthy enough that they are unlikely to vote Chuy.

  • cjlane

    But the accusation was that he is timid. So the theory now is that he’s trying to prove he’s not timid and going all in? But I thought the biggest problem with Rahm is that he’s an inveterate a-hole who doesn’t care what anyone else wants or thinks?

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