What Would Jesús Ride? Talking Transportation With Jesús “Chuy” García

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García with CTA customers at a Woodlawn bus shelter. Photo: John Greenfield

[The full text of this interview runs in Newcity magazine.]

For most of the campaign, mayoral hopeful Jesús “Chuy” García has been relatively quiet about transportation issues, except for his vocal opposition to Chicago’s automated traffic enforcement program. Most recently, following the revelation that a former top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied for awarding the latest red light contract to Xerox, García announced that he would shut down all of the city’s traffic cameras on his first day as mayor.

The Emanuel campaign has noted that, before the Cook County commissioner joined other candidates in criticizing automated enforcement, he supported it. On March 11, 2014, García was part of a narrow majority of commissioners who approved an intergovernmental agreement that allowed Safespeed, LLC to install a red light camera on County property in suburban Forest Park.

Campaign finance records show that Citizens for Jesús García received a $1,500 contribution from Safespeed one day before the vote. When I asked about this issue, a García spokeswoman stated that the donation was from Safespeed president and CEO Nikki Zollar, a “thirty-year-old friend” of the commissioner, and it did not influence his decision.

Shortly before the February 24 municipal election, García, who has a master’s degree in urban planning from UIC, broke his relative silence on other transportation topics by releasing a transportation platform. The document suggests that he is well informed about transit funding and transit-oriented development, although there’s little mention of pedestrian and bike issues.

The platform endorses Transit Future, a campaign by the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood technology to create a dedicated revenue stream at the county level for public transportation infrastructure (as does the Emanuel campaign). García says he’s interested in the possibility of raising the state gas tax to fund transit, and/or creating a transit-impact fee for new developments.

The candidate called for building more housing near train stations and reducing the parking requirements for these developments, in order to reduce car dependency. He also stated that he wants to secure a larger percentage of state and federal transportation funds for the Chicago region, which contains seventy percent of Illinois’ population but only gets forty-five percent of state transportation funds.

On March 7, I caught up with García at his Woodlawn campaign office to talk about sustainable transportation and safe streets issues in advance of the April 7 runoff election. We discussed his positions on pedestrian infrastructure, bike facilities, road diets, bus rapid transit and, of course, traffic cams. I’ve edited the conversation for brevity and clarity.

John Greenfield: I was impressed that your transportation platform endorsed Transit Future and transit-oriented development.

Jesús “Chuy” García: I’m a transit rider, a Pink Line guy. We fought for the reconstruction of the Pink Line, which used to be the Blue Line, the Douglas [Branch], back in the nineties, when they were going to eliminate it. We fought back and got it renovated. We even engaged in some civil disobedience to force the contractor to hire some folks from North Lawndale and South Lawndale. We got arrested for blocking the entrance to an office of the contractor because they weren’t hiring any minorities.

JG: Interesting. I just wanted to double check, on the Active Transportation Alliance’s transportation survey, you checked a box that said, yes, you would be in favor of dedicated funding for pedestrian safety infrastructure. These are things like speed humps, crosswalk striping, curb bump-outs and pedestrian islands. If elected, would you, in fact, propose a line item for safety infrastructure in the city budget, instead of requiring aldermen to pay for that stuff out of menu money?

CG: I’m leaning toward doing that. I say that with some hesitancy, recognizing how the financial straits of the city seem to be worsening, with the [credit] downgrade that we suffered, the park district downgrade, and now yesterday’s Chicago Public Schools downgrade. I would want to do that, but I’ve got to have a better picture of exactly what the finances are going to be, in terms of the city budget. But if I had it my way, yes, I would do that.

Read the rest of the interview at Newcity magazine’s website.

  • jeff wegerson

    Thanks for the great Garcia transit interview. I too initially favored a Western BRT, so it’s good to see that he is a lot more sophisticated, transit wise, than I was giving him credit for.

    I am now totally comfortable with his positions and his willingness adjust them as facts change.

  • Kevin M

    Great article title, John.

    Populist leaders are probably a common democratic response to authoritarian leadership, but they can lead to stagnation and regression.

  • Once again Garcia gets close then comes up short.

    Gives Bike/Ped a bone then chucks it to the NIMBYs under the guise of “community input”, same thing with BRT. I understand the need to hear the worries of the neighborhood but viewing projects in a vacuum like that is a poor way of determining impacts.

    I specifically disliked his comments on Ashland bucking the question to Western. Ok fine we move it to Western, now what. Do the NIMBYs suddenly vanish or do a new crop spring up? Western is a bit wider but its still 4travel/2parking/1turn like Ashland. Does Garcia have a plan to get the money needed to re-do the study for a new corridor? Won’t the dropping of an already funded project make getting the cash again from the Fed/State harder?

    Is Western even a better route? Less passengers than Ashland, misses key destinations like United Center, Medical District, and Ashland/63rd. Also further from downtown and the growing Near West Side. Obviously Western should have full BRT at some point but Ashland has the highest bus ridership in the system and would be a much better demonstration of full BRT in action.

    If Garcia crumbles to pressure this quickly in regards these arguably smaller scale projects I don’t really know what to make of him. If/when Transit Future becomes real can he push through things like a Brown Line extension under Lawrence, something that would take many properties. What about Sheridan (arguably the slowest point of the Red/Purple lines if not the system), makes the Belmont Flyover look like nothing in terms of potential impacts.

    I understand that part of being a populist is “giving the people what they want” but one should not only listen on those who shout the loudest.

  • jimsey

    Based on my experience of attending community meetings, under Chuy’s policy of listening, nothing ever will ever get built in this city ever. And what does get built, will be a crapshoot patchwork quilt.

  • Pat

    John,

    I believe the camera was installed at the intersection of Lake and Harlem on the border of River Forest and Oak Park.

  • David Altenburg

    Great interview. Thanks for doing this, John.

    In my reading of it, Chuy is being very consistent with all his answers. That is, for each area, he demonstrates an unwillingness to take a stance that might anger potential voters. By the criteria he’s laid out in this interview, it’s hard to imagine any bike lanes being constructed where people will ride them, any new road diets, or any dedicated road space being given over to transit. Yes, he’s in favor of getting more money for transit, but who (in Chicago) isn’t?

    It’s easy to poke fun at his whole “let the neighbors decide” cop-out, but I think the line that best sums up the interview is the following:

    “We would consider the best public safety options to utilize in the most dangerous intersections.”

    I’m gonna vote for the candidate who I think will actually enact, not just consider, those options.

  • That was my major problem with my aldermanic race. I kept getting campaign workers on my porch saying, “What would make you vote for our guy?” and I kept saying, “Him espousing some policy direction more controversial than Mom and Apple Pie and Our Children.” Both candidates had almost identical platforms, because the only things they would commit to being “for” are things nobody can be “against” without being an asshole.

    I tell a slight lie: one had a tiny half-sentence about being pro-union. But still.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Thanks John. This interview is very helpful. If Mr. Garcia can’t give a simple “yes” on protected bike lanes & BRT, then a Chicago Vision Zero or a NYC “No Turn on Red” concept – isn’t even passing his rear view mirror. A good friend of mine who drives everywhere (a bit crazily) told me he likes the red light & speed cameras. He says they seem to have made those around him drive better. So not sure Mr. Garcia is really earning votes on the no camera stance. But WTH do I know.

  • Anne A

    Also, Western has large intermodal yards that generate a huge volume of truck traffic (18 wheelers). Yesterday my husband was driving northbound on Western and encountered a truck blockage starting at 79th and running all the way up to the intermodal yard entrance at 75th. This is a very common problem on Western, something that isn’t an issue on Ashland. An Ashland route hits many more important destinations for passengers. It also has the highest volume of ridership – the reason it was chosen.

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