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Posts from the "Beyond Chicagoland" Category

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Quinn Borrows $1.1 Billion to Keep IDOT’s Steamrollers Going

Governor Quinn Signs $1.1 Billion   Capital Construction Bill

Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill in front of workers at the Circle Interchange construction site today. Photo: IDOT

Governor Pat Quinn signed two bills today that allow the state to issue $1.1 billion in general obligation bonds to spend on highway resurfacing, widening, and bridge repair. The bills explicitly exclude transit from the new funds, and while they don’t seem to exclude bike lanes, trails, or sidewalks, all of the funds are already obligated to car-centric road projects [PDF].

Erica Borggren, acting secretary for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said in a press release, “This construction program is the shot in the arm that our transportation system and our economy needs.”

What the economy and our transportation system also need is an efficient and sustainable way for users to pay the system’s ongoing costs — rather than a stopgap that socks future taxpayers, whether transit riders or pedestrians or drivers, with big loan payments. Keep in mind that today, Illinois has the country’s worst credit rating, and thus pays the highest interest rate of any state — 42 percent more interest than usual.

Springfield’s State Journal-Register reported that “the plan got overwhelming support in the final days of the legislative session, though some lawmakers were concerned that they didn’t have enough time to study where the money would go.” The answer, as with most anything related to IDOT spending, is “overwhelmingly Downstate.”

Just over four percent of the funds will be spent in Chicago, home to 22 percent of the state’s population. Most of that will go to reconstruct and replace the bridges and viaducts on the Stevenson Expressway (I-55), between the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-94) and South Lake Shore Drive. $700,000 will be spent to resurface 0.6 miles of South Michigan Avenue in Washington Park.

Just under 37 percent of the funds will be spent in the six-county Chicagoland area, and the majority of that will go to exurbs and rural areas. This might prove convenient for Quinn during an election year, especially given the dwindling fund balance in his signature “Illinois Jobs Now!” program. The program has just $115 million left to spend, according to IDOT spokesperson Paris Ervin.

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Facebook Billionaire Sean Parker Bankrolls Free Parking Ballot Initiative in SF

Sean Parker spent $100,000 to support Mayor Ed Lee’s 2011 election bid, and $49,000 on a 2014 ballot initiative to maintain free parking and build new garages in SF.

Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook and a major contributor to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, has spent $49,000 of his personal fortune to propel a ballot initiative that seeks to enshrine free parking as city policy, according to the SF Chronicle. Parker gave $100,000 to Lee’s mayoral campaign in 2011.

The ballot initiative, which proponents frame as an attempt to “restore balance” to city transportation policy, first surfaced in April. While the measure would be non-binding, if it passes it could further slow much-needed policies to prioritize transit and street safety in San Francisco. One stated goal of the campaign is to kill Sunday parking meters for good. The SFMTA Board of Directors, which is appointed entirely by Mayor Lee, repealed Sunday metering in April, after Lee made unfounded claims about a popular revolt against the policy.

Mayor Ed Lee with Facebook-founding billionaire Sean Parker (right) and Ron Conway (center), both major campaign donors. Photo: The Bay Citizen/Center for Investigative Reporting

Several veteran opponents of transportation reform in San Francisco are aligned with the ballot initiative. And, in addition to the backing from Parker, another $10,000 for the measure reportedly came from the San Francisco Republican Party.

Parker’s funding for the ballot initiative apparently helped pay petitioners to get out and collect the 17,500 signatures submitted last week to place the measure on the ballot. Two Streetsblog readers reported being approached in Safeway parking lots by petitioners who falsely claimed that the SFMTA had not repealed Sunday parking meters. A flyer distributed for the campaign [PDF] claims the measure calls for “restoring free parking at meters on Sundays, holidays and evenings.” Campaign proponent and previous Republican Assembly hopeful Jason Clark told SFist that the allegations were “hearsay,” but that the non-binding resolution would “ensure [SFMTA] can’t” bring back Sunday meters.

Parker has a reputation for selfish extravagance at the expense of the public realm. In February, he denied accusations that he had workers bulldoze snow from in front of his $20 million home in New York City’s Greenwich Village onto the street. The snow was reportedly cleared so a high-speed internet cable could be hooked up to the home. Last year, he was fined $2.5 million for damaging a Big Sur redwood grove that served as his wedding backdrop.

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Re-imagining Parking Spaces as Micro-Apartments

These 300-square-foot micro apartments, designed by Savannah art students, were installed in Atlanta parking spaces. Photo: SCADpad.com

This 135-square-foot micro apartment was one of three designed by Savannah art students that were recently installed in an Atlanta parking garage. Photo: SCADpad.com

Can parking spaces get a second life? A student project in Atlanta helps demonstrate the possibilities in every stall.

Students at the Savannah College of Art and Design created three “SCADpads:” 135-square-foot micro-apartments designed to fit in the space defined by a single parking spot. Three prototypes for these modular homes, which cost $40-$60,000 to construct, were installed in an Atlanta garage this spring, to help model what might be a more sustainable paradigm for the city.

Each micro-apartment was designed by the students to reflect the culture of a different continent: Asia, North America, and Europe. Each was outfitted with a small kitchen, a sleeper-sofa, a bathroom, and some high-tech features like iPad-controlled “smart glass” windows that can be obscured for privacy. In addition, each apartment included a “porch” area, the size of an additional parking space, and a shared community garden that harvests “grey water” from the sink and shower.

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CMAP Tells IDOT: “To Each Municipality, According to Their Needs”

Urbanity fails again.

Uneven pavement abounds in Chicagoland. Photo: Josh Koonce

The Illinois Department of Transportation, whose secretary resigned last week after accusations about patronage hiring, distributed $545 million in gas tax revenue to fix streets in almost 3,000 jurisdictions last year. While this sounds like a lot of money, poor road and bridge conditions across the state can attest to the fact that these funds might not be going to the places that need them most. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s federally designated metropolitan planning organization, has recently written about different methods that IDOT could use to more fairly distribute these revenues across the state’s cities and counties.

CMAP’s regional comprehensive plan, GO TO 2040, implemented for the first time a system of performance measures to make sure that transportation funding generally goes to where it’s needed, instead of just where it’s wanted. In that spirit, CMAP suggests a few alternatives to the state’s existing distribution mechanism, which state law currently divvies up based mostly on population as well as the number of licensed vehicles and street mileage. The current system steers 71 percent of statewide gas tax revenue to the seven-county CMAP region.

This “formula funding” mechanism, CMAP says, ignores the transportation system’s changing needs. Plus, since the percentages are set in law, that means that fund distributions “cannot respond to changing needs over time.” For example, 16.74 percent of the $545 million in annual gas tax revenue goes to the one Illinois county with over one million residents — Cook County. Meanwhile, DuPage County has grown to 932,000 residents, and could reach one million residents before 2040. When that happens, DuPage would become eligible for that 16.74 percent slice, and Cook could see its own revenue cut in half overnight, even though its streets would remain heavily used by suburbanites driving into the region’s core for work or play. 

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Why the Federal Funding Emergency Matters for Transportation Reform

Why does it matter if state departments of transportation get less money?

In light of last week’s news that the U.S. DOT might have to ration its payments to states in the absence of new revenue for the federal transportation program, we posed that question to David Goldberg, communications director at Transportation for America. After all, a lot of states are pursuing wasteful boondoggles, like Kentucky’s Ohio River Bridges Project and the Illiana Expressway.

Several states have said they will hold off on planning new projects until they have some certainty that they will be reimbursed with federal funds. And if Washington can’t deliver those funds, good projects will be shelved as well as bad, Goldberg said.

Transit agencies will also feel the pain if Congress can’t come up with a funding solution. The Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund, which provides money to the nation’s transit agencies, is running low and on track to go into the red by October. ”Transit agencies are starting to say, ‘We better not let contracts because we don’t know where the money’s coming from,’” he said

Losing any portion of federal funding for transit agencies would be “devastating,” said Goldberg, as many of them are already stretched very thin.

Furthermore, Goldberg said that if Washington can’t find a solution to the transportation funding problem, it will bode poorly for attempts to solve other problems — like enacting federal policies that make transportation safer, greener, and more efficient.

“This is an opportunity for people in Congress, for Americans in general, to consider what the point of these programs are,” he said. “If we can’t take it seriously, we can’t ask for those progressive things.”

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Talking Shared Space With Ben Hamilton-Baillie

Winthrop St, Harvard Square

Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the only city in America with a city law that defines “shared streets,” passed to provide wider walkways along Winthrop Street near Harvard Square. Photo: Leslee/Flickr

“Recovering architect” and street design expert Ben Hamilton-Baillie launched a broadside against the rules of traffic engineering during a plenary speech to the Congress for the New Urbanism’s recent annual meeting in Buffalo. Baillie urges widespread adoption of “shared space” — a design concept popularized by Hans Monderman over the past generation in the Netherlands that has only just begun to make headway in the United States.

Hamilton-Baillie argues that current street design practices unsuccessfully try to blend the concepts of highways and public space, through wide lanes, broad curves, and signs too numerous to count (much less read). The solution, he says, is to create a different set of expectations: “Don’t treat drivers as idiots, because then you’ll get idiots.” Instead of relying on an endless set of instructions, he suggests that humans instinctively understand how to move through public space.

Marshall Street

Shared spaces like Marshall Street in Boston were once the rule, rather than the exception, even in American cities. Photo: Payton Chung

That instinctive understanding worked on city streets for thousands of years, and was upended by cars less than a century ago. Hamilton-Baillie points to the experience of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei-Brak, Israel, whose religious traditions extend to their understanding of how streets work. As researcher Tova Rosenbloom observed, “Drivers who get to Bnei-Brak complain that they need seven eyes. People walk on the roads as if they were footpaths.”

Once drivers have been jarred into understanding that the post-1920s order of the roads no longer applies, streets can function as they have for millennia. Hamilton-Baillie insists that the cultural context matters less than one might expect: “Human social behavior is the same” across cultures, he says. “Shared space builds on that wonderful civility and those social gestures with which humans are blessed.” Nor does he think there’s a substantial trans-Atlantic divide: “European Union shared space research could find no difference in applicability across cultures. People are the same all over the world… American drivers are not necessarily less aware or alert.”

Hamilton-Baillie cites ice rinks as a present-day example of spontaneous, “remarkable adaptation.” A typical American ice rink features crowds of poorly-behaved teenagers, many quite unsure of their footing, all wielding blades on their feet — and yet people rarely crash with serious consequences. The slow speeds are one factor, but Hamilton-Baillie argues that equally important is that the ice rink is a deliberately defined space. Numerous subtle cues instruct people to be careful even before arriving, from the wobbly walk to the rink to the gate you have to surmount before getting on the ice.

Besides ice rinks, most everyday environments exert powerful influences on our behavior. Hamilton-Baillie points out that “there’s no law against farting in church, but you just don’t do it.” Our homes have a similar effect, he says. Once you enter “the front door, your behavior changes. You become very aware of the host’s circumstances, the way they decorate their room. Your living room immediately tells me whether I can smoke or not,” for instance.

One key to all of these spaces is that the entry threshold tells people they are crossing into a different realm. Streets that use a shared space approach need strong gateways at their edges, and distinctive surfaces within, which all instruct drivers that a different set of rules and expectations apply. Hamilton-Baillie urges “clear transition points,” with vertical elements that visually narrow the space. On the surface, changes to pavement color and texture can demarcate or blur boundaries where necessary to encourage or discourage people from crossing lines.

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Ex-CDOT Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly Named Head of Seattle DOT

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Kubly with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, right. Photo: City of Seattle

Chicago’s loss is Seattle’s gain. This afternoon, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray named former Chicago Department of Transportation deputy commissioner Scott Kubly the new director of the Seattle DOT. The appointment will require City Council confirmation.

Kubly served as a lieutenant to forward-thinking ex-CDOT chief Gabe Klein, and also worked under Klein when Klein was head of the Washington, D.C., transportation department. When Klein stepped down as CDOT commissioner last November, he told me that Kubly had been crucial to his success in Chicago. “Without Scott, there’s no way that automated enforcement would have happened, no way that the riverwalk would have been funded, and Divvy would not have been as smooth a rollout,” he said.

Although some people, such as 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, argued that Kubly would make a great CDOT commissioner himself, Kubly announced his resignation a mere three days after Klein left. “I view my career in milestones, and we just hit a ton of them,” he told me. “I’m really happy with what we got done. I’ve been thinking about this since May or June, and this really seems like the right time to step away.” He left the job on December 27. Since then, he has worked as acting president of Alta Bicycle Share, which runs Chicago’s Divvy program and several other bike-share systems.

Kubly is replacing Seattle transportation chief Peter Hahn, who resigned last fall after the newly elected Murray told him that he wouldn’t be retained in the new administration. In polls taken before the election, Seattleites said traffic congestion was one of their biggest concerns. Murray’s campaign platform included a promise to create an integrated, multi-modal transportation system.

In a statement, Murray praised Kubly as a “transportation renaissance man” with a proven track record in Chicago and D.C. “He’s worked on bike issues, car share programs, traffic management and pedestrian safety strategies, rapid transit and street cars,” Murray said. “He’s done long-range budgeting, strategic planning, cost reduction, major capital project development, and performance measurement and accountability. Scott is the transportation leader this city needs to take us to the next level in creating more livable, walkable communities.”

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New License Law Requires Teens To Take Driver Education Classes

Drivers License -Teen driver

All Illinois teens must take at least six hours of driver education, although it can happen online. Photo: State Farm

A new graduated driver licensing law takes effect in Illinois tomorrow. Illinois’s GDL law sets restrictions on young drivers, including when and with whom they can drive. After “graduating” through several time periods and getting more on-road experience, new drivers can eventually obtain a full driver’s license. Secretary of State Jesse White said in a press release [PDF] today that the state’s GDL has led to a 60 percent drop in “teen driving fatalities” since its 2008 introduction. The new law followed from a years-long editorial campaign from the Chicago Tribune about the high number of teenagers who are killed or injured in car crashes.

Until today, Illinois residents aged 18-20 could apply for, and receive, a driver’s license without any formal education beforehand. 16-17 year-olds have always been required to take driver education before receiving a license. Now, all teenagers must take at least six hours of education courses – available in person or online – before applying for a driver’s license.

Shockingly, 49 percent of 18-20 year-olds who received driver’s licenses in Illinois last year did not take driver education. The new requirement should further reduce the number of teenagers injured or killed in car crashes, and improve young drivers’ understanding of traffic laws.

A U.S. Public Interest Research Group study suggested that GDLs contributed to a drop in the number of miles driven by teenagers, and the rate at which teens apply for a driver’s license. University of Michigan researchers mention GDLs as one reason why many teens are skipping getting a license, or getting them later.

The six hour education course covers topics like:

  • traffic laws
  • highway signs
  • signals and markings
  • issues commonly associated with motor vehicle accidents, including speed, failure to yield the right-of-way, and texting while driving
  • alcohol and drug awareness

This is a great move by the state legislature to better standardize the knowledge that Illinois drivers bring to the road. Online classes might not be perfect — but they will usually do a better job than family or friends at addressing safety, whether it’s maneuvering among bicyclists, stopping for pedestrians within the crosswalk, or dealing with less-common on-road situations like roundabouts.

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Amtrak to Begin Welcoming Bikes on Long-Distance Routes

Roll-on bike storage, coming soon to Amtrak trains. Photo: Amtrak

Roll-on bike storage, coming soon to an Amtrak train near you. Photo: Amtrak

The nation’s intercity passenger rail service just got a lot bike-friendlier.

Amtrak announced last week that it is installing new baggage cars — equipped for bike storage — in all trains on its long-distance routes by year’s end. The change will allow Amtrak riders to “roll on” their bikes, rather than disassembling them and transporting them in boxes. The new baggage car equipment is being tested in Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, and the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak officials said in a blog post.

Amtrak officials hinted the more convenient bike transport was in response to demand from consumers. Campaigns aimed at securing assembled bike storage aboard Amtrak routes have been waged in New York and other states. Only a handful of Amtrak routes currently allow a limited number of fully assembled bikes.

“It’s clear that Americans want a national system of intercity passenger rail and Amtrak is moving ahead to build new equipment to meet customer demand,” said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman in the blog post.

In the comments, people were already indicating their intent to ride Amtrak more.

“Roll-on bike service will make me choose Amtrak over air travel every chance I get,” said Washington Bikes Director Barb Chamberlain. ”I’ve been waiting for this to transform my vacation choices.”

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Ben Ross: Citizen Activism Can Overcome NIMBY Opposition to Transit

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“Dead End” by Ben Ross.

At a talk Wednesday at City Lit Books, transit advocate Ben Ross, author of the new book “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism,” discussed the battle for a new light rail line in the D.C. suburbs. This well-run campaign offers lessons for Chicagoans pushing for sensible transportation and development policy, whether the issue is bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue, or high-density housing near ‘L’ stations.

Ross works as a consultant on environmental issues, and for 15 years he served as president of Maryland’s Action Committee for Transit, which grew to become the country’s largest transit advocacy group during the fight to build the Purple Line. This 16-mile line, which has been in the works for more than two decades, will extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton, paralleling the D.C. Beltway and connecting several existing rapid transit, commuter rail, and Amtrak lines.

At the event, Ross discussed how the Purple Line campaign in affluent Montgomery County influenced “Dead End.” The book covers the history of American suburbanization and how urbanism can address 21st Century transportation and housing challenges.

“The Purple Line was very controversial, mainly because it went through the golf course of one of the most expensive country clubs in Washington D.C.” he said. The opposition was well-funded, and in 1994, residents elected a county executive who was against the project, and a nine-seat county council with a bare one-person majority in favor of it. “At that point, most people gave the project up for dead.”

However, ACT succeeded in resurrecting the rail line. The coalition outed the country club as the main source of the opposition by standing in front of their main entrance with signs during the morning rush hour. In 1998, the committee printed 20,000 scorecards rating the candidates’ positions on the Purple Line and other transit issues. The county council picked up another vote in favor of the project, for a six-to-three majority, with one of the six saying crediting the scorecard for his margin of victory.

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