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Could IDOT Bike Plan Represent a Turning Point for the Car-Centric Agency?

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Cover of the executive summary for the bike plan.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has a long history of promoting driving before all other modes. However, its new Illinois Bike Transportation Plan, released this morning at the Illinois Bike Summit in Champaign, may represent a new direction for the department.

In recent years, IDOT has pushed wasteful, destructive highway projects like the Circle Interchange Expansion and the Illiana Tollway, and it recently released a “Purpose and Need” statement for the North Lake Shore Drive rehab that was written largely from a windshield perspective.

When the department launched the public input process for the state bike plan last summer, it was still prohibiting Chicago from installing protected bike lanes on state roads within the city, apparently for reasons that had nothing to do with safety. It seemed ironic that IDOT was seeking input on strategies for improving bike safety when its own policy undermined it.

In October, at a memorial for Robert “Bobby” Cann, a cyclist who was killed by a motorist on Clybourn, a state road, it was announced that IDOT was lifting the PBL ban. The agency is currently working with the Chicago Department of Transportation to design protected bike lanes on Clybourn, possibly shielded by concrete curbs, on an experimental basis.

This morning, the Active Transportation Alliance heralded the release of the bike plan, which calls for improvements to state road design and more funding for bike safety projects, as a sign of IDOT’s growing commitment to improving conditions for non-motorized transportation. “This is not an easy task given IDOT’s historically car-centric perspective that has de-prioritized biking and walking,” the Active Trans release said.

“With the adoption of its Complete Streets policy in 2007, its plans to pilot-test protected bike lanes on state routes, and now the state bike plan, I think it’s fair to say IDOT is turning the corner, so to speak, toward a multi-modal approach that provides a range of transportation options for Illinois residents,” said Active Trans director Ron Burke in a statement.

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The Fiscal Insanity of Highway Building

Dallas. Photo: David Herrara via Flicker (CC)

Highways crisscross highways in Dallas, yet transportation officials never seem to think there are enough. Photo: David Herrera/Flicker (CC)

To peer inside the minds of highway builders, take a look at what’s happening in Dallas.

Patrick Kennedy at Network blog Walkable Dallas Fort Worth has been poring over a 2007 document produced by regional planners at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Interestingly, this seven-year-old document proclaimed an urgent need for the as-yet-unbuilt Trinity Toll Road, which highway builders are still trying to push through today.

Kennedy points out that without the Trinity Toll Road, Dallas has somehow avoided collapsing into chaos in the past seven years. He proceeds to attack the arguments for highway building, starting with the notion that Dallas needs a multi-billion dollar highway to reduce $66 million in congestion costs:

You’re telling me we need to spend $5 billion in order to save $66 million? And that’s just to build the roads, let alone the life cycle costs. This math and logic is why TxDOT is $35 billion in the hole right now. Congestion can’t be fought with more highway capacity. It can only be diminished by getting people out of cars and building more walkable communities. DFW is tied with Detroit for most car-dependent major city in the country…

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Missouri Pols Launch Sneak Attack on Bike Funding

The state of Missouri is aiming to bridge its transportation funding shortfall with a 1 percent sales tax that will generate $8 billion over 10 years. Rather than raising the gas tax, this regressive tax will force people who don’t drive to subsidize roads — and for good measure it will also forbid tolling on two major highways.

Missouri State Represenative Paul Curtman wants to make cycling ineligible for new transportation funding. Photo: Missouri House of Represenatives

Missouri State Representative Paul Curtman wants to make bike projects ineligible for new transportation funding. Photo: Missouri House of Representatives

The upside of the bill is that it’s also supposed to provide new funds for critically needed walking, biking, and transit projects. But even though everyone will be paying this new sales tax, a few state legislators think none of the revenue should go toward bike projects, reports Brent Hugh at the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation:

Rep. [Paul] Curtman’s amendment is to remove the word “bicycle” from HJR 68. HJR 68 allows MoDOT, cities, and counties to spend the state transportation funds on “transportation system purposes and uses.”  Those are defined in HJR 68 and Curman’s amendment simply removes the word “bicycle” from that definition.

That leaves every other major type of transportation identified by Missourians in over a year’s worth of outreach by MoDOT to every county in Missouri represented in the text of HJR 68 — except for bicycling. This is very clearly intended to send a message to MoDOT and to bicyclists in Missouri, that we are not welcome and that state funds should not be spent on our behalf.

This was truly a sneak attack by a few House members on Missouri’s bicycling community. They waited until the last minute to introduce their language, made it nearly impossible to understand, and tagged it onto an innocuous amendment that bill supporters had already approved.

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Parking Madness Final Four: Kansas City vs. Rochester

The hunt for the worst parking crater on earth nears its epic conclusion with the second Final Four match of Parking Madness.

Today’s matchup features a formidable entry from Kansas City and the upstart parking crater from Rochester, New York, which knocked out Detroit in the previous round. The winner will take on Jacksonville tomorrow for a shot at the Golden Crater and eternal parking crater disgrace (but a great local advocacy opportunity).

Which city has made a greater mess of its downtown with excess surface parking?

First up, Kansas City:

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This image was marked up and submitted by local advocate Emily Catherine. The area isn’t so much a solitary crater as a pockmarked asphalt wilderness.

They call this the city’s Financial District, but it’s hard to pick out any distinguishing characteristics. That’s the thing about parking craters — after a while all these places start to look the same.

Now on to Rochester, the Cinderella of the 2014 Parking Madness bracket.

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CNT and Active Trans Launch “Transit Future” Funding Campaign

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Map showing potential expansion of the local rapid transit system. Image: CNT

On Monday, Governor Quinn’s Northeast Illinois Public Transit Taskforce released its final report, underscoring the need for better funding for regional transit. Yesterday, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance launched a new campaign, dubbed “Transit Future,” to raise that money via a new Cook County-based revenue stream that would help the region leverage federal dollars.

Transit Future calls on the Cook County Board of Commissioners to create a dedicated funding source for maintaining and expanding the transit system in Chicago and the rest of the county. Creating this revenue stream would allow the region to take advantage of federal funding sources like America Fast Forward, which provides long-term, low interest loans to cities for construction projects.

The campaign is inspired by the successful drive to raise $40 billion for public transportation in Los Angeles, which is bankrolling the largest expansion of transit in the region’s history. That campaign, called Move LA and spearheaded by former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Santa Monica mayor Denny Zane, led to voters approving a half-cent sales tax increase in a 2008 referendum called Measure R. By 2013, four new transit lines had opened, with two more under construction.

Villaraigosa and Zane, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook Count Board President Toni Preckwinkle, showed up to support Transit Future at a launch party last night at the University Club of Chicago, 76 East Monroe. A map on display at the event showed the potential for expanding the local rapid transit system.

In addition to well-publicized projects that will extend the South Red Line and build bus rapid transit on Chicago’s Ashland Avenue, the map shows other line extensions and new routes outlined in the region’s GO TO 2040 plan. Existing lines could be expanded to suburban destinations like Old Orchard, Schaumburg, Oak Brook, and Ford City, while new north-south lines could parallel Cicero Avenue and connect O’Hare and Midway airports.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for policy at CNT and director of Transit Future, emceed the event. “Building a world-class transit system requires a steady, long-term investment,” she told the crowd. “We’ve been falling short. There are over $20 billion in potential projects that are just sitting on the shelf that will help us to expand and improve our system, so that we can’t afford to fall short any longer.”

Emanuel told the audience that a coordinated effort between the city and county to create dedicated transit funding could unlock the region’s economic potential. “Our ability to recruit new companies, our ability to see companies expand, our ability for families to go from where they live to work, is dependent on a 21st Century public transportation system,” he said. “Because people years ago made a great investment, Chicago had the opportunity to become the city it is. For us to become the city we want to be, we have to continue to make that commitment to our public transportation system.” He noted that the city is already taking advantage of federal transportation loans for projects like the Red Line’s 95th Street station rehab and the Chicago Riverwalk extension.

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LA’s Orange Line Offers a Sneak Peek at Fast Ashland Bus Service

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Photo: The Transit Coalition

When I visited Los Angeles earlier this winter, I took a ride on the Orange Line, a bus rapid transit route that offers a preview of what fast, reliable bus service will be like for transit riders on Ashland Avenue.

The Orange Line launched in 2005 as a 14-mile route through the San Fernando Valley, with 14 stops spaced about a mile apart, built at a cost of $324 million, on a right-of-way formerly used by passenger rail and streetcars. In 2012, a four-mile extension and four more stops were added at a cost of $215 million. It’s eastern terminus is the North Hollywood transit center, where you can catch various other city bus lines, as well as the Metro Red Line subway to downtown LA, which I rode to a talk at City Hall by former Chicago transportation chief Gabe Klein.

The Orange Line has some significant differences from Chicago’s Ashland BRT plan. Because it’s completely separated from parallel car traffic, keeping cars out of the busway is not a major concern, whereas camera enforcement will needed for Ashland. The Orange Line does make multiple at-grade crossings of streets, controlled with stoplights. Signal prioritization helps keep the buses moving through these intersections.

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Photo: John Greenfield

The LA system includes prepaid boarding – you buy a ticket at a kiosk that you must display during occasional onboard inspections – which helps speed boarding. The buses are sleek 60-foot vehicles with low floors that make it easy to board, although there aren’t level boarding platforms like there will be on Ashland. The Orange Line buses are articulated vehicles with three doors on the right side, which further expedite boarding. Ashland will use the same 60-foot, articulated, five door buses as Cleveland’s Health line, which allow for boarding on the left side as well, which will be necessary for Ashland’s median stations.

The stations feature handsome shelters and signs. The route is nicely landscaped, and a high-quality bike and pedestrian path parallels it for most of its length. The buses have racks in front that can carry three bicycles in front, and there are bike parking racks and lockers at every stop.

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The Only Problem the Illiana Solves Is a Political One

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While the state showers money on the useless Illiana Tollway, state jurisdiction roads like Cermak and Archer remain a dysfunctional, dangerous mess. Photo: Joseph Palmer

The Illiana Tollway is a solution in search of a problem, and the Illinois DOT’s final document in preparation to receive federal approval to build the tollway is a case study in backwards transportation planning. IDOT’s playbook went like this: Design a new road, have consultants review traffic patterns on existing roads to find issues to underpin the rationale for the new road, then rally political support for the road around those issues.

With the release of IDOT’s “Tier 2 Environmental Impact Statement” to the feds, we can see the agency tell the feds that a four-lane, 47-mile long tolled highway will solve problems that will spring up only because of the construction of the same highway.

IDOT had already completed the route and an environmental impact study of the Illiana when the agency convinced the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s MPO Policy Committee to approve the project, even though that vote went against the intent of the GO TO 2040 regional plan, which CMAP itself had crafted in collaboration with hundreds of municipalities and dozens of partner organizations.

CMAP staff and its board – but not Metra and Pace – all rejected the Illiana because the proposed road was in conflict with a principle tenet in GO TO 2040: Population and job growth should be encouraged in already developed areas alongside public infrastructure investments in these areas. The Illiana Tollway takes the region in precisely the opposite direction — building new infrastructure where very few people live, then spurring population and job growth in that previously undeveloped area.

Now that IDOT has designed the road, it has to tell the federal government why the Illiana is the best solution for a problem. This is the point when IDOT finally devises the problem, and does so in a way that the Illiana Tollway becomes the only reasonable solution.

The problem statement in the Tier 2 EIS says that new growth along the proposed project corridor will lead to congestion, so a new road, the Illiana Tollway, is needed to alleviate it. This would be the same new road that IDOT’s consultants say a huge number of people in the area will avoid because of the tolls that will likely be charged while other highways remain free. Read more…

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Illinois’s New Highways Will Cost Taxpayers Dearly

A tolled extension of Il-53 would be just as empty as the non-tolled section here. Photo: Interstate Guide

The nation may be driving less, but Illinois road boosters are still determined to build more highways. The problem for Illinois taxpayers is that it may be impossible to construct these new roads without huge subsidies.

Tolls on the proposed Illiana Expressway may be four times as high as tollways elsewhere around Chicago, according to a recent Illinois DOT report. But that price may be so high that the road won’t be able to draw enough traffic to cover its costs. Meanwhile, a “funding finding committee” that wants to extend a state highway in Lake County, IL-53, as a toll road, estimates that even with tolls the project has a $2 billion budget hole.

IDOT published an analysis this month that gauges how willing people are to pay certain tolls to drive on the 47-mile Illiana Tollway in rural Will County. The “toll sensitivity” report shows tolls on the Illiana would be 23 cents per mile, almost four times the Illinois Tollway Authority average. This led Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago to pose the question, “With no toll at all on the nearby I-80, an existing expressway that runs about 10 miles or so north of the proposed Illiana, guess where the trucks are likely to end up?”

According to the IDOT report, 43 percent of potential customers would use another road at this price. The report didn’t analyze if the remaining traffic would provide sufficient revenue to pay for the road. If Illiana users can’t cover the costs of construction debt and maintenance, all Illinois (and Indiana) taxpayers will be on the hook.

Tollways around the country are heading for default or an infusion of subsidies because drivers are sticking to freeways instead. Illinois seems poised to make the same mistake by building the Illiana.

Aaron Renn, writing at The Urbanophile, thinks the Illiana subsidies won’t be easily discernible. Rather, it’s going to be a boondoggle that subtly siphons money from what should be higher priorities:

Don’t expect any high profile bailouts. Rather, an increased share of the two state’s annual highway fund will have to be diverted to covering the shortfalls, crowding out spending elsewhere. This is one of the big fears in the rest of Chicagoland, where there’s a massive infrastructure investment deficit.

One hundred miles north of the Illiana corridor, road boosters in Lake County are struggling to cover the projected $2 billion shortfall for a 13-mile highway extension of IL-53. The total project cost is $2.56 to $2.87 billion, and tolls can only pay for a fraction of that. The extension is in the GO TO 2040 regional plan, not because it has funding, but because it was thought to be a regionally important project.

It may turn out to be a lousy one. The committee devoted to finding additional funding sources has proposed hefty subsidies, in addition to higher county gas taxes or adding an additional toll collection point to the Tri-State Tollway. Read more…

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Would NYC’s Midtown Biz Leaders Write Off the Idea of a Car-Free Mag Mile?

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Maybe these folks could use more space? Photo: phandcp via flickr

Yesterday’s Active Transportation Alliance announcement submitting 20 streets for consideration as partial or total car-free spaces has already sparked a lively dialogue. Stories in the Tribune, Sun-Times, ABC, and DNAinfo have all examined whether or not the automobile-dominated status quo represents an appropriate allocation of public space.

The boldest proposal on the Active Trans list — pedestrianizing the iconic North Michigan shopping district — was inspired by Transitized blogger and Streetsblog Chicago contributor Shaun Jacobsen’s call for a Mag Mile free of motor vehicles. “Michigan Ave is full of cars that do not need to be there,” he wrote, suggesting the removal of auto traffic from the strip, funneling all cross traffic under the avenue via Grand and Illinois and relocating the many bus routes to nearby State.

Another variation could preserve bus and taxi service on the street to provide access to stores and office buildings along the corridor, but there really is no pressing need for private cars to use Michigan. As Jacobsen pointed out, most cars on the “Boul Mich” represent people simply passing through on the way to somewhere else, not stopping to contribute to the local economy. The avenue might work quite well as a car-free transit boulevard. At the very least, a few of the roadway’s six lanes could easily be repurposed for dedicated bus lanes, wider sidewalks, seating areas, and/or protected bike lanes.

“The slog of vehicles divides the two sides of this shopping mecca where there are so many people on foot,” Active Trans director Ron Burke told the Sun-Times. “For these reasons, it’s a good candidate for further analysis.”

In the same piece, downtown alderman Brendan Reilly dismissed the idea. “I don’t think turning Michigan Avenue into a pedestrian mall makes sense,” Reilly said. “We saw that experiment fail on State Street. I’m not sure why we’d want to replicate that.”

And John Chikow, president of The Magnificent Mile Association, was also less than enthusiastic about transforming the street. “I’m looking out the window right now and everything is flowing pretty good,’’ said Chikow. “I don’t know what they are talking about.”

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Pedestrianized Times Square. Photo: Aaron Naparstek

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Active Trans Urges City to Think Big With List of Potential Car-Free Streets

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Could Chicago create a vibrant car-free space like New York’s Times Square? Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago has a number of innovative projects in the works that reconfigure streets to prioritize walking, transit and cycling and create lively public spaces, but one area where we still lag behind peer cities is the creation of car-free spaces. Today the Active Transportation Alliance called for the city to rectify that, releasing a list of 20 streets and locations that could be transformed into places for people to stroll, bike, shop, relax and congregate — respites from our automobile-dominated streets.

“Chicago lacks for car-free spaces: parks, plazas and pedestrian malls,” Active Trans director Ron Burke told me. “These kind of places can be really vibrant attractions for a community. This proposal is about placemaking, encouraging biking and walking, and rebalancing the public right-of-way.” He noted that the city has roughly 4,500 miles of streets, about a quarter of its total landmass, and most of that is dominated by autos.

The list includes ideas ranging from the commonsense to the visionary. Downtown, a lane of Clark Street might be converted into a protected bike lane with a landscaped seating area next to it, Active Trans suggests. Monroe could be completely pedestrianized between Michigan and the lakefront, with underpasses added at Michigan and Lake Shore Drive to facilitate crossings. The Mag Mile could be transformed into a transit mall, not unlike Denver’s successful 16th Street Mall.

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Monroe was opened to pedestrians and cyclists during Open Streets in 2012. Photo: John Greenfield

In Pilsen, Carpenter, Miller and/or Morgan could be cul-de-sac-ed on the north side of 18th to create a pedestrian plaza, since the streets currently dead end two blocks north and get little through traffic. Ellsworth and Payne Drives in Washington Park could be closed to cars during the summer to create a safer, more tranquil environment for park users. A similar treatment could be done on Humboldt Drive and/or Luis Munoz Marin Dr. in Humboldt Park.

Sections of 47th in Bronzeville, as well as Taylor in Little Italy could be pedestrianized to bring more foot traffic to stores, Active Trans proposes. Milwaukee could be closed through the Logan Square traffic circle to unify green space that is currently bisected. Broadway could be transformed into a car-free greenway from Diversey to Belmont, which would also make more room for landscaping, benches, restaurant seating and other amenities. The list includes a dozen other intriguing ideas.

Burke said he realizes that closing streets to car traffic is a tough sell in Chicago. After all, the State Street pedestrian and transit mall, which existed from 1979 to 1996 on a wide street with fast bus traffic, was widely viewed as a fiasco. “We need to think beyond the pedestrian mall, and especially the failed State Street mall,” he said. “Car-free spaces can take many different forms, including neighborhood plazas, [pedestrian-only] malls, and transit malls. And they don’t have to be permanent street closures. They can be seasonal, or evenings or weekends-only. There are lots of options.”

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