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Posts from the Beyond Chicagoland Category

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Rauner’s Latest Weird Illiana Move: Pushing for Tax Breaks to Contractors

What is Bruce Rauner up to with contradictory movements on the wasteful Illiana Tollway?

Rauner has taken contradictory actions on the Illiana. Just what is he up to?

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has taken action to kill the wasteful, destructive Illiana Tollway, which his predecessor Pat Quinn championed. Lately, however, Rauner has made some odd steps that suggest he may be interested in keeping the project on life support.

In June, the governor ordered the Illinois Department of Transportation to remove the tollway from its multiyear plan, and said he would stop spending state funds on the project. But, earlier this month Rauner signed a bill authorizing $5.5 million in spending to “wind down” the project.

Recently, Rauner submitted a proposal to the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules that would give any Illiana contractors – should there be any – an exemption on paying sales taxes for materials they buy to build the tollway.

The Illiana is the epitome of a highway boondoggle. It would cost more to construct than it would ever collect in tolls, leaving Illinois taxpayers on the hook for $500 million in borrowing. It would also destroy valuable farmland and induce suburban sprawl. Quinn tried to steamroll the project forward in order to garner support from South Side and Southland politicians and residents for his failed reelection effort.

The governor’s spokesman Lance Trover insted that the tax break “is in no way an effort to revive a project that the Illinois Department of Transportation has pulled from its multiyear plan,” according to Crain’s. Terry Horstman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, couldn’t explain why Rauner recently submitted the bill, but he said the new legislation is required by the 2010 law that authorized building the Illiana.

If Rauner is serious about not building the Illiana then the sensible thing to do would be to rescind any legislation authorizing its construction. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules should also reject the tax break proposal.

The regional leaders at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning should also take action to ensure that the boondoggle doesn’t get back. Although Quinn bullied the CMAP board into putting the project on the organization’s high-priority projects list, the agency should demote it from the list.

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Rauner Authorizes More Illiana Spending to “Wind Down” Project

ELPC's 2014 Dinner Celebration

Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the Illiana “gravy train” needs to end. Photo: ELPC

Governor Bruce Rauner signed a bill last week that authorizes spending $5.5 million more on the Illiana Tollway, a month after he announced he was suspending the project.

The Illiana would have been a new highway a couple miles south of the existing Chicago metropolitan region that would have encouraged suburban sprawl. Tolls would have been high enough that the road would have likely seen little use, but taxpayers would have been on the hook for covering revenue shortfalls as part of a public-private partnership. Ex-governor Pat Quinn, who was fighting for his political life at the time, pushed hard for the Illiana, hoping that support from Southland legislators and voters would help him win reelection.

Crain’s Chicago columinst Greg Hinz reported that the $5.5 million is for to pay consultants to “wind down” contracts and for covering litigation fees. A Rauner aide told Hinz that the fact that Rauner has authorized the expenditure doesn’t necessarily mean the Illinois Department of Transportation will spend the money.

While this development doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a backroom conspiracy to keep the Illiana on life-support, some of the text in the measure is a bit fishy. The bill says that the money is going to IDOT to “enable the Illiana Expressway to be developed, financed, constructed, managed, or operated in an entrepreneurial and business-like manner.”

Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which has sued IDOT twice over the Illiana, told Hinz that Rauner is not keeping his June 2 promise to “[suspend] all existing project contracts and procurements” related to the project. “It’s time to bring the wasteful Illiana tollway gravy train for consultants to an end,” Learner said. “These public funds should instead be used to meet our state’s high-priority needs.”

The most recent stake in the heart of the tollway was when a district court ruling invalidated the project’s federally required Environmental Impact Statement. The judge noted that IDOT’s justification for the highway was based on circular logic. The department argued that more road capacity is needed because new residents will be moving to the area. However, IDOT’s projection was based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, which would have encouraged development sprawl. However, IDOT could potentially rewrite the EIS to pass muster.

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Gettin’ Quigley With It: The Congressman Talks Transportation Funding

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Mike Quigley discusses transportation funding at a Transit Future event. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

If you’re not a transportation geek like myself, you may be most familiar with Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL 5th) from his hilarious segment on “The Colbert Report.” His North Side district includes Boystown, and he’s known as a strong ally of the LGBT community. Therefore, Stephen Colbert, in his persona as a conservative blowhard, baited Quigley by insisting that homosexuality is a choice:

Quigley: I don’t think you choose. It’s from birth. You’re gay, and it’s the rest of your life.

Colbert: Gay babies? I find that offensive, the idea that there are gay babies out there and they’re looking at me, and they’re sexually interested in me, as a man.

Quigley: You have a point. It’s not a good point, but it’s a point.

However, Quigley, a blue-collar dude, built like a fireplug, is something of a rock star when it comes to bringing home transportation funding to the Chicago region. He’s the only Illinois member on the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, with the memorable acronym THUD. He helped secure funding for the federal Core Capacity transit grant program, which will help bankroll the CTA’s rehab of the North Red and Purple Lines, and the TIGER program, which funds various sustainable transportation projects in cities.

Quigley recently kicked off a lecture series to promote Transit Future, a campaign by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance to create a dedicated revenue stream at the Cook County level for public transportation. Transit Future was inspired by a successful campaign in Los Angeles, where voters approved a half-cent sales tax to raise money for several new subway lines. If we don’t do something similar in Chicago, we may get left in the dust by historically car-centric L.A.

Read more…

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South Shore Line: We Want to Accommodate Bikes But Don’t Know How Yet

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The Chicago Perimeter Ride passes under a South Shore Line train. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

As I discussed yesterday, the agency that runs the South Shore Line commuter rail service, between Chicago and South Bend, is considering piloting a bikes-on-trains program, but not for six long years. The Northern Illinois Commuter Transportation District’s ridiculous feet-dragging on the issue prompted the Active Transportation Alliance to sarcastically bestow them a Broken Spoke Award as “the least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation.”

Even though the South Shore is the only commuter line in the country that doesn’t accommodate cyclists, NICTD recognizes the importance of bicycle access, according to marketing and outreach director John Parsons. “There are a lot of great places to get on a bike around here,” he said, adding that the agency knows that it can be challenging to access destinations from its train stations on foot.

Parsons acknowledged that there has been an outpouring of support for a bikes-on-trains program from people who took a NICTD survey and signed online petitions. “We know the demand is there, so we want to do it right,” he said. NICTD doesn’t think it can successfully accommodate bikes until it gets new rail cars, which wouldn’t happen for several years. “Without additional capacity, we would have to remove seats from cars.”

The South Shore isn’t currently planning to buy new cars, but they’re exploring options, Parsons said. Most of the agency’s capital budget is earmarked for installing Positive Train Control, a federally mandated safety system that automatically brakes trains when operators drive too fast for conditions or lose control.

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Getting Closer to the End: Judge Nullifies Federal Approval of Illiana Tollway

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One of the key phrases from Judge Alonso’s ruling.

It’s looking like the nightmarish vision of a totally unnecessary, 47-mile highway cutting through prime Illinois farmland is not going to become a reality. A federal judge ruled yesterday that the Illinois Department of Transportation failed to provide a proper Environmental Impact Statement for the Illiana Tollway.

U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso wrote that the final EIS the state submitted was “arbitrary and capricious.” He also noted that the Federal Highway Administration shouldn’t have approved the EIS because the tollway’s purpose and need statement was based on “market-driven forecasts developed by [IDOT] consultants,” rather than sound policy.

The lawsuit was filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, representing Openlands, the Sierra Club, and the Midewin Heritage Association. They argued that the state used circular logic to justify the Illiana: IDOT’s projections for population growth in the project area were based on the the assumption that the highway would be built. “This [ruling] is an opportunity for the Illiana saga to be brought [to] an end once and for all,” said ELPC’s executive director Howard Learner.

Alonso’s decision is the latest stake in the heart of the Illiana, a terrible idea that was promoted heavily by former governor Pat Quinn and state representatives from the south suburbs. Two weeks ago, current governor Bruce Rauner ordered IDOT to suspend all existing contracts and procurements for the tollway, stating in a news release that “the project costs exceed currently available resources.” He also told IDOT to remove the Illiana from its current multi-year transportation plan.

The ruling [PDF] also noted that IDOT and its consultants met with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Northwestern Illinois Regional Planning Commission to discuss population and employment forecasts for the Illiana corridor, but chose not to use those projections. That’s because CMAP’s forecasts were “based on ‘aggressive assumptions regarding infill, redevelopment & densification'” and not how people would be drawn to new subdivisions made accessible by a massive highway.

CMAP and NIRPC objected to IDOT’s market-driven projections because their respective regional plans recommend that new development should be concentrated in the existing metropolitan area, rather than replacing farmland with sprawl. In essence, the state said that growth should be geographically unconstrained and the MPOs said growth should be focused and sustainable. Read more…

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“Bike Battles” Discusses the Decisions That Led Us to Car-Centric Cities

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James Longhurst

Right now in Chicago, advocates are calling for a coherent network of separated bikeways that will make it safe and convenient to get around the city on two wheels. More than a century ago, Windy City cyclists were doing exactly the same thing, according to James Longhurst, author of the new book “Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road.”

Longhurst, who teaches public policy history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, will be discussing “Bike Battles” this Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Seminary Co-op bookstore, 5751 South Woodlawn in Hyde Park. The event is co-hosted by the Active Transportation Alliance and the Blackstone Bicycle Works.

“Bike Battles” examines various debates over bicycles and their place in history since the 1870s. “One of my favorite stories is the sidepath movement of the 1890s,” Longhurst said. “Nobody knows a damn thing about it nowadays.” During the height of the turn-of-the-century bicycle boom, cyclists throughout the Northeast and Midwest were pushing to create separated bikeway networks within cities, as well as a system of sidepaths connecting cities across North America. Chicago would have been a major hub of this bicycle interstate system.

“Chicago had big plans in the 1890s to build bike-specific infrastructure, most of which didn’t happen,” Longhurst said. Some local cyclists called for reserving certain downtown streets and bridges, such as Washington and Dearborn, for bicycles traffic during the morning rush hour. They also proposed a bike tax to help fund infrastructure. “So we actually have already had this discussion of how to build a separated network of bikeways and pay for it.”

Unfortunately, the sidepath movement fizzled out after less than ten years. Just like today, there was political opposition to using tax revenue for bike-only facilities. “It was too easy to declare that dedicated bike infrastructure was not in the public good,” Longhurst said.

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1890s headline from the Chicago Daily Times

Eventually, most bike advocates got behind the Good Roads movement, which called for using taxes to fund professionally engineered roads, as opposed to the rough dirt tracks that were common at the time. The cyclists were allied with farmers, who wanted to be able to transport their goods to market faster via horse-drawn carts. “In the early 1900s, it seemed like we would get a network of high-quality roads that would be shared by wagons, trollies, omnibuses, and bicycles,” Longhurst said.

We all know what happened next. Paved roads enabled the automobile industry, and the speed and volume of car traffic snowballed. While it was previously normal for people to walk in the street, the auto industry invented the concept of jaywalking in the 1920s, with ad campaigns urging pedestrians to stay out of the roads. “Bicycling had already fallen out of its faddish popularity of the 1890, and it never really recovered.” Longhurst said. “What had been a shared-use road system became mono-modal.”

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Rauner Takes a Second, Hopefully Final, Step to Kill the Illiana

MPC 2014 Annual Luncheon

Governor Rauner and IDOT have removed the Illiana from the state’s current infrastructure plan. Photo: MPC

Yesterday, Governor Bruce Rauner drove a second stake into the heart of the Illiana Tollway, a sprawl-inducing highway proposed for rural Illinois and Indiana, just south of metropolitan Chicago. Rauner’s office issued a press release slamming a new state budget passed by Democratic leaders as fiscally irresponsible. In response to the budget, the Republican governor announced he will cut many state programs, including the Illiana. The release states:

In light of the state’s current fiscal crisis and a lack of sufficient capital resources, the Illiana Expressway will not move forward at this time. As a result, the Illinois Department of Transportation will remove the project from its current multi-year plan. It is the determination of IDOT that the project costs exceed currently available resources. The Department will begin the process of suspending all existing project contracts and procurements.

The Chicago Tribune wrote that the cuts are Rauner’s strategy to force House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton to renegotiate the budget. However, it’s unlikely that the governor’s plan to stop the Illiana will be an effective bargaining chip.

The Illiana was spearheaded by former governor Pat Quinn, who was fighting for his political life at the time. Desperate to win votes, he was so focused on building the highway that he was willing to gamble more than $500 million in future taxpayer dollars on the boondoggle.

Most of the other politicians who pushed hard for the tollway were legislators whose districts it would have run through, as well as South Side representatives who hoped the project would create jobs for their constituents. Many other politicians understood that the road would siphon industry and residents from the rest of the region, and the resulting sprawl would be a drag on the local economy.

Rauner drove the first stake into the Illiana in January, when he froze non-essential highway spending. While no infrastructure project can ever truly die, with this recent move, the governor has taken the tollway off IDOT’s current to-do list. However, the tollway currently remains on a list of potential transportation projects maintained by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s metropolitan planning organization.

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The Way Forward: Gas Tax, Vehicle Miles Traveled, or Value Capture?

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Blankenhorn, Skosey, Puentes, and Porcari. Photo: Ryan Griffith Stegink, Metropolitan Planning Council

Local leaders agree that Chicago region’s public transit system, and Illinois transportation infrastructure in general, are sorely underfunded. However, it’s clear that the traditional strategy of relying on gas tax revenue to fund projects is no longer working. The state gas tax has been stuck at 19 cents a gallon since 1990, and due to inflation, the buying power of the revenue it generates has fallen over the past few decades.

Given the fact that Governor Rauner plans to cut almost $170 million from state funding for Chicagoland mass transit, and gas prices that are at their lowest point in years, it’s time for lawmakers in Springfield to show some backbone and approve a gas tax increase. Meanwhile, we need to consider creative ways of funding rail, roads, and bridges, such as a vehicle miles traveled tax and real estate value capture.

Transportation experts discussed these topics earlier this week at a panel titled “The Long and Winding Road,” part of the Metropolitan Planning Council’s symposium for Infrastructure Week 2015, “Broke, Broken, and Out of Time.” Panelists included former U.S. Department of Transportation deputy secretary John D. Porcari, the Brooking Institute’s Robert Puentes, and the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Peter Skosey. The Illinois Department of Transportation’s acting secretary Randy Blankenhorn moderated.

“Are we going to continue to fund infrastructure with smoke and mirrors?” Blankenhorn asked. “Are we going to continue to fund transportation on cigarette taxes and gambling? Let’s talk about user fees versus some of these more innovative or different types of revenue streams.”

Porcari argued that the political courage and innovation for raising money for transportation projects is more commonly at the local and state level nowadays, and not the federal level. “There a number of states that have raised the gas tax, indexed it, added new funding sources, used sales tax for transportation revenues, and they’ve all lived to tell the tale,” he said. “Those governors have actually survived.”

Puentes, pointed out that it’s not just Democratic states that are raising their gas taxes, but also Republican states like Wyoming. “So I think there is a myth that the gas tax is unpopular,” he said. “[Former Governor] Ed Rendell said that when they raised the gas tax in Pennsylvania, not one legislator who voted for the increase lost their election in the next cycle.”

Puentes noted that it’s easier to raise gas taxes at the local or state level than at the federal level. “The lower you get, the bigger the connection, a brighter line between the money that’s being raised, the projects that are being invested in, and then the [economic] outcomes at the end of the day,” he said. “People are willing to invest if they know what they’re getting.”

However, Porcari asserted that depending on gas tax to pay for roads, bridges, and rail won’t be sustainable in the long run. “That’s arguably a good thing, in the sense that what’s driving that are things like efficiency in the corporate average fuel economy and electrification of the fleet. Those are important for the nation but are accelerating the decline of [the gas tax] as a stable funding source.”

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Rauner’s IDOT Listening Tour Only Includes a Sprinkling of Cook County Stops

Bruce Rauner at the MPC 2014 annual luncheton

Rauner at a Metropolitan Planning Council event last year. Photo: MPC

Cook County represents 41 percent of Illinois’ population yet only three of the 30 scheduled stops on the Illinois Department of Transportation’s upcoming listening tour regarding Governor Rauner’s proposed state budget will take place in the county: two in suburban Cook County and a single meeting in Chicago.

Rauner has proposed a budget that slashes funding for transit service across the state, which would impact everything from the CTA ‘L’ and Pace suburban buses to the transit systems of downstate cities. Meanwhile, the Republican governor wants to actually increase spending to build new roads.

The proposed fiscal year 2016 budget has reduced operating assistance for the Regional Transportation Authority and its three operators – the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace – by $100 million, and funding for downstate transit providers by $93 million. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has calculated that the $100 million that would be cut from the RTA is equivalent to the total operations costs for the Orange, Brown, and Red Lines.

IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell said the department is working on scheduling an additional Chicago stop. That’s good because the only meeting scheduled in the city is part of a Metropolitan Planning Council Infrastructure Week event, which has a $75 admission charge. “These aren’t intended to be formal public hearings, but rather sessions that allow us to participate in variety of venues throughout Illinois to discuss infrastructure challenges our state faces,” Tridgell said.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke said the priority isn’t expanding the low number of Cook County sessions. “There are many ways in which IDOT and the state have historically short-changed metro Chicago, but let’s not read too much into how IDOT distributes their listening tour.”

Burke added that the region needs IDOT and the governor to do more, not less, to meet the Chicago region’s transportation needs.” His list of essentials includes:

  • A capital bill for transportation funding with a large share for transit
  • IDOT truly embracing the state’s complete streets law with policies that support walking and biking
  • Safety overhauls for the state arterial roads where a large percentage of Chicagoland traffic injuries and fatalities take place
  • Multi-modal transportation solutions for projects like the redesigns of North Lake Shore Drive and I-290

For those who cannot attend one of the 30 listening events, IDOT is accepting public input via a short online survey.

Meetings

May 13, 8 a.m. at an Infrastructure Week event ($75)
Union League Club of Chicago
65 W. Jackson Blvd.

May 13, 11 a.m. hosted by the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
TBA

May 13, 2 p.m. at the Chicago Urban League
4510 S. Michigan Ave., 1st floor conference room

Updated April 29 to include details of the newly and already scheduled Chicago meetings.

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Three Transit Campaigns: Do They Compete or Complement Each Other?

CTA: Let's not take our resources for granted

An RTA funding campaign poster from 2005 on the CTA echoes a similar message about raising funds for transit. Campaigns now are more focused on transit as a necessary component to population and economy growth. Photo: Salim Virji

As the Chicago region grows in population, we’re going to need to provide efficient and affordable transportation options in order to compete in the global economy, and that’s going to require more and better transit. People who live near transit pay less in transportation costs as a portion of their household income, and have better access to jobs, compared to those who don’t. GO TO 2040, the region’s comprehensive plan, calls for doubling 2010 transit ridership levels by the year 2040 as a means to support population growth and reduce carbon emissions.

Chicagoland has a large network of CTA and Metra rail transit routes, but the network’s mileage and ridership are lower than they were in the 1950s, even though the regional population has grown.  Compared to other metropolitan regions we spend less per person on transit service and our population is growing slower. Two years ago, a Center for Neighborhood Technology study found that more housing is being built far from train stations than near them, and that still appears to be the case today.

The CTA increased train service three years ago, but to fund this, the agency cut bus service dramatically. Metra added a significant amount of service in 2006 by launching new lines and extending existing ones, but there has been no increase in service since then. Pace, the suburban bus network, is the only local transit agency in Chicagoland that’s currently adding service. Their first Pulse express bus route will run along on Milwaukee Avenue from Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood to the Golf Mill shopping center in Niles.

While most people agree that the region needs expanded transit service and better-maintained transit infrastructure, and that we need more funding in order to accomplish that, there isn’t consensus on how to raise that money. In the last year or so, local nonprofits have launched three different transit-funding initiatives.

One year ago, the Active Transportation Alliance and CNT kicked off the Transit Future campaign, with a focus on extending CTA train lines by raising funds at the Cook County level. Transit Future is largely inspired by Los Angeles’ Measure R campaign, in which L.A. County voters approved a sales tax. The new revenue is used to provide local matches for federal grants that bankroll transit projects.

The Chicagoland Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s FUND 2040 initiative proposes a small sales tax increase to pay for regional transit infrastructure projects: addressing the backlog of deferred maintenance and building new lines and stations. Priority would go to projects that meet multiple goals in the GO TO 2040 plan.

The Metropolitan Planning Council’s Accelerate Illinois campaign also calls for fixing our crumbling transportation infrastructure, but it’s a statewide initiative, and it also calls for better maintenance of roads. The campaign, which is endorsed by a diverse coalition of road builders, contractors, the three transit agencies, railroads and various businesses and nonprofits, doesn’t identify a particular funding mechanism. Read more…