Skip to content

Posts from the "Beyond Chicagoland" Category

49 Comments

Oil-Laden Freight Trains Delaying Amtrak, Commuter Trains Across U.S.

Oil train running on BNSF tracks through Pilsen in Chicago

Tank cars roll through Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood on BNSF tracks.

Oil production is booming across North America, as new technologies make it possible to extract liquid crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota and Montana, or Alberta’s tar sands. The ever-increasing volume of crude oil mined in remote Great Plains locations often finds its way to refineries via ”rolling pipelines” – freight trains that tow a million barrels of oil around the United States every day. Production of Bakken crude has tripled over the past three years, and 79 percent of it is shipped out by rail.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing. Data from EIA, AAR, news reports.

The resulting sharp increase in rail traffic doesn’t just threaten communities along the line that are unprepared for their explosive cargo — a threat that the US Department of Transportation recently issued new rules to address. Growing freight volumes are also delaying millions of passengers aboard Amtrak or commuter trains, most of which share tracks with ever more freight trains. Nationwide, the number of delayed Amtrak trains has increased by almost 75 percent. As Tanya Snyder reported yesterday, that results from a court ruling that left Amtrak powerless against freight train interference. Around Chicago, hub of the continent’s railroad network, delays have multiplied on the region’s busiest commuter rail line – a Metra line operated by BNSF, which is also North Dakota’s biggest freight hauler.

The American Association of Railroads reported an 8.5 percent increase year-to-date in the number of American freight trains carrying oil across the country, and a 9.1 percent increase reported from Canadian trains. Since 2011, the number of cars of crude oil shipped nationwide has doubled.

Oil is having a particularly heavy impact on rail operations along certain companies’ lines, and none more so than BNSF. Its transcontinental trunk line spans North Dakota, and its branches serve 21 of North Dakota’s 25 oil-producing counties. As a result, BNSF hauled more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil in 2013, “up from practically none” just four years ago, NPR reported.

The boom has strained what used to be isolated stretches of railroad. Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder train spans the country’s northern tier, from Chicago to Seattle and Portland via North Dakota and Montana, using BNSF’s Great Northern route almost all of the way. “The Builder” now has the dubious double distinction of being both the most popular of Amtrak’s transcontinental routes and its most delayed route nationwide, arriving on time about once a week. Delays have become so routine that Amtrak recently padded its schedule by three hours. BNSF’s quarterly report [PDF] shows growing volumes across all business lines, but notes that increased industrial shipments in the second quarter of 2014 are “primarily due to increased shipments of petroleum products [and] frac sand.”

Derrick James, Amtrak director of government affairs for the Midwest, told Streetsblog that national on-time performance has seen “a dramatic decline,” dropping “from 80 percent in February 2013 to 55 percent through April 2014.” James said that as reliability has dropped, ridership on both long-distance and short-distance lines has also dropped by 4.9 percent.

Amtrak “conductors produce delay reports,” James points out, “and these delay reports pinpoint a dramatic increase in rail traffic — especially trains connected with hydraulic fracturing, sand trains and oil trains.” On the Empire Builder in particular, Amtrak conductors cite “train interference” as the principal cause of delays.

Read more…

24 Comments

Leave Traffic Behind With These 6 Car-Free, Carefree Beach Trips

Arrival

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, easily accessed by train. Photo: Tom Gill via Flickr.

If, like me, you optimistically view the summer as lasting until September 22, we’ve got more than five more weeks of beach season left. Still, time is running out for fun in the sun, so you should make a beeline for the shoreline as soon as possible. While people often gripe that Chicago has limited access to natural beauty, our city’s status as a rail hub actually makes it easy to reach the beach without a car.

Rainbow Beach is one of the gems of the South Side, and it’s only a stone’s throw from the Metra Electric Line’s Windsor Park station in South Shore. Named in honor of the U.S. Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division, the beach is also shaped like an upside-down rainbow, and it offers a stunning view of the skyline. A large fieldhouse features futuristic, Eggo waffle-shaped canopies. It’s a roughly half-hour ride from Millennium Station, and the fare is $3 each way. From Windsor Park, walk five minutes east on 75th to the beach; the fieldhouse is another eight minutes southeast. You can also get there via the #75 and #79 buses, plus three bus lines that run on South Shore Drive.

rainbow-beach

Aerial view of Rainbow Beach, via Google Maps.

Like Rainbow, Loyola Beach in Rogers Park is a quiet, serene place to swim because it’s located more than a mile from a Lake Shore Drive endpoint, and it’s easy to get to via transit. This nearly mile-long beach also offers great views of the Loop from a pier at its south end. Every June, community members gather during the Artists of the Wall festival to paint new images on a 600-foot mural by the shore. From the Red Line’s Morse stop, walk eight minutes east on Morse to the beach. The Loyola station is close by as well, and the beach is also accessible via the CTA’s #96, #147, and #155 buses.

Metra’s bikes-on-trains policy opens up a galaxy of options for car-free road trips, and one of the easiest is taking the Union Pacific North Line to Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. Note that bikes are prohibited this Saturday and Sunday due to the Air and Water show, the last blackout dates of the season. From the Ogilvie Center, it’s about an hour-and-a-half train ride; roundtrip fare is $7 with a weekend pass. From the Zion station, it’s a two-mile pedal (or hike, if you’re so inclined) to the park, which features a pebbly beach, camping, a lodge, and plenty of scenic hiking and biking trails.

IMG_1619

Car-free camping at Illinois Beach State Park. Photo: John Greenfield

For a bike-and-train trip to a coastline of a different sort, take Metra’s Milwaukee District North Line to Chain O’ Lakes State Park. From Union Station, it takes roughly an hour and forty minutes to get to the town of Fox Lake; from there, it’s a 6.7-mile pedal to the park offices. Located just south of the Cheddar Curtain, the Chain O’ Lakes region features a number of good-sized glacial lakes, popular for fishing and boating. The park has a pleasant campground and an extensive trails network, and you can rent a canoe to paddle out to Blarney Island, a floating Parrothead bar in the middle of Grass Lake, or use the bar’s boat-taxi service.

Read more…

37 Comments

Metra Can Follow Toronto’s Lead and Run All-Day, Frequent Service

Metra Electric

Metra Electric service is frequent, until you go south of the three-branch split at 63rd Street. Photo: Eric Alix Rogers

Toronto’s suburban commuter rail service, GO Transit, used to run its trains on a schedule that would seem familiar to Metra riders — bringing commuters from the suburbs in by 9 a.m. and shuttling them from the city after 5 p.m. Last year, though, it launched a new schedule that doubled mid-day frequencies on its two Lakeshore rail lines, from once per hour to every 30 minutes, “turning GO from a bedroom commuter service into full, regular transit,” said Ontario transportation minister Glen Murray. Their reward: a 30 percent increase in ridership on those lines in a year’s time.

Yonah Freemark, writing in The Transport Politic, identifies three characteristics that led to GO Transit’s strategy shift: high-level political leadership at the provincial (state) level, committed leadership and a new strategic direction within the agency, and the fact that GO owns most of its tracks.

Over here on the other side of the Great Lakes, commuter rail ridership on Metra has been growing much more slowly. Some lines are growing, but other lines are declining. Metra, like GO, could gain riders if it switched to “all-day” service that served people whenever they need to use transit — serving people on their schedules, instead of making people adapt to the train’s schedule.

Metra focuses on a central core system, mostly serving workers commuting to downtown Chicago from the suburbs in the morning and back in the evening. Even on the Metra Electric line, which before World War Two ran a rapid-transit like ten trains an hour past high-rises in Hyde Park and South Shore, just one train stops at most stations during the noon hour. It’s hard to use Metra for spontaneous trips – and trips for all of life’s purposes, not just work or carefully planned day trips – if you might have to wait an hour or two for a train.

Read more…

StreetFilms No Comments

Buenos Aires: Building a People-Friendly City

Buenos Aires is fast becoming one of the most admired cities in the world when it comes to reinventing streets and transportation.

Just over a year ago, the city launched MetroBus BRT (constructed in less than seven months) on 9 de Julio Avenue, which may be the world’s widest street. The transformation of four general traffic lanes to exclusive bus lanes has yielded huge dividends for the city and is a bold statement from Mayor Mauricio Macri about how Buenos Aires thinks about its streets. More than 650,000 people now ride MetroBus every day, and it has cut commutes in the city center from 50-55 minutes to an incredible 18 minutes.

That’s not the only benefit of this ambitious project. The creation of MetroBus freed up miles of narrow streets that used to be crammed with buses. Previously, Buenos Aires had some pedestrian streets, but moving the buses to the BRT corridor allowed the administration to create a large network of shared streets in downtown where pedestrians rule. On the shared streets, drivers aren’t permitted to park and the speed limit is an astonishingly low 10 km/h. Yes, that is not a misprint — you’re not allowed to drive faster than 6 mph!

Bicycling has also increased rapidly in the past four years — up from 0.5 percent mode share to 3 percent mode share and climbing. Ecobici is the city’s bike-share system which is expanding to 200 stations in early 2015. Oh, and add this amazing fact: Ecobici is free for all users for the first hour.

StreetFilms No Comments

William H. Whyte in His Own Words: “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

When I first got started making NYC bike advocacy and car-free streets videos back in the late-1990s on cable TV, I didn’t know who William “Holly” Whyte was or just how much influence his work and research had on New York City. A few years later I met Fred and Ethan Kent at Project for Public Spaces. I got a copy of Whyte’s 1980 classic, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, which in its marvelously-written, straightforward style is the one book all burgeoning urbanists should start with.

Recently, I read it again. With all the developments in video technology since his day, I wondered: How might Whyte capture information and present his research in a world which is now more attuned to the importance of public space? What would he appreciate? Are his words still valid?

So I excerpted some of my favorite passages from the book and tried to match it up with modern footage I’ve shot from all over the world while making Streetfilms. I hope he would feel honored and that it helps his research find a new audience.

15 Comments

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.

Read more…

Streetsblog SF 70 Comments

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.

Streetsblog USA No Comments

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.

Read more…

9 Comments

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. 

Read more…

Streetsblog USA No Comments

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.”