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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…

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Courtney Cobbs Comments on the CTA

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Courtney Cobbs.

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

Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on Streetsblog Chicago in the past about the need for better bus and train access on Chicago’s South and West Sides. I caught up with her by phone to hear more of her take on the equity issue.

John Greenfield: What’s the public transportation system like in Little Rock?

Courtney Cobbs: There really isn’t much of one. I actually had a brief conversation with the people there about, for example, how ridiculous it was that I lived about five or six miles from the community college that I attended and that, in order to get there, I would have to take two buses and it would take me 30 minutes, versus a ten-minute drive. The bus service is very infrequent and doesn’t run very late. It’s like not having a system at all, for the most part.

JG: You wrote a while ago that the transit system is one of the things that brought you to Chicago.

CC: Yes. I wanted to live in a city where I didn’t have to own a car, because I really care about the environment, and public transportation saves you money. I really like big cities, and I felt like Chicago was an affordable option versus New York or L.A., and I could live here without a car relatively well.

JG: Where do you work nowadays?

CC: I work for Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers, at their Ravenswood location. I work with adults with chronic mental illness, helping them with daily living skills and integrating them into the community. For example, I help them navigate the CTA.

JG: You live in Edgewater, near the Bryn Mawr stop. How far a walk do you have to the train station?

CC: Two or three minutes. It really just depends on if I have get walk signal or not. [Laughs.]

JG: So you’re really only about a block away. Is train noise an issue in your apartment?

CC: It isn’t, surprisingly. If it’s late at night and I have my window open, occasionally I can hear “Doors closing,” but that’s about it.

JG: Where did you live when you first came to Chicago?

CC: I lived in Kenwood, at 44th and Drexel. Transit service wasn’t as good. The best part about living there was the #4 Cottage Grove bus. That runs along Cottage Grove between the Illinois Center and Chicago State University.

JG: That was how you got downtown?

CC: Yeah. When I started with Thresholds, I would take the 43rd Street bus to the 47th Street Red Line station. My commute was about an hour, hour and fifteen minutes every day, which was really physically draining. Moving to the North Side has cut down on my commute time considerably.

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Could Rauner Stop the Illiana Boondoggle? Sure. But Will He?

Rich guy Bruce Rauner running for Illinois governor

Rauner says he needs to “see the studies” on the Illiana before making a decision on whether it should continue.

The Illiana Tollway, a joint proposal by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation to build a 47-mile highway through thinly populated farmland about 40 miles south of Chicago, rolled over another hurdle yesterday when the Federal Highway Administration approved the project’s environmental impact study. FHWA’s approval allows IDOT and InDOT to proceed with soliciting bids for the highway.

In a press release, IDOT called the FHWA’s “record of decision” an endorsement of the project and process. IDOT, of course, is reading too much into this: FHWA didn’t endorse the project by awarding it a huge grant. Instead, FHWA merely acknowledged that the Illiana meets the federal government’s minimum justification standard for highways. Even though the Illiana might meet that bare minimum, the FHWA isn’t putting its own money on the line. Rather, FHWA has simply said that Illinois is now free to waste its own money on the project.

This monstrous boondoggle – one of the most wasteful road projects in the entire country – surely won’t be stopped by IDOT or by any agency, like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, dependent on IDOT. The federal government’s involvement concluded with the EIS review, so it’s now out of the picture. It’s up to governor-elect Bruce Rauner to put an an end to this travesty.

Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently told the Better Government Association that Rauner “has the authority to shelve [Illiana]. He doesn’t have to ask anyone.” Schlickman added that, because the Illiana is “moving so rapidly,” Rauner will need to act quickly and decisively. IDOT is just weeks, or months, away from formally issuing a Request for Proposals to its short list of bidders, and award contracts soon afterwards.

Rauner told the Tribune’s editorial board in September that he didn’t know if the Illiana should be built, and that he’d “have to see the studies” before making that decision. In the past, he’s hedged on the issue – both saying that the project “may have the potential to be an economic development engine,” but also that IDOT’s public-private partnership shouldn’t leave taxpayers “holding the bag.”

If Rauner does take a close look at the studies, he’ll find that the Illiana’s economic development “potential” lies entirely in Indiana, and that the state’s $1.3 billion would create just 940 jobs through 2040. The editorial board directly asked Rauner if he had seen the studies, and wrote then that “there is no upside” to the road.

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MPC Hopes “Transportation Woes” Survey Will Get Lawmakers’ Attention

Data to prevent bus bunching

CTA bus bunching: A transportation frustration everybody loves to hate. Photo: Argonne National Laboratories

Have you had it up to here with crumbling sidewalks and faded crosswalks? Are you sick of pedaling over lousy pavement, or barely visible bike lanes? Fed up with CTA bus routes that have already stopped running by the time you need a lift home, or Metra trains that never seem to run on time? Frustrated that there aren’t more east-west and north-south rapid transit lines, instead of just spoke routes?

Don’t get mad, get involved with the “Illinois Transportation Woes” survey. Yesterday, the Metropolitan Planning Council launched the new questionnaire for Chicago and Illinois residents, to find out what people’s top transportation frustrations are and what they would be willing to pay to overcome those challenges. They plan to use the survey results, along with photo and video documentation provided by participants, to let legislators know their constituents are upset about the current state of transportation in Illinois, and that they support increasing taxes and fees to fund better infrastructure

“With all the issues state lawmakers are facing, transportation hasn’t really risen to the top of their concerns,” MPC spokeswoman Mandy Burrell Booth said. “But we think there’s a big pent-up demand for better Illinois transportation options. We want to inform our legislators about this during their January session. There’s a growing consensus among civic groups that our leaders need to hear this.”

The survey isn’t directly related to the Active Transportation Alliance and Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Transit Future revenue campaign, or the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Fund 2040 proposal to raise money for smart infrastructure investments. However, all of these groups, plus the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the American Automobile Association, are teaming up with MPC to get the word out about the questionnaire.

Booth hopes that several hundred people will fill out the first half of they survey, which asks about participants’ transportation habits, their level of satisfaction with their commute, and their understanding of how state transportation improvements are funded. The survey then notes that the state gas tax is currently 19 cents per gallon, and only costs the average Illinoisan $8.25 a month. Respondents are asked if they’d be willing to pay more in gas tax in order to fund transportation enhancements and, if so, how much.

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Call for Submissions: The Best Urban Street Transformations of 2014

Minnapolis' Washington Avenue is thriving after the addition of light rail and bike facilities. Photo: Greater Greater Washington

Washington Avenue in Minneapolis is thriving after the addition of light rail and bike lanes. Photo: Michael Hicks

Did your city implement a road diet this year that really knocks your socks off? Is there a street near you with a new light rail line, or a protected bikeway, or fresh red transit lanes and bus bulbs? How about a stoop-to-stoop rebuild that created more space for people to enjoy the sidewalks?

Well, we want to hear about it! As part of the year-end Streetsies competition on Streetsblog USA, we will be naming the “Best Urban Street Transformation” in the nation, with the help of your nominations and votes.

The example at the top of this post is Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, where the Green Line light rail debuted this year. The street includes excellent bike facilities and some car-free areas. The rail line has attracted higher-than-expected ridership, and the street is buzzing with activity.

We’ll be accepting nominations through December 14. Email angie at streetsblog dot org with photos (before and after shots from a similar vantage point are ideal) and a short written description of the street overhaul, why it was implemented, and how it has improved the street. After we review the nominees, a panel of Streetsblog editors will select which ones to include in a reader’s choice poll, and we’ll put it all up for a vote.

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The same block of Washington Avenue in 2009, via Google Street View.

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City Writing New Rules of the Road to Allow Shared Space on Argyle Street

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A rendering of the new street configuration on Argyle.

The Chicago Department of Transportation is currently hashing out an ordinance to regulate how motorists will behave on the Argyle “shared street” [PDF], a pedestrian-priority zone slated for construction next year. The streetscape project — the first of its kind in Chicago — will create a plaza-like feel along Argyle from Broadway to Sheridan, by raising the street level and eliminating curbs. Slow motorized traffic and car parking will still be permitted on the street, but pedestrians will rule the space.

In late August, 48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman released the final designs for the street, which will be lined with pavers from building line to building line. Two or three different colors of pavers, as well as trees and other street furniture, will be used to differentiate between travel lanes, parking lanes, and a pedestrian-only zone.

The speed limit will be lowered to 10 mph, which will allow pedestrians to safely cross the street throughout the block — not just at crosswalks — and make it make it comfortable for cyclists to ride in the center of the travel lanes. Other features will include wider pedestrian-only spaces to make room for outdoor cafes, plus permeable pavers, and bioswales. A colorful pillar, emblazoned with the word “Argyle,” will stand in a median at the Broadway intersection, complementing the strip’s existing “Asia on Argyle” sign.

Work to replace gas and water lines on Argyle will take place in January and February, respectively, according to Osterman’s assistant Sara Dinges. The streetscape construction is scheduled to begin in April and wrap up by the end of 2015. “We want to emphasize that Argyle businesses will be open during the construction, so we want people to continue to support them,” she said.

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The border between the pedestrian-only area and parking will undulate, creating a gentle chicane.

The merchants will likely be rewarded for their patience during construction with a boost in sales after the work is finished. Studies from London found that economic activity increased on streets after shared spaces were built. Meanwhile, traffic injuries and deaths decreased by 43 percent, and drivers became 14 percent more likely to stop for pedestrians.

At a Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting last month, CDOT Complete Streets Director Janet Attarian noted that Chicago’s municipal code currently doesn’t allow for speed limits to be reduced below 20 mph. The code also only gives pedestrians the right-of-way within designated crosswalks on roadways.

Therefore, the department is working on an ordinance to define shared streets, designating them as locations where a lower speed limit is permissible and where drivers must stop for pedestrians anywhere along the corridor, Attarian said. Once the ordinance is drafted, Osterman will introduce it to City Council, according to Dinges.

Cambridge, Massachusetts [PDF] has built successful shared streets on Winthrop and Palmer streets, two narrow streets around historic Harvard Square. In conjunction with this, the city added language to its vehicular code mandating that that all vehicle operators, including cyclists, must yield to pedestrians on shared streets. The ordinance also states that operators must travel at a speed that ensures pedestrian safety, and that speeds over 10 mph on shared streets are “considered hazardous.”

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KaBOOM Promotes Placemaking as a Way to Encourage Play

playable city of future zoom in

Detail from a sketch of “The Playable City of the Future,” brainstormed during the summit in Pilsen.

Active, creative, and social play has a number of benefits for children, especially those in low-income, urban communities. However, nowadays many kids don’t get enough opportunities for healthy play, according to staffer Janine Kacprzak from the nonprofit KaBOOM. The organization has helped build over 2,500 playgrounds across the country, including hundreds in Chicago, Kacprzak said.

KaBOOM recently shifted its focus from simply building playgrounds to encouraging cities to provide “corner stores of play” — opportunities for children to recreate close to home. At the Playful City USA Summit in Chicago last month, leaders from around the country took a tour of the Pilsen neighborhood, brainstorming play-friendly placemaking ideas that could work in any community.

One of the main reasons why many kids don’t engage in healthy play as often as they should is the issue of proximity, Kacprzak said. A park or playground can feel far away because a family has to drive or take transit to access it, or walk to a different part of the neighborhood.

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Kacprzak points out faded murals along the 16th Street rail embankment that could be refurbished to brighten up the block. Photo: John Greenfield

Unsafe or unpleasant conditions for walking or biking, including poor street design, crumbling infrastructure, or concerns about crime, exacerbate the problem. As a result, the majority of low-income families KaBOOM surveyed tend to take their kids out to play on weekends, sometimes for several hours at a time.

If this kind of play is the equivalent of a weekly trip to the supermarket, the nonprofit proposes creating “corner stores of play” through placemaking – activating underused public spaces. “The idea is to make smaller play areas throughout the city, so it’s not this huge hassle of getting kids ready for an outing, but something nearby,” Kacprzak said. She added that cities who use this approach in all kinds of neighborhoods, and prioritize investing in parks and play in general, benefit economically by attracting and retaining families and businesses.

212 municipalities of all sizes are participating in KaBOOM’s Playful City USA program by using play as a strategy to address challenges in their communities. Representatives of 12 of the cities convened at Blue 1647, a tech incubator space at 1647 South Blue Island in Pilsen, for the summit.

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Greasing the Wheels: LIB Uses Prizes to Promote Online Bike Safety Quiz

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A tricky question from the quiz for teen and adult cyclists.

If you ride a bike on Illinois roadways, you’ve probably had the infuriating experience of having a motorist drive by you and yell, “Get on the sidewalk!”

Sure, that person was being a jerk, but it’s also likely they were unaware Illinois law says cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers when traveling in the roadway. They also probably didn’t know that, in many municipalities like Chicago, it’s illegal for adults to pedal on the sidewalk.

To help spread the word about state bike laws, as well as to educate motorists about how to safely operate around cyclists, the League of Illinois Bicyclists launched the Illinois Bike Safety Quiz in June 2013. Since then, almost 18,000 people have taken the online test, which features dozens of challenging questions that were approved by the Secretary of State.

There are three versions of the quiz: one for elementary school age bicyclists, one for teen and adult cyclists, and one for motorists of all ages, including driver-ed students. Moving up through the bronze, silver, and gold levels requires answering all of the questions correctly, so the test rewards learning rather than just prior knowledge.

To make things more interesting, the League is awarding cash prizes to randomly selected test takers. Last month they gave out five $200 prizes to Peter Barson from Arlington Heights, Anthony Mikrut from Chicago, Jessica VanDyke from Olney, Maurice Ball from Lisle, and Nicole Ream-Sotomayor from Urbana. The prizes are funded by proceeds from the sale of the state’s “Share the Road” license plates.

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