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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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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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The South Shore Line Expects You to Wait Six Years for Bike Access

When NICTD policies don't make sense

This man hoped he would be allowed on the South Shore if he took the wheels off his bike. Photo: Strannik45.

Update: NICTD responded to our request for comment after publication and we will post a follow up story on Tuesday. 

Eager to bring your bike on a South Shore Line train to visit Notre Dame University, commute from Northwest Indiana to Chicago, or take a spin around the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore? You may well be able to do that – some time in 2021.

At a recent board meeting of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the agency that runs the rail line between Chicago and South Bend, consultants recommended that the transit agency wait six years to pilot a bikes-on-board program. We’re not even talking about full implementation here, but merely testing out the program on a limited basis.

In contrast, Metra’s Bikes on Trains program has been around for over a decade. Granted, it took some strong-arming from then-lieutenant governor Pat Quinn to force Metra to agree to the policy change. NICTD has been studying the issue since 2013, around the time I launched a petition for bike access on the South Shore, which 731 people signed.

The recommendation to delay the Indiana line’s bikes-on-trains pilot was made by staff from Quandel Consultants, a construction and engineering consulting firm, and LTK Engineering Services and The McCormick Group. Part of the reasoning behind that advice was that the South Shore could get new train cars by then, according to the Active Transportation Alliance’s south suburban outreach manager Leslie Phemister, who attended the board meeting. When new cars would be in service, NICTD can begin piloting the bike program by removing half of the seats in an older car to make room for bikes. However, NICTD doesn’t know if or when they may obtain new – or used – train cars.

Dedicating half the space in a rail car for bikes is a great idea. However, the plan for the pilot only calls for attaching this car to two trains per day: one morning run to Chicago and one evening train to Indiana, according to Phemister. If you miss that train, you won’t be able to get home with your bike.

Phemister added that the length of the delay is absurd. “I think a [six-year] wait is a little bit of a long time,” she said. In response to NICTD’s foot dragging on the issue, as well as their resistance to a proposed at-grade crossing of South Shore tracks for an extension of the Burnham Greenway, Active Trans recently crowned them “The least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation.” The advocacy group sarcastically presented the group with its “Broken Spoke Award,” noting that the South Shore is the only commuter line in the nation that doesn’t accept bikes.

Active Trans wants NICTD to come up with another solution for accommodating cyclists in the near future, Phemister said. This strategy should also be implemeted on off-peak trains, in addition to the rush-hour bike car.

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

illiana-quote-from-lawsuit

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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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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Don’t Deride the Delay: More Ventra App Testing Will Ensure Better Quality

CUTGroup #11: Expunge.io (Fenger)

The CTA is involving CUTGroup, an organization for testing civic apps in Chicago. Here, Fenger high school students test an app called Expunge.io that advises people on how to expunge juvenile records. Photo: Dan X. O’Neil

Earlier this month, the CTA, Metra, and Pace announced that they are delaying the launch of the Ventra mobile app from this spring until this fall, and that an independent civic app testing group will help vet it. Contrary to what Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch wrote, that’s not a sign that there are “undisclosed issues” with the technology. Rather, it shows that the transit agencies are being careful to thoroughly test the app before releasing it to the public. Given the rocky launch of the Ventra card two years ago, that’s a wise strategy.

The Ventra app, which I favorably reviewed in April, will let Metra riders skip lines at ticket counters and vending machines by paying their fares on trains, without being penalized by onboard surcharges. It will also allow Metra, CTA, and Pace customers to quickly recharge their Ventra account balances before boarding trains and buses.

The agencies’ news release stated that they will collaborate on testing the app with Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit that works to bridge the digital divide. The organization’s Civic User Testing Group will engage citizens in a formal process where they will test the app with their personal Ventra accounts.

Hilkevitch wrote a short piece in response to the news, in which he jumped to conclusions about the reason for the delay. The article quotes CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase as saying, “The user experience, we don’t think, is there yet.” Hilkevitch assumed this meant the transit agencies are partnering with the CUTGroup because they need to “iron out undisclosed issues” with the app.

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Automated Bike Rental is Coming to the Forest Preserves This Summer

cycle

Bike and Roll will use equipment by the French company Smoove.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County recently announced that they will be offering bike rental at six locations this summer. The forest preserve district’s board approved a contract with Bike and Roll, Chicago’s largest bike rental company, which will be setting up automated rental stations, plus a staffed facility at the Dan Ryan woods. “We’re really excited to have another way to encourage people to visit the forest preserves and engage in physical activity when they get there,” said district spokeswoman Lambrini Lukeidis.

Next month, Bike and Roll (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) will open the Dan Ryan Woods concession, which will provide access to the Major Taylor Trail. Later this summer they will install bike-share-style docking stations at Tower Road, Blue Star Memorial, Bunker Hill, Caldwell Woods, and the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The manned facility will offer various types of bikes and quadcycles, as well as baby seats, child trailers, and trail-a-bike attachments. For the automated stations, Bike and Roll will be using cycles and docks supplied by the French company Smoove. Each station will hold up to ten bikes, which can be rented via credit, debit, and prepaid cards, with rates beginning at $7 per hour or $28 per day. Customers can check bike availability online from mobile devices. Unlike bike-share vehicles, the forest preserve cycles must be returned to the original rental location.

“It’s a natural fit for the forest preserves to offer bike rental, because we have 300 miles of trails throughout the county,” Lukeidis. “People who know our trail system are really avid users, but a lot of people haven’t experienced them yet.” She added that the rental stations will make it easier for county residents to try cycling in the preserves if they don’t own a bike, live too far away to ride there, and/or don’t have the ability to transport their bike with a car.

Of course, CTA, Pace, and Metra accept bicycles, so that’s another option for accessing the forest preserve trails without driving. And Cook County municipalities should be developing safe, family-friendly bikeways that allow residents to pedal comfortably from their homes to their local nature area. However, the opportunity to rent a bike at a forest preserve and ride on car-free trails could serve as a gateway to cycling for many people who don’t currently ride at all. That could help build support for creating low-stress, on-street bike routes as well.

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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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CDOT’s Sean Wiedel Provides an Update on Divvy Installation, Equity Efforts

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Divvy docking station parts are loaded onto flatbed trucks to prepare for installation. Photo: Divvy

“With all the challenges we’ve had with the equipment supplier, it’s gratifying to finally see the new Divvy stations on the ground,” said Chicago Department of Transportation assistant commissioner Sean Wiedel regarding the city’s current bike-share expansion. “People are obviously clamoring for Divvy, so it’s exciting to be able to meet that demand.”

CDOT began installing new docking stations last week in Bronzeville and Hyde Park. They’re planning on expanding the system from its 2013 rollout of 300 docking stations and 3,000 bikes to 476 stations and 4,760 bikes by early June, in time for the annual Bike to Work Rally. The service area will nearly double, from 44.1 square miles, or 19 percent of the city’s geographic area, to 86.7 square miles, or 40 percent.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been quick to point out, this means Chicago will have more stations and a larger service area than any other North American city, although New York and Montreal will still have far more bikes. The number of Chicago wards served will grow from 13 to 33 out of 50. The portion of the population that lives in bike-share coverage areas will expand from about 33 percent to 56 percent, so most Chicagoans will live close to a station.

Crews are currently installing five-to-ten stations a day and working six days a week, Wiedel said. About 60 stations have been installed so far. Almost all South Side installations should be complete today, and then work will begin on the West Side, and finally the North Side. Downtown installations are being done on weekends.

The system was supposed to expand last year. However, the January 2014 bankruptcy of the equipment supplier, Montreal-based Public Bike Share System Company, put a wrench in that plan. PBSC has new ownership now, and Wiedel says the expansion is going much smoother than the original roll-out. “The previous round was stressful due to supply chain issues, but this time the process has been low-key. All equipment has arrived on time.” PBSC will also provide upgrade software for Divvy within the next six-to-twelve months, Wiedel said.

He added that the October 2014 sale of the former Divvy concessionaire, Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share, to NYC-based Motivate, also greased the wheels. “There has been much more corporate support for the Divvy employees like [general manager] Elliot Greenberger and [operations manager] Jon Mayer.”

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