Skip to content

Posts from the Chicago Suburbs Category

9 Comments

Metra Buying Old Trains, Squandering Opportunity to Change Ancient Service

Imagine riding in a roomy, airy, well-lit Metra train. Then forget it because Metra is buying more of the same. By JHarrelson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15115233

Imagine riding in a roomy, airy, well-lit Metra train. Then forget it because Metra is buying more of the same.
Photo: JHarrelson/Wikipedia

Metra wants to lock in its 66-year-old train car design for another 30 years. The agency, which hasn’t yet adopted a strategic plan that it started writing four years ago, seems to adhere to a policy of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The problem is that they don’t realize that things are indeed broken.

Metra issued an RFP last week for a manufacturer to build new gallery cars. The document doesn’t make any room for a more rider-friendly design. The RFP seems pointless, even, because it would be easier to ask potential manufacturers, “how much would it cost to build copies of what we already have?”

The gallery car is characterized by its two-level design, the second level being split with a center open space so ticket collectors can stand on the first level and collect tickets on the second. This allows ticket collectors to make one pass through the car to collect all tickets. However, due to short distances between some stations, ticket collectors often leave the cabin to step onto the platform and then return to collecting.

The gallery car’s disadvantages are numerous, however. Passengers must climb five steps through a single door and then choose a half of the car, entering through a small door into a narrow corridor, where they don’t know if there’s seating or not. Stairways to ascend to the second level are tight and people can only move in one direction at a time. The second level has a partial floor – reducing seating – and a low ceiling. Wheelchair lifts are necessary because of the high-floors and are only installed on some cars.

Back in the 1950s, Metra’s predecessors started using, in earnest, the rail car design Metra still uses. In two years, when Metra buys new cars and puts them into operation, they’ll essentially be the same as cars built in the 1950s. Metra is committing to purchasing 10 cars with an option for 367 if they can obtain funding.

Some of today’s gallery cars were built in the mid-1990s and they’ll last for at least 30 years with proper maintenance and refurbishing. In fact, an Illinois Railway Museum magazine [PDF] in 1998 said that Car 700 was built in 1950 and still in service that year.

Metra’s ticket collecting mode has been outdated for a while, and the successful and wide adoption of the new Ventra app makes it even more so. Riders made 1 million Metra trips using tickets purchased in the Ventra app in the two months following its November launch. Most Metra riders use a monthly pass that is verified with a spot inspection. Tickets purchased through the Ventra app – likely going to be the dominant way to buy tickets because of its convenience – are verified the same way, with a glance.

Read more…

27 Comments

Experts and Advocates Weigh in on Rauner’s Proposal to Widen the Stevenson

Sunday morning Stevenson

The Stevenson, just west of the Dan Ryan. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

On Thursday, Governor Bruce Rauner announced a new proposal to address congestion on the Stevenson Expressway, aka I-55, by adding lanes. The construction would be financed via a public-private partnership, and the new lanes would be tolled. Revenue would go to the concessionaire, allowing them to recoup their investment.

The so-called “managed lanes” would be an option for drivers who are willing to pay a premium to bypass traffic, while the existing lanes would not be tolled. Some local transportation experts and advocates lauded the plan as a creative way to address congestion woes. But others argued that our region’s focus should be on providing better alternatives to single-occupant vehicle commutes, rather than simply building more capacity for them.

The proposed lanes would cover a 25-mile stretch of the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Veteran’s Memorial Tollway, a segment that carries about 170,000 vehicles a day. The plan calls for adding at least one lane in each direction, at an estimated cost of $425 million. The P3 model would need to be approved by a majority of state lawmakers.

The new lanes would feature “congestion pricing” – the toll price would vary according to the number of cars in the managed lanes, as well as the rest of the expressway. Rauner said it’s possible that drivers with one or more passengers might be allowed to use the new lanes without paying a toll. The state hopes to finalize a design by this spring and start construction by late 2017.

The Metropolitan Planning Council pushed for several years in Springfield for legislation to enable this kind of public-private partnership, which passed in 2011. MPC executive vice president Peter Skosey said his organization applauds Rauner’s proposal, adding that adding capacity to I-55 is listed as a priority in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 regional plan.

“Experience shows that simply adding another regular lane will not ease congestion in the long term: once that capacity is there, it will just fill up,” Skosey said. “Putting a variable-priced toll on that lane lets you manage demand and keep it free-flowing. If you’re really in a time crunch, you have the choice to take that lane.”

Skosey argued that the new lane would also make taking the bus a more attractive choice. “[Pace’s] current Bus-on-Shoulder service has been incredibly successful, but it isn’t able to use the shoulder for the whole corridor and it’s limited to 35 mph. This lane would give it a continuous path and let it go as fast as 55 mph, improving reliability and opening the door to more frequent service.”

Steve Schlickmann, the former head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center, agreed that the governor’s plan makes sense. “The combination of high congestion in regular travel lanes and insufficient growth in federal and state funding to maintain Illinois roads and transit, makes I-55 managed toll lanes a reasonable approach to address congestion and to help pay for I-55’s on-going maintenance needs,” he said.

Read more…

14 Comments

“Transit Explorer” Map Shows Nine Upcoming Transit Projects in Chicagoland

Last week, Yonah Freemark and I published a new map called Transit Explorer, which shows all of the new transit projects that are under construction, or being planned, across United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Yonah, a project manager at the Metropolitan Planning Council and author of The Transport Politic blog, collected the data and created the map. I assisted him by writing the code for the map, which uses open source technologies, including OpenStreetMap.

Yonah has been tracking projects on his blog for seven years, and this is the first time he’s created an open-source map for the information. He says his goal was to make the map “easy-to-use and fun for anyone who’s interested in how public transportation can affect the future of their cities.”

The map (embedded above) shows a number of upcoming or proposed projects in the Chicago region, including five new or overhauled CTA and Metra stations, three new rapid bus lines, and the reconstruction of a CTA ‘L’ corridor.

Freemark said he’s most excited about the bus rapid transit line on Ashland Avenue, and the “arterial rapid transit” Pace is planning on Milwaukee Avenue. We hope you enjoy exploring the map and learning about upcoming transit projects all over North America.

Update Jan. 13: We reached out to Metra to learn the status of their Peterson/Ravenswood and 79th/Wallace stations. Here’s what their spokesperson Michael Gillis said, “Those two stations are among a group of state-funded projects that are currently on hold due to the state budget situation. We won’t know when we’ll be able to proceed until we hear from the state.”

14 Comments

Some Bus Service Will Be Better In 2016, But Better Funding Needed

Ashland Bus

The CTA has had to make tradeoffs to add more and faster bus service on Ashland Avenue. Photo: Daniel Rangel

2016 just might be the year of the Chicago bus. The Chicago Transit Authority is restoring express service and speeding up local service on Ashland and Western avenues, running six bus routes on dedicated bus lanes downtown with the new “Loop Link” corridor, and piloting restored service on the #11-Lincoln and #31-31st Street bus routes. Pace will also be gearing up to launch the Pulse “Arterial Bus Rapid Transit” service on Milwaukee Avenue in 2017.

The CTA discontinued express routes on Ashland, Western, and other streets in 2010. The 31st Street route was cut in the late 1990s, and the Lincoln route was truncated in 2012. Red-painted bus-lanes were installed on Loop streets in the 2000s, but the lanes weren’t enforced, and they were allowed to fade.

What accounts for the new focus on bus service? For starters, the Chicago Department of Transportation is currently implementing projects that Gabe Klein initiated when he was commissioner between 2011 and 2013. CDOT completed the east-west portion of Loop Link this month, and has begun constructing the Union Station transit center for people to transfer between buses and trains.

In addition to Loop Link, the restored Ashland and Western bus service, which includes the addition of transit-priority stoplights, can be viewed as laying the groundwork for a possible bus rapid transit line on Ashland. The city did outreach and planning for the system in the early years of the Emanuel administration, but it’s currently on the back burner.

The restoration of the #11 and #31 lines can be credited to tireless advocacy by local aldermen and a dedicated group of transit riders and businesses called the Crosstown Bus Coalition Last but not least, Dorval Carter took over as CTA president this year, and he said he wanted to pay more attention to improving bus service.

Service changes come with caveats

However, these bus service changes, past and present, have involved tradeoffs. When the CTA cut the #11 route in 2012, it was done as part of the agency’s so-called “decrowding plan,” which added service to ‘L’ lines, including the Brown Line, which roughly parallels Lincoln. The current Ashland and Western improvements are possible in part because the CTA is eliminating 100 management positions, including some some layoffs. Read more…

13 Comments

Never Mind the NIMBYs, the North Branch Trail Extension Is a Go

IMG_0394

FPDCC superintendent Arnold Randall, CDOT’s Janet Attarian, CMAP director Joseph Szabo, 39th Ward alderman Margaret Laurino, Congressman Mike Quigley’s spokeswoman Mary Ann Levar, and Gustav Sobolak, break ground on the trail extension. Photo: Jeff Zoline.

Despite Not In My Back Yard-type opposition from some nearby residents, the Forest Preserves of Cook County is proceeding with plans to extend its popular North Branch Trail three miles further southeast into the city limits. Officials broke ground on the new segment of the path at a ceremony yesterday morning at Thaddeus S. “Ted” Lechowicz Woods, 5901 North Central.

The existing North Branch Trail has Chicago trailheads at Devon/Caldwell and Devon/Milwaukee, near the legendary Superdawg drive-in. It runs 18 miles past the North Branch of the Chicago River and the Skokie Lagoons to the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe.

The first phase of the construction will build 1.8 miles of paved trail from Devon/Caldwell to Forest Glen, with completion expected this spring. The second stage will add another 1.2 miles, terminating at Gompers Park near FPCC’s LaBagh Woods and Irene C. Hernandez Picnic Grove at Foster/Kostner.

“This allows us to eventually connect one of the Forest Preserves’ trails to the city of Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, which has been part of both agencies’ long range plans to bring together two of the region’s best used trails,” FPCC chief Arnold Randall said in a statement.

If the Chicago Department of Transportation follows through with plans to build the Weber Spur Trail, the North Branch extension will connect with it in LaBagh Woods.

The North Branch project will cost about $7.2 million. 80 percent of that comes from federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money and Transportation Alternatives Program funds, administered by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Most of the required 20 percent local match is being funded by FPCC, with $192K coming from Chicago’s Open Space Impact Fees program.

“The North Branch Trail Extension will encourage more outdoor activities, boost bicycling and provide a healthy transportation alternative,” said 39th ward alderman Margaret Laurino in a statement. “In addition to the trail being good for the environment, the city money is not coming from taxpayers, but rather from Open Space Impact Fees which are collected from new residential developments to help finance public open space improvements.”

Over the past few years, there have been several public meetings regarding the trail extension where local residents and trail users provided feedback about the project. Many neighbors and members of the bike community have supported the initiative, as have Congressman Mike Quigley, the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Active Transportation Alliance, Trails for Illinois, and the United States Bicycle Route System.

However, there has been opposition from some residents in the surrounding neighborhoods of Old Edgebrook & Indian Woods. They’ve expressed concerns about construction detours and noise, flooding, and the removal of trees – about 450 will be lost.

Read more…

30 Comments

Transit Rankings Agree: Chicago’s Service Not As Good As Other Big Cities

While the South Loop has a “Transit Score” of 93, the city as a whole has a score of 65, ranking it sixth place in the United States.

A recent analysis of transit service in United States cities found that Chicago ranked #6, behind New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Transit Score, from the Walk Score company now owned by the realtor Redfin, reviewed public schedules data provided by the transit agencies in each city to study how often trains and buses come to stops near people’s homes.

Analysis from other organizations used different methodologies but made similar conclusions. Regardless of our ranking, transit in the city of Chicago and the region looks to be behind its peers.

Redfin spokesperson Alex Starace said that “for its size…Chicago is lagging in transit options and efficiency.” One reason that could explain why Chicago ranks sixth is that the Transit Score methodology give twice as much weight to run schedules at train stations as bus stops. Chicago has over 10,000 bus stops, and dozens of CTA and Metra train stations that are separated from residences by highways and in low-density areas. Additionally, many Metra stations on the South and West sides of Chicago have low service frequency.

“Rail better than bus”

Their reasoning in weighting this is to essentially say that people are better served by trains than buses. Starace said that the Walk Score advisory board provided input on that decision, describing further that, “bus lines are generally not as valuable as rail lines” because “they’re subject to move or change, which means that no real estate developer would invest in land because it’s near a bus line.”

Additionally, Starace said, “buses, more so than rail, are generally subject to vagaries of prevailing traffic, making their timing, speed and reliability lower than those of rail lines,” and that even if you run larger buses, they “generally hold far fewer people than a rail line can.”

But no developers? There’s a lot more at stake than whether a parcel they want to develop is near a train or bus stop. Is building at Western and the Eisenhower superior to Western and North because the former has a Blue Line station? Existing real estate developers in Chicago currently attract tenants by marketing the nearby express bus routes the CTA runs to north and south lakefront neighborhoods.

Where Chicago ranks, though, is perplexing because none of Chicago’s rail transit lines run in mixed traffic like the light rail trains and streetcars in San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia, all of which got the same 2x weight as CTA and Metra stations. Those light rail trains and streetcars are subject to the same “vagaries of prevailing traffic” as buses.

Read more…

1 Comment

CNT: Funding Not Spent According to Community Plans Has Less Impact

Despite plans that say municipalities and counties should build walkable communities near train stations, a lot of what transportation and economic development funds are spent on repaving roads.

Despite plans that say municipalities and counties should build walkable communities near train stations, a lot of what transportation and economic development funds are spent on is repaving roads.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology, a local community planning think tank, said that municipalities and public agencies are failing to follow their own plans. They’re investing public funds for the region in economic development and transportation projects in undeveloped areas or away from train stations.

CNT wrote in their new report, “Putting Places First,” that money is instead spent on repaving or enlarging roads, and projects that a municipality may already be comfortable building, even if that’s contrary to their adopted plan. The report said that the mindset about how we implement projects needs to change: “even though stakeholders increasingly agree about the need to stop sprawl, and communities make plans for more compact growth, implementation crawls.”

Chicagoland’s comprehensive plan, GO TO 2040, says that the 284 municipalities in its coverage area – all of whom voted to adopt the plan five years ago – should create walkable communities around transit or in vacant areas as infill development. The problem, the report said, is that each of the municipalities “must still navigate a complex web of funding streams, allocation criteria, and application schedules to get the money they need to play their roles in making this regional vision a reality.”

Turning the regional plan into a series of supportive, local plans has been successful, the report said, because the Chicagoland Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Local Technical Assistance program and the Regional Transportation Authority’s Community Planning initiative have paid for and created 289 neighborhood and city-level plans since 1998. Municipalities have also created many plans on their own.

“We have plans in place, hundreds of them, that demonstrate local support to grow more compactly, near transit, and in line with GO TO 2040,” said Kyle Smith, a planner at CNT and who wrote the report. “But we’re not promising communities the resources they need to implement these plans.”

Read more…

34 Comments

The New Ventra App Will Make Metra Easier to Ride For Millions of People

Update Nov. 18: The Ventra app is available half a day early. Download for Android and iOS

The Ventra app will be released this month, making it more convenient to pay your Metra fare, whether you’re an occasional rider or a daily commuter. The best thing about the app is that it allows you to buy tickets and passes via your smartphone. That means no waiting in line at a ticket booth, using an ill-designed ticket vending machine, or paying a surcharge on board. That’s a big plus if you’re rushing to catch a train and don’t have time to buy a ticket at the station.

Why am I so confident that the Ventra App will be convenient to use? I’m part of the app’s beta testing group, and I recently used the app during a Metra excursion to the South Deering neighborhood for a fried fish snack at Calumet Fisheries. Aside from some visual quirks that I find very annoying, including flashing screens and unpolished buttons and dialog boxes, I found that the app performs all functions flawlessly.

You’ll be able to use the Ventra app to start, stop, and change auto-load preferences on your account, setting how much money you want drawn from your credit or debit card when it dips below $10. The Ventra app also has a built-in transit tracker. It shows the nearest Metra and ‘L’ stations, as well as bus stops, plus the predicted time the train or bus will show up or, in the case of Metra, the scheduled departure time.

Read more…

13 Comments

Federal Funds Shifting To More Active Transportation Projects This Year

Compared to roads and bike paths and lanes, the share of CMAQ funding going to transit projects has been increasing. For the next period, most bike path funding will come from the Transportation Alternatives Program. Graph: Steven Vance

The next group of transportation projects that aim to improve air quality or reduce congestion and should receive federal funding has been approved by Chicagoland’s regional planning organization. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning evaluates requests for the funding from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program. CMAQ has ensured for nearly two decades that bike lanes are built and new Chicago Transit Authority and Pace buses go out on the road, among other active transportation projects.

CMAQ also funds widening roads and intersections, and linking traffic signals, on the premise that these reduce congestion, and thus reduce idling and unproductive emissions. The model that estimates these projects’ impact on reducing CO2 and nitrous oxide emissions, though, should be called into question because it doesn’t account for induced travel.

Induced travel, or induced demand, is the phenomenon when roads are modified to offer additional capacity, or have reduced congestion. This can briefly reduce travel times which then encourages motorists to use that road, make extra trips, or drive further – travel and trips they may not have otherwise taken in a car. This new capacity is quickly filled and the problem returns.

In this year’s approved projects, however, the portion of funds devoted to road and driving projects has decreased from 2013 when I conducted my last analysis. When comparing the three categories of bike infrastructure, transit service and infrastructure, and roads, CMAP has devoted a smaller portion to road building in the next funding cycle than the previous two cycles.

I excluded some categories from the analysis, because they don’t fit neatly into one of the above. These include projects that will purchase new vans for Pace’s vanpool service, add lower and emission-free vehicles to public and private vehicle fleets, and replace freight and transit locomotive engines.

CMAP spokesperson Tom Garritano explained that “CMAQ projects…do not assume that more people will drive through an intersection as a result of it having been improved.” He added that GO TO 2040 regional plan calls for doubling transit ridership by 2040, and said that CMAQ funding is part of “increasing commitment to public transit.”

Read more…

3 Comments

The Illiana’s Latest Death Blow: Feds Dropping Their Appeal of Court Ruling

Photo of the then-recently opened I-355, 127th St overpass

The Illiana’s high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

A new legal development may represent the final nail in the coffin for the wasteful, destructive Illiana Tollway project. Yesterday, the Federal Highway Administration dropped its appeal of the court ruling that invalidated the Illiana’s key supporting document.

Back in June, U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso invalidated the tollway’s Environmental Impact Statement, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.” The EIS was jointly prepared by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation.

Alonso noted then that the FHWA shouldn’t have approved the EIS because the tollway’s purpose and need statement was based on “market-driven forecasts developed by [Illinois Department of Transportation] consultants,” rather than sound policy. The Illiana was a terrible idea that was heavily promoted by former Illinois governor Pat Quinn and state representatives from the south suburbs.

Illinois taxpayers would have been on the hook for a $500 million down payment for the tollway. They also would have been responsible for future payments to the private operator in the event that revenue from tolls came up short. One of IDOT’s studies showed that the Illiana’s tolls would be several times higher than those on other Illinois tollways, which would cause many drivers to opt for non-tolled roads in the same corridor instead.

The highway would have destroyed protected natural areas and heritage farmland. It also would have induced sprawl to new areas outside of the current Chicago metro region.

Read more…