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Posts from the "Chicago Suburbs" Category

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New Ventra App Takes Small Step Towards Transit Fare Integration

CTA and Globe Sherpa provided this image showing a potential app design.

CTA and Globe Sherpa showed off one potential app design.

The forthcoming smartphone ticket app for Metra will also make it possible for Chicago Transit Authority and Pace customers to manage their Ventra transit accounts on their phones, the CTA announced last week. Even though the three agencies will spend $2.5 million on the app (plus nearly $16,000 in monthly fees), the Ventra app won’t at first offer customers many more functions than the existing Ventra website.

CTA communications manager Tony Coppoletta pointed out to Streetsblog that the 80 percent of CTA customers who have smartphones could use the app to skip the lines at station vending machines or at Ventra retailers, and have easier on-the-go access to their Ventra accounts. Bus passengers, who currently have to go out of their way to reload their Ventra accounts, may find the app particularly useful.

As we’ve reported before, the app will also help occasional Metra riders by finally making it possible to instantly purchase Metra tickets from anywhere. For example, an individual who loads $130 every month in pre-tax transit benefits into into a Ventra account could purchase a $100 monthly CTA/Pace pass, and still have $30 each month to spend on Metra tickets.

Yet many transit riders won’t benefit from the app. The 20 percent of CTA riders who don’t have smartphones, and others who don’t use bank cards, add up to hundreds of thousands who won’t be able to use the app. Many more CTA riders automatically deposit funds into their Ventra accounts, using Ventra’s auto-load function or pre-tax transit benefits. Similarly, any Metra riders who don’t have smartphones will still have to buy their tickets by mail or in person.

Two more crucial technologies that would further simplify transit payments are still set for the indefinite future. Read more…

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Cook County’s Transportation Plan Thinking Big, But Where’s The Money?

All Aboard Cook County transportation plan scenario

A description of Cook County’s draft “All Aboard” transportation plan scenario.

Earlier this year, Cook County embarked on its first transportation plan since 1940, asking residents to weigh in on how and where to improve transportation across the second most populous county in America. That feedback has helped the transportation department to draft a new vision statement [PDF] – that world-class transportation will spur economic growth and enhance quality of life – plus four scenarios for the future [PDF], which the public can vote on in an online survey

The new plan will guide policy choices that determine where and how the county invests its resources, and to estimate how much more revenue is needed to fulfill those goals. One key policy decision will determine whether or not the region will fight for more resources in Springfield. One particularly galling imbalance is the Illinois Department of Transportation’s strict 55/45 split, which sends an outsized proportion of dollars downstate even though most of the state’s people and economy reside in Chicagoland.

The most dour of the four scenarios envisioned is called “Running on Empty.” It supposes that the current conditions depressing local transportation investment – the 55/45 split, declining gas tax revenues, municipalities looking out only for themselves, and sprawling, low density growth – will continue to “undermine” Cook County’s transportation system, communities, and economy.

A slightly less depressing scenario, “Stuck in First Gear,” differs minimally from the first by supposing that the county will pursue additional grants from the state and federal governments. The county would rein in sprawl slightly by encouraging more density around train stations, for example. This would increase use of some underutilized bits of the transportation system, but also tax others, similar to how some parts of the CTA system are now becoming overcrowded. However, an overall lack of funding leads transit service quality to continue its long-term decline, making transit-oriented development a tough sell.

Scenarios three and four more closely reflect the goals of the GO TO 2040 regional plan, but depend on the state to update its antiquated policies. “Picking Up Steam” says that Cook County would stop diverting gas tax revenues away from infrastructure, and influence the state to do the same. And instead of distributing transportation funds by a strict 55/45 split, the Illinois Department of Transportation would use performance measures to guide dollars to where they’re most needed, e.g., densely populated Cook County. Those policy changes would add funds that could address the area’s considerable maintenance backlog, and start to invest in more bicycle, pedestrian, and transit projects. However, the third scenario isn’t all rosy: It’s marred by development that continues to drift further away from existing transit and freight facilities.

The final scenario, “All Aboard,” is one which supposes additional funding and new development surrounding existing transportation resources. Specifically, it assumes that the state gas tax will be raised by eight cents per gallon, and pegged to inflation. Policy changes would target county revenues towards compact and mixed-use development on infill locations, and expand regional transit “to reach underserved destinations.” Building within existing neighborhoods is a core tenet of GO TO 2040, and focusing new spending there would stabilize neighborhoods and expand businesses.

Give your feedback online. http://www.connectingcookcounty.org/involved-metroquest.html

Send Cook County your feedback on these four scenarios. Send general feedback to info@connectingcookcounty.org.

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Active Trans Launches a New Crusade Against Dangerous Intersections

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 4.52.15 PM

McCormick and Touhy in Skokie was ranked the worst intersection for pedestrians in suburban Cook County. Image: Google Maps

The Active Transportation Alliance was instrumental in creating the Transit Future campaign, with the goal of creating a dedicated funding source for regional transit. Now they’re also pushing for dedicated funding for pedestrian infrastructure, while raising awareness of Chicagoland’s many hazardous intersections, with their new Safe Crossings initiative.

“It’s really important that we recognize the challenges that pedestrians face across the region,” Active Trans’ director of campaigns, Kyle Whitehead, told me. “People tend to assume that these dangerous and difficult intersections are going to stay that way. We want people to realize that there are proven solutions to address these issues. If we can raise awareness and muster resources, there’s the potential to solve these problems throughout the region.”

This morning, Active Trans released a list of ten of the most dangerous intersections in the city of Chicago, and ten of the most hazardous junctions in suburban Cook County. Topping the urban list is the notoriously chaotic North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection in Wicker Park, with 43 reported pedestrian and bike crashes between 2006 and 2012. In the ‘burbs, the worst-ranked junction is Skokie’s McCormick and Touhy intersection, where two six-lane roads cross next to the North Shore Channel Trail bike-and-pedestrian path.

The crash data, provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation, was only one of the factors Active Trans used to compile the lists. They also incorporated feedback from their planning and outreach staff, plus public input. The group received more than 800 responses to an online survey that was posted on their blog, shared via social media, and emailed to members. Here are the full lists:

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Transit Future Slowly Building Coalition to Fund Expanded Transit

CNT says there is poor transit service between where low-income workers live and where most jobs are. They're developing research that would show the impact of building new lines outlined in the Transit Future campaign.

CNT says there is poor transit service between where low-income workers live and where most jobs are. They’re developing research that would show the impact of building new lines outlined in the Transit Future campaign.

The Transit Future campaign sure did arrive with a bang. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle both spoke at its April announcement, which was accompanied by a splashy map and website. It seemed like a huge expansion of the region’s transit network was closer than ever, once Cook County and Chicago officials rallied around the idea (imported from Los Angeles) to use local taxes to leverage big dollars for projects. But ever since then, though, its backers — the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Active Transportation Alliance — have been fairly quiet.

CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw and Active Trans executive director Ron Burke recently gave a glimpse into what’s next for Transit Future at DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute. Ever since its launch, 12 of Cook County’s 17 commissioners have signed on to the campaign. Several of them told Grimshaw that the campaign should also meet with mayors and other elected officials in their districts, so CNT has expanded its outreach accordingly.

“It’s important to build a coalition,” Grimshaw said, “to share the message and get the electorate involved.”

Grimshaw was candid about the progress of Transit Future since April, saying she had asked Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle to include a new transit fund within the FY2015 budget proposal. “But Toni had a bigger nut to crack,” Grimshaw said, “and that’s pensions.” (The current, election-year budget also, conveniently, does not include any new taxes.) Grimshaw added, “The best we can hope for now is the 2016 budget.”

The Transit Future map shows many new and extended ‘L’, Metra and arterial rapid bus routes. Grimshaw explained that “we didn’t just make up these lines.” Many of them were on the wish lists that transportation agencies, departments, and other governments had submitted to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, for potential inclusion in the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan. The routes “were vetted, part of a public engagement process, and screened,” she added. “What these lines lacked is funding” (unlike some other projects), and so they weren’t included in the final GO TO 2040 plan.

Transit Future is developing a compelling public case for why these transit lines are needed. Campaign manager Ronnie Harris said that they’re racing to develop a report clearly showing the benefits and return on investment “of going ahead and doing this.” The report, he said, will “outline the benefits of [the region] buying into Transit Future.”

Cook County certainly could use more extensive transit service. County residents take transit for just seven percent of all trips, Burke explained, because it’s inconvenient for most of their trips. Transit service just isn’t available, or is infrequent, in the areas where most county residents work. Decades of sprawl have pushed jobs from downtown Chicago to newer centers, around O’Hare Airport and to suburban corridors in the north, northwest, and west suburbs. Getting to jobs in those locations is impractical by transit, since these transit deserts see only infrequent Pace buses and practically nonexistent reverse-commute Metra service to faraway stations.

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Got Transit Troubles? The Problem Could Be the Chain of Command

Boston's MBTA enjoys unique consolidation, but that hasn't spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

Boston’s MBTA consolidates the entire region’s transit network, but that hasn’t spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

If you still have to juggle multiple farecards for the various transit systems in your area — or if urgent maintenance issues in the city core are going unattended while the suburbs get a shiny new station — the problem might run deeper than the incompetence everyone is grumbling about. The root of it all might be embedded in the very structure of the agencies that govern your transit system.

Last year, infighting among members of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority about how to distribute funds led the agency to seek outside help. A team of researchers, including the Eno Center for Transportation, came to try to figure out what the trouble was. “It soon became clear that RTA did not actually have a funding distribution problem,” Eno wrote in its report.

In fact, the authors concluded, RTA had a governance problem, which in turn had far-reaching consequences beyond funding battles: Governance issues impeded RTA’s ability to coordinate regional transit services and investments and contributed to “chronic underinvestment” in Chicago’s transit network.

The Chicago area is home to three major transit operators: the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra (a regional rail agency), and Pace (a suburban bus agency), all members of the RTA. While the RTA has the power to distribute funding, that’s about all it can do. Even those funding decisions are largely based on outdated formulas set by the state. When there is some money that RTA has the discretion to allocate as it chooses, bitter disputes ensue among the three agencies — disputes like the one Eno and company were called in to mediate.

The RTA doesn’t coordinate or steer Chicago’s transit providers, so all three essentially operate separate fiefdoms. “The inherent problem is that RTA occupies an ambiguous middle ground where it is powerful enough to create challenges and bureaucracy, but not powerful enough to be productive in pursuing regional goals,” reports Eno. The Chicago officials and transit experts Eno interviewed wanted to see RTA either strengthened or eliminated, but they agreed the status quo is not productive, leading to jurisdictional battles without building regional partnerships.

Meanwhile, the state is all but absent in Chicago transit governance, which Eno says is “shortsighted” when “transit has such a large impact on the economic success of the state.” Aside from helping with coordination and regional visioning, the state could be providing needed funds.

Intrigued by the findings in Chicago, Eno then partnered with TransitCenter to study five other cities to see how transit governance structures affect operations.

Here’s a cheat sheet before we go on:

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Seven Ways to Stop The Illiana Boondoggle

Two votes yesterday by a committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicagoland’s federally-designated regional planning organization, have cemented CMAP’s approval of the sprawl-inducing, budget-busting Illiana Tollway. Since federal transportation dollars can only be spent on projects included in an adopted regional plan, this gives Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation the consent that they needed to continue preparations for the Illiana Tollway.

South suburban legislators are happy that Quinn is steering the dollars in their direction, and spoke up in favor of the road yesterday — many saying that the Illiana would free them from the scourge of truck traffic on existing roads. State Senator Pat McGuire (D-43) said the Illiana “would improve the environment” and “save lives.” He didn’t specify how, especially since IDOT’s own analysis says that the Illiana would increase car traffic (and presumably car crashes) in the study area, decrease truck traffic only minimally, and result in more smog and acid rain.

State Representative Al Riley (D-38) heads the house’s mass transit committee, and brushed aside criticism of the road in this spirited, if garbled, testimony yesterday:

The Tier 2 EIS just came out, so everybody’s supposed to be stupid. [People are saying] the FHWA, you know, who did the report, doesn’t know what they’re doing. Their pronouncements don’t make any sense. Well, of course they do. Everything made sense throughout the entire process. Of course they know what they’re doing!

Despite yesterday’s vote, there are still several ways the Illiana could be stopped well before the bulldozers arrive to pave over every pristine prairie and family farm in their path. Here are seven possible routes:

1. The state legislature could rescind the law giving IDOT authority to enter into a public-private partnership, or otherwise step in and keep IDOT from spending the funds it’s budgeted for the project. IDOT’s idea of a “PPP” amounts to bribing private investors with a $250 million (minimum) up-front payment, plus additional money when toll revenues fall short. Another avenue the legislature has is preventing IDOT from spending its $250 million budget for acquiring land, relocating utilities, and other site-preparation work.

This seems rather unlikely, given the project’s avid proponents in the General Assembly. State Senator Toi Hutchinson (D-40) spoke at yesterday’s meeting, reminding the policy committee that she helped craft the enabling legislation in 2010. She added that this project “is important to us,” referring to her south suburban district.

2. A more likely route is through the environmental evaluation process, which is already well underway. IDOT released a Tier 2 environmental impact statement for the road on September 26, but it — and its predecessor — have critical flaws that the Environmental Law & Policy Center hopes could trip up the road. The EIS outlines for the Federal Highway Administration, and the public, how IDOT intends to mitigate the road’s impacts to people, wildlife, and air and water quality.

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Illiana Forced Into CMAP Regional Plan By Springfield, Suburban Reps

CMAP's MPO Policy committee

The MPO Policy Committee listened to a panel of speakers testify this morning. Photo: Steven Vance

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s MPO Policy committee today approved the Illiana Tollway, among other projects, as part of GO TO 2040, which the agency calls “the comprehensive regional plan… for sustainable prosperity through mid-century and beyond.”

Committee members representing Chicago, Cook County, and McHenry County, which together are home to almost two-thirds of Chicago area residents, voted twice against adding the Illiana to the plan. However, they were overruled by representatives from other suburbs and from state agencies. The committee voted twice today: first on a motion to specifically exclude the Illiana from a larger package of GO TO 2040 updates, which failed 10-8 with one abstention, followed by a vote to adopt the update with the Illiana, which passed 12-6 with one abstention.

If the Illiana gets first dibs on state funding, as Governor Pat Quinn and IDOT intend, then those same suburbs will see at least $500 million robbed from the funds that pay for their own infrastructure projects.

Pace continued to stick it to its riders, with its representative supporting the Illiana in both votes. Metra’s representative abstained from voting on both motions, although its vote would not have swung either result. Metra frequently uses IDOT capital funds to purchase new equipment — but, next year, it intends to stick its riders with that bill, hiking fares by 11 to 19 percent.

Erica Borggren, the acting secretary at the Illinois Department of Transportation, began the meeting by introducing herself as an expert in being dropped into unfamiliar situations, like the debate over the tollway. She previously served in the military, but has no prior experience evaluating transportation improvements.
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Illiana Spurned Again By CMAP Board, Faces Another Vote Tomorrow

Elliott Hartstein, CMAP board member, speaks agains the Illiana Tollway

Elliott Hartstein, CMAP board vice chairman, says the Illiana is fiscally irresponsible. Photo: Steven Vance

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s board again passed on the Illiana Tollway, keeping the project in limbo until another meeting tomorrow morning. The board overwhelmingly voted, 10-4, to strip the Illiana from a broader package of updates to the GO TO 2040 regional plan, and then to veto those updates entirely. However, CMAP board votes require a 12-3 supermajority vote to pass, so both motions still failed. The plan updates, and the Illiana, remain outside GO TO 2040.

The Illiana is still in play, and would be regardless of the board’s actions. Confusingly, it isn’t the board but rather CMAP’s MPO Policy committee that has final say, and that committee will vote tomorrow on whether to approve the GO TO 2040 plan update. They may make their own motion to exclude the Illiana Tollway from the plan before voting, or approve the plan update as-is.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center is even suing CMAP and IDOT to force CMAP to recognize the board’s greater authority. Board chair Gerald Bennett, mayor of south suburban Palos Hills, said today that CMAP’s bylaws require that the board and policy committee meet together, “to find consensus, to be on the same page.” However, acting IDOT secretary Erica Borggren went ahead and split the proposed joint meeting.

The four voting in favor of the Illiana represent Will, Kane, DuPage, and south Cook County (one of five Cook seats). One member, representing Chicago, was absent.

27 people spoke to the board imploring them to keep the Illiana out of the plan. Most of their comments focused on the burden to taxpayers resulting from the so-called “public-private partnership” that will build the road. IDOT has said that taxpayers would pony up a minimum of $500 million, with the first half going to buy land and relocate utilities.

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No Surprise: International Report Says Region’s Transit Not Up to Par

20110805 08 CTA and Metra, Oak Park, Illinois

Oak Park is one of only two stations in the region where people can transfer between CTA and Metra trains.

Last month, a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development validated what Chicago researchers, a task force convened by the governor, and millions of customers have all said for years: Transit in Chicagoland is fragmented, inefficient, and far from adequate to serve the region’s transportation needs. The OECD, a “club of rich countries” that counts the United States among its 34 members, collects data and publishes research that countries and local organizations can use to understand their economies.

The report evaluated the transit network against the regional policy goals set forth in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan, particularly its goal to double transit ridership. OECD policy analyst Olaf Merk based the report on prior research by CMAP and the Metropolitan Planning Council. He also interviewed Chicago transportation experts Joseph Schwieterman, at DePaul University, and Steven Schlickman, at UIC. So, while it may be easy to dismiss the report as a naive European’s idealistic view, the report does rest upon adopted regional policies and local observers’ views.

The report dug deep into the many problems facing Chicagoland’s transit operations. A complex web of governments have conflicting authority over many different matters, and the overlap often results in contradictory policies. For example, the Regional Transportation Authority’s policies govern most transit planning in the region, and they support GO TO 2040′s goals. However, myriad policies outside of the RTA’s influence “stimulate car use,” including “generous parking policies” at the municipal level that require copious car parking at new buildings and “low gas taxes” that haven’t been raised in over 20 years.

Even the most basic level of coordination is lacking between the region’s transit systems: The services don’t even serve the same places. None of Metra’s busy downtown terminals are adjacent to CTA rail stations, and on many streets like Austin Avenue and Irving Park Road, CTA and Pace bus routes both end at the city line rather than more logical destinations. Transit service, the report said, “follows an administrative jurisdictional logic, instead of a logic motivated by traffic flows.”

Transit services haven’t adapted to changing housing and job locations, and instead continues to focus on downtown employment. “Approximately 36 percent of Chicago’s population works outside the city of Chicago,” the report explained, “and 46 percent of workers in the city of Chicago live in the suburbs.” The downtown-focused system makes it difficult to travel from city to the suburb, or between suburbs. Despite the region’s poor record at facilitating inter-agency transfers, a few junctions are being improved, like the new 95th Street Red Line station’s expanded CTA and Pace bus transfer facility, the Union Station intermodal improvements underway as part of the Central Loop BRT, and the new intermodal transfer center at Metra’s LaSalle Street station.

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The Illiana Expressway Will Eat Itself

If you asked me to paint a picture of a highway where no highway should exist, this is the picture I would paint. Image: ##https://pbworld.com/capabilities_projects/illiana_expressway_.aspx##Parsons Brinckerhoff##

The Illiana Expressway fails on all measures — expected revenue, projected traffic — when looked at realistically. Unfortunately, Illinois and Indiana don’t look at it that way. Image: Parsons Brinckerhoff

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. This is the final installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good.

Illinois and Indiana are proposing to build a new highway across the far southern extent of the Chicago metropolitan area at a cost of more than $1 billion and perhaps as much as $3 billion. Intended to divert truck traffic from Interstate 80, the tolls charged to finance the highway could instead discourage trucks from using the roadway.

The proposed Illiana Expressway would extend from I-55 in Wilmington, Illinois, to I-65 in Hebron, Indiana, at the southernmost reach of the Chicago metropolitan area, traversing a largely rural and thinly populated area.

The wisdom of the project has been questioned by staff of the region’s metropolitan planning organization, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which said the project “expose[s] the State of Illinois to extensive financial risk,” even as it offered “unsubstantiated economic development potential” and “negligible impacts on regional transportation performance.”

Further, the staff criticized the planning process for significantly underestimating potential costs — by at least 30 percent and possibly as much as 400 percent, compared to similar highway projects around the country. CMAP staff projections also show an economic impact only one-fifth as large in 2040 as that projected by the highway’s planners.

Despite objections from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the CMAP board’s resounding rejection of the tollway in a 10 to 4 vote, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is proceeding with the tollway on the basis of a vote of approval by CMAP’s policy committee. In October, the CMAP board will consider a regional comprehensive plan that includes the Illiana. Environmental groups have brought a lawsuit challenging IDOT’s continued development of the tollway, alleging that the committee vote violated the required approval process laid out in Illinois law.

Cost estimates for the highway range between $1.3 billion and $2.8 billion if related work on connecting roads is included. Illinois taxpayers are already on the hook for $250 million of that cost, and Indianans will pay an additional $80 million to $110 million, even though the road is set to be built and operated by a private company that will charge tolls and profit from the proceeds.

Those cost numbers are just starting points. To make the project attractive for potential private-sector partners, Illinois taxpayers would have to kick in between $440 million and $1.1 billion in subsidies, and Indiana taxpayers will need to contribute additional amounts. According to CMAP staff, too few details of a proposed public-private partnership are available to make a more precise estimate of the public contribution, but the lower the toll rates will be, the more public support will be needed. This is problematic because higher toll rates will reduce actual use of the road — and therefore reduce the road’s potential benefit to the transportation system.

Traffic projections work their magic yet again. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Traffic projections work their magic yet again. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

It is unclear how much demand there actually is from drivers for the new route. The financing of the road is premised on strong and growing toll proceeds, but many drivers — especially truck drivers — avoid toll roads, especially when tolls are high and there are toll-free alternatives. The larger the truck, the more likely it will go elsewhere. At even the lowest level of toll considered by the proposal, more than half the tractor-trailer trucks that would use the road if it were free are expected to avoid it; at the highest considered toll, more than 80 percent will use other roads instead.

Further undermining the arguments for the road’s utility are planners’ traffic projections for the 18-county region that is designated as being affected by the Illiana project. The data show that from 2001 to 2010, the number of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in the region grew by an average rate of 0.42 percent a year.

But official IDOT projections still anticipate rates of driving increase from the Driving Boom era. IDOT projects that from 2010 to 2040, VMT would grow more than twice as fast as the last decade, at an annual rate of 0.91 percent. So far, since 2010, the region’s VMT has actually dropped by an average rate of 0.49 percent per year.

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst at U.S. PIRG, and Jeff Inglis, policy analyst at the Frontier Group, are co-authors of the report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.”