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Posts from the "Chicago Suburbs" Category

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Quinn Borrows $1.1 Billion to Keep IDOT’s Steamrollers Going

Governor Quinn Signs $1.1 Billion   Capital Construction Bill

Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill in front of workers at the Circle Interchange construction site today. Photo: IDOT

Governor Pat Quinn signed two bills today that allow the state to issue $1.1 billion in general obligation bonds to spend on highway resurfacing, widening, and bridge repair. The bills explicitly exclude transit from the new funds, and while they don’t seem to exclude bike lanes, trails, or sidewalks, all of the funds are already obligated to car-centric road projects [PDF].

Erica Borggren, acting secretary for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said in a press release, “This construction program is the shot in the arm that our transportation system and our economy needs.”

What the economy and our transportation system also need is an efficient and sustainable way for users to pay the system’s ongoing costs — rather than a stopgap that socks future taxpayers, whether transit riders or pedestrians or drivers, with big loan payments. Keep in mind that today, Illinois has the country’s worst credit rating, and thus pays the highest interest rate of any state — 42 percent more interest than usual.

Springfield’s State Journal-Register reported that “the plan got overwhelming support in the final days of the legislative session, though some lawmakers were concerned that they didn’t have enough time to study where the money would go.” The answer, as with most anything related to IDOT spending, is “overwhelmingly Downstate.”

Just over four percent of the funds will be spent in Chicago, home to 22 percent of the state’s population. Most of that will go to reconstruct and replace the bridges and viaducts on the Stevenson Expressway (I-55), between the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-94) and South Lake Shore Drive. $700,000 will be spent to resurface 0.6 miles of South Michigan Avenue in Washington Park.

Just under 37 percent of the funds will be spent in the six-county Chicagoland area, and the majority of that will go to exurbs and rural areas. This might prove convenient for Quinn during an election year, especially given the dwindling fund balance in his signature “Illinois Jobs Now!” program. The program has just $115 million left to spend, according to IDOT spokesperson Paris Ervin.

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CMAP Tells IDOT: “To Each Municipality, According to Their Needs”

Urbanity fails again.

Uneven pavement abounds in Chicagoland. Photo: Josh Koonce

The Illinois Department of Transportation, whose secretary resigned last week after accusations about patronage hiring, distributed $545 million in gas tax revenue to fix streets in almost 3,000 jurisdictions last year. While this sounds like a lot of money, poor road and bridge conditions across the state can attest to the fact that these funds might not be going to the places that need them most. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s federally designated metropolitan planning organization, has recently written about different methods that IDOT could use to more fairly distribute these revenues across the state’s cities and counties.

CMAP’s regional comprehensive plan, GO TO 2040, implemented for the first time a system of performance measures to make sure that transportation funding generally goes to where it’s needed, instead of just where it’s wanted. In that spirit, CMAP suggests a few alternatives to the state’s existing distribution mechanism, which state law currently divvies up based mostly on population as well as the number of licensed vehicles and street mileage. The current system steers 71 percent of statewide gas tax revenue to the seven-county CMAP region.

This “formula funding” mechanism, CMAP says, ignores the transportation system’s changing needs. Plus, since the percentages are set in law, that means that fund distributions “cannot respond to changing needs over time.” For example, 16.74 percent of the $545 million in annual gas tax revenue goes to the one Illinois county with over one million residents — Cook County. Meanwhile, DuPage County has grown to 932,000 residents, and could reach one million residents before 2040. When that happens, DuPage would become eligible for that 16.74 percent slice, and Cook could see its own revenue cut in half overnight, even though its streets would remain heavily used by suburbanites driving into the region’s core for work or play. 

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Chicagoland’s Newest Bicycle Delivery Service Brings Safety to Suburban Kids

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On-bike education helps Oak Park kids feel confident and safe biking not just around the schoolyard, but around town. Photo: Active Trans. 

All around the country, and especially in suburban areas, safety conscious parents often keep their kids indoors, off what many fear to be dangerous streets. As a result, many fewer children are walking and cycling, with grave consequences for the nation’s health. The Active Transportation Alliance has long tried to offset this trend in a small way, by offering a few bicycle safety education programs for kids in partnership with towns like Oak Park and Wilmette.

However, Active Trans’ capacity to deliver bike safety classes to kids all across the region was long hamstrung by scarce resources. You can’t teach art to kids without crayons or paint, and likewise it’s tough to teach bike safety without bikes — or without qualified bike safety instructors. The new “Bikes on Wheels” program will bring these tools to many more kids throughout Chicagoland.

The program builds off Active Trans’ current efforts in Oak Park, where a pilot project with local nonprofit Greenline Wheels and with school physical education programs teaches kids traffic safety. Jason Jenkins, education coordinator at Active Trans, says that the program begins with a “bike rodeo,” with chalk and cones set up in the schoolyard to teach kids about riding in a straight line, stopping, signalling and making turns, checking over their shoulders for oncoming traffic, and where to expect pedestrians and cars. Some schools offer additional sessions, when kids can work their way up to a supervised, on-street ride to a nearby park.

The local partners in Oak Park had a fleet of kids’ bikes and a small trailer, which provided the inspiration for Bikes on Wheels. Thanks to a grant from Specialized Bikes, obtained with the help of Kozy’s Cyclery, Active Trans now has a truck trailer stocked with a full fleet of 30 kids’ bikes, two adult bikes, helmets, and other materials necessary to teach one P.E. class at a time about safe riding. The bikes are as basic as they get, with one speed and coaster brakes, in order to minimize ongoing maintenance expenses.

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CMAP Plan Update Includes Sobering Look at Region’s Funding Shortfall

Milwaukee Elevated Track Work - May 31/Jun 1

The RTA estimates the CTA, Metra, and Pace need $20 billion to bring their transit systems into a “state of good repair.” Photo: CTA

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 regional comprehensive plan has weathered some major ups and downs in its four-year lifespan. CMAP has received several awards for the plan, which required a huge effort on their part to reach out to local residents and overwrite decades of uncoordinated transportation “plans.”

Last year, though, the plan’s political support was tested when those in charge of executing it, including Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, the Illinois Department of Transportation, and Metra and Pace, all put politics above policy and voted to add the sprawl-inducing, job-sucking Illiana Tollway to the plan. The Illiana, and particularly the high priority given to it, directly contradicts the plan’s directive that “investments that maintain and modernize the transportation system should be prioritized over major expansion projects.”

The federal government is now asking CMAP for a four-year update to the plan. The analysis adds in recent data and revisions, since legislation has changed and projects have been built, but not a wholesale rewrite. As CMAP spokesperson Justine Reisinger said, “The region’s priorities, as identified in GO TO 2040, have remained consistent.”

One key update to the plan, according to Reisinger, is an updated financial analysis on the major capital projects included in the plan, like the Elgin-O’Hare Western Bypass and the CTA Red Line extension to 130th. This analysis also shows “what revenues metropolitan Chicago can expect to fund the systematic enhancement, maintenance, and modernization of the system.” When CMAP considered current revenue sources, from 2015 until 2040, they found that the region “will only have $3.4 billion to spend on systematic enhancements, moving the system toward a state of good repair, and capacity expansion (major capital projects).” That’s just $136 million a year for every single road, transit, and bicycle and pedestrian project across the entire seven-county area.

Meanwhile, the list of projects in line for that money remains just as long as it ever was. CMAP removed three projects from the list, all of which were highways that were built, but then it added two new highway projects — the Illiana Tollway and the Circle Interchange Expansion (now under construction).

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Bikin’ the Suburbs: Active Trans Peddling Next-Gen Bikeways Beyond Chicago

Church Street cycle track in Evanston

Church Street cycle track in Evanston. Photo: Steven Vance

A recent survey conducted for the Illinois Bicycle Transportation Plan found that Illinoisans want bikeways that provide physical separation from motor vehicles, and believe these kind of “8-to-80” facilities are a key way to get more people to cycle. Protected bike lanes and bike boulevards, AKA neighborhood greenways, are becoming commonplace in the city of Chicago. Yesterday, the Active Transportation Alliance launched a new project to encourage suburbs to build these types of low-stress bikeways, which are comfortable for people of all ages and abilities.

The Family-Friendly Bikeways campaign will promote the establishment of off-street trails that can be used for transportation, on-street protected lanes, and bike boulevards on quiet side streets, with infrastructure that discourages speeding and cut-through traffic. “For the last 20 years or so, bike planning has been focused on the so-called ‘strong and fearless’ riders,” said Active Trans director Ron Burke. “That was OK, because there wasn’t political will to do more at the time, so it made sense to focus on low-hanging fruit.” However, he noted that studies show less than ten percent of the population feels comfortable cycling on streets with no bike accommodations or conventional bike lanes.

While the region now has hundreds of miles of bike facilities, the lion’s share of the on-street bikeways are conventional lanes or shared-lane markings, which do little to encourage less confident riders to bike for transportation. Off-street trails tend to be loops through forest preserves, which aren’t particularly useful for getting to destinations, and are often challenging to access without strapping your bike to a car rack.

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A suburban sidepath. Image: Active Trans

“Part of the evolution of the bike movement is for towns to say, yes, we want to create bike facilities for everyone, not just install some route signs or sharrows,” Burke said. He added that this isn’t such a heavy lift, because most of the suburbs Active Trans works with have already embraced the goal. “When you ask them if they’d be interested in creating a network of bikeways where even a little kid could ride, they say, yes, that would be awesome. It’s more about making a plan for moving forward.”

Active Trans has already been advising suburbs on creating bike plans, as well as coaching them on securing cash for the projects. “We recognize that funding is a big issue,” Burke said. “Even though bike facilities are relatively inexpensive, there’s a limited pot of money for these projects.” He noted that the state recently turned down a joint application by Chicago, Evanston and Oak Park for funding to expand Divvy into the ‘burbs. “Even if towns have the desire to do these things, they may not know how to get the cash.”

Bike boulevards will be an important part of Active Trans’ suburban strategy. “A lot of bike plans feature sharrows on side streets,” Burke said. “You don’t have to do a lot more to create bike boulevards.” Features like contraflow bike lanes, traffic diverters, and traffic calming, which allow continuous, two-way bike traffic but discourage drivers from speeding and shortcutting through residential streets, are relatively easy and low-cost, he said.

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Bus to Zipcar to Divvy? RideScout App Makes Connecting A Bit Easier

100% full Divvy station

RideScout will avoid steering you towards a full Divvy station.

The number of transportation choices available to Chicagoans continues to grow, particularly as shared options like car-sharing and Divvy bikes become ever more popular. Yet these options can turn the simple act of planning a trip across town into a complicated exercise that requires weighing multiple factors, like cost, convenience, time, and ever-changing availability. RideScout, a new app that was recently updated to include Chicago, presents numerous transportation choices all within a single smartphone screen. After factoring in your origin, destination, and the time of day, RideScout compares choices like walking, bicycling, Divvy bike-sharing, Metra, CTA trains and buses, taxis, Zipcar, and SideCar shared rides.

Transit industry specialists have long sought to create such a “multi-modal trip planner,” or MMTP. The familiar Google Maps – both on the web and on smartphones – is probably the largest provider of trip directions, but its interface makes it difficult to compare trips across different modes. OpenPlans, parent of Streetsblog, has developed OpenTripPlanner, which is used by Portland’s TriMet agency. Our own Regional Transportation Authority developed Trip Planner (launched as “GoRoo”) in 2010, which gave directions to 3.4 million users in 2013, even without a smartphone app.

RideScout aims to make it easier to quickly understand all of the available choices for getting around town. CEO Joseph Kopser calls it an app that “optimizes cities” by making the necessary travel calculations for its users.

RideScout is the only MMTP app that includes Zipcar as an option, for users within walking distance of an available car. Right now, that walking distance is set at 1/3 of a mile, but in the future they’ll let users choose how far they want to walk. Additionally, he said that the app will soon look to see if there’s a bus or train to take you to a Zipcar – a feature that might be especially useful in bad weather, or if the nearest Zipcar has already been checked out.

One recent RideScout improvement based on user feedback was adding “dock block prevention” for Divvy riders. “We give you an update along the way,” Kopser explained, “and the app will ding at you” if your destination Divvy station fills up while you’re en route. “At the next stop sign, you can look at the alert, and get new directions” to a nearby station that still has docks or bikes available. Read more…

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Evanston Catches Residents Off Guard by Suggesting Bike Bans

main street station shopping district

A sign on Main Street says “explore it all” – but not by bike if a ban suggestion is implemented.

A survey to collect resident feedback about the draft Evanston Bike Plan launched yesterday, and some of the questions have alarmed residents and advocates. The survey has several odd questions, beginning with a requirement that respondents complete a quiz about bicycling laws. What truly alarmed respondents like Wheel & Sprocket store manager Eric Krzystofiak, though, is a question asking, “should bikes be prohibited from the following roads if alternate parallel biking corridors are established?”

Krzystofiak rides from his home in Chicago to the bike shop, one block from the Davis Street Metra station. “What’s great in Chicago is that you can ride anywhere,” he said, so “it seems counterproductive to see roads that cyclists aren’t allowed on, when we’re trying to be bicycle friendly in Evanston.”

The suggestions were first revealed in a public input session last month, where Public Works director Suzette Robinson said the city wasn’t making recommendations but seeking to “increase harmony” among bicyclists, pedestrians, and drivers.

The survey asked respondents to consider banning bicycles on five distinct street segments, without describing where the “alternative parallel bike corridors” would be or what infrastructure, if any, they would have. The five street segments, totaling 4.6 miles, are:

  • Main Street, between McCormick Boulevard and Hinman Avenue
  • Dempster Street, between McCormick Boulevard and Asbury Avenue
  • Central Street, between Lincolnwood Drive and Green Bay Road
  • Green Bay Road, between Lincoln Street and Isabella Street
  • Chicago Avenue, between Dempster Street and South Boulevard

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Believe It or Not, Evanston Mulling More Bike Bans

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Ridge Avenue. Depending on the bicycle plan update, we could be seeing more “No Bikes” signs in Evanston. Image: Google Street View

Evanston has a reputation as one of Chicagoland’s most progressive suburbs. That could change if the city’s bike plan update, intended to encourage more pedaling, takes the counterproductive step of recommending banning bikes on some streets. Earlier this month, a public input session for the plan left many locals distressed about the possibility of the city “restricting” cycling on segments of some roads.

That would be an odd future for what’s currently one of the region’s most bike-friendly ‘burbs. Evanston already has high-quality protected bike lane lanes on Church and Davis downtown. Last year the city won a $480,000 state grant to build new PBLs connecting the existing ones to the Chicago border via Dodge, as well as to install bike racks and lockers.

In April, the state granted Evanston another $1.4 million to build on-street protected lanes and/or off-street paths connecting downtown to Wilmette. “So you’ll be able to go all the way from Wilmette to Chicago on protected routes,” said Suzette Robinson, Director of Public Works. The new bikeways should be completed in 2015.

20130818 23 Bicycle Lane,  Evanston, Illinois

Protected bike lane on Church Street. Photo: David Wilson via Flickr

Since October, the city and consultant T.Y. Lin International have hosted several meetings to gather feedback from residents about current conditions for cycling and what changes are needed to create a better biking environment. “Our bike traffic has doubled, so we’re trying to ensure that we don’t have an increase in crashes,” said Robinson. “Our goal is to have a complete streets network where all modes respect each other.”

At the recent meeting, city and T.Y. Lin staffers presented a draft of the plan to residents. To collect additional feedback, a new online survey will launch on Monday, continuing until June 20, and staffers will talk with local employers and buttonhole shoppers in the retail districts, Robinson said. After the input is collected, Public Works may present a final plan to the City Council in July.

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Illiana Boondoggle Now Guaranteed to Cost Taxpayers At Least $250 Million

Gantry on Triangle Expressway

A recent agreement mandates electronic tolling for the Illiana, with no cash payment option. New toll roads, like this one near Durham, N.C., have electronic tolls and traffic counts far below expectations. Photo: NC DOT/Flickr

Remember the “innovative” public-private partnership Governor Quinn lauded as a way to build the “21st century” Illiana Expressway, without shifting the entire cost onto the general public? Or remember CMAP’s statement opposing the project, based on its contradictory growth projections, overestimated benefit to the region, and severe financial risk, and the multiple op-eds and articles that followed, all expressing concern about the expressway’s ability to garner enough toll revenue to pay for itself?

It appears that the Illiana project, extolled by the governor and IDOT as a way to invigorate the south suburban economy by building a privately-financed and operated expressway, will actually involve even more public dollars than we imagined.

The terms of the public-private partnership devised for the Illiana have already been condemned in the local media. The project’s backers cite the eventual selection of a private developer to design, construct, and operate the expressway as a way to relieve the public from paying for the project; indeed, its “private financing” is perhaps why the project could even be contemplated by a state with huge debts. But a Toll Sensitivity Analysis [PDF] released by IDOT last November shows that the Illiana will cost four times as much to drive on as nearby tollways. Any business would have a hard time staying open by charging four times as much as nearby, more convenient competitors.

Unless that business is road building in Illinois, of course. An agreement between Illinois and Indiana now commits a minimum of $250 million in Illinois dollars to the project. Indiana’s DOT has also committed $80–$110 million to the project; together, this amounts to at least a third of the project’s currently projected cost of $1 billion. If toll revenue fails to live up to expectations, the public may be on the hook for much, much more.

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Don’t Despair, Evanston & Oak Park May Still Get Divvy Stations

Chicago Divvy Bikes July 2013 (60)

Divvy bikes and rebalancing van. Photo by Pam Broviak via flickr

Last month, it was a bummer when the Illinois Department of Transportation announced $52.7 million in funding for transportation projects, including many bike and pedestrian projects, but the expansion of Divvy into the suburbs wasn’t one of them. However, officials say they’re hopeful money can be found to extend the system past the city limits.

Chicago, Evanston, and Oak Park collaborated on an application for a $3 million Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program grant to buy 75 more bike-share stations. About 20 of these would have been installed in the two suburbs, and many more would have been placed in Chicago’s Garfield Park, Austin, and Rogers Park communities to connect the suburban stations with the existing network.

While a significant chunk of the federally funded ITEP money went to more than a dozen worthy bikeway, sidewalk and streetscape improvements in the Chicago region, no urban bike projects got funding. In a blog post, Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke celebrated the suburban wins, but expressed disappointment that the Divvy grant was turned down, since Evanston and Oak Park are ideal candidates for bike-share. “Both suburbs have high densities and ample transit stations, which are key ingredients for generating bike share trips that occur solely within each suburb,” he wrote.

Last Thursday, Mayor Emanuel announced that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois will be paying $12.5 million to sponsor Divvy, and the money will be used for expanding the system, as well as other cycling improvements. However, Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Pete Scales told me that money won’t be used for suburban bike-share stations. “Evanston and Oak Park will be responsible for the costs of their stations and operations, and we will be working with them to find other funds for the expansion,” he said.

IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell attributed the failure of the Divvy ITEP grant proposal to an extremely competitive application process, estimating that two-thirds of the applications didn’t get approved. “[Bike-share] is a concept we’re enthusiastically behind,” he told me. “Anything that encourages more bike use is something we wholeheartedly endorse. It’s just a matter of finding a funding option that fits.”

Tridgell said IDOT is currently in talks with CDOT, Evanston and Oak Park about funding options. The tab for Divvy’s first 475 stations, 300 of which are already installed, plus various startup costs, is $30.5 million. These expenses have been bankrolled by federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grants and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery funds, plus a 20-percent local match. The state awards ITEP grants roughly once per year, so that’s another future possibility, Tridgell said.