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Posts from the "Chicago Suburbs" Category

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CMAP Seeks Its Own Dedicated Tax For Transit, Green Infrastructure

CMAP Board meeting

CMAP executive director Randy Blankenhorn says the region needs a new funding source for projects that cross jurisdiction and program boundaries. Photo: CMAP

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning last week floated its own proposal to fix the region’s shortfall in transportation funding. It launched FUND 2040, a campaign calling upon the Illinois legislature to fund sustainable infrastructure through a quarter-cent sales tax across the Chicagoland region. CMAP says this increase would generate $300 million annually, which it would use to advance projects that fulfill the goals of its federally-required plan for the region, GO TO 2040.

GO TO 2040 aims to sustainably accommodate population growth across the seven county region by steering investment to already-developed areas, doubling transit ridership, carrying more people on existing highways with more buses and with managed High Occupancy/Toll lanes, and absorbing more rainfall on sites rather than sending it into the area’s overwhelmed sewers.

FUND 2040 would align capital investments with GO TO 2040, and to give the region greater autonomy in choosing which projects to fund. CMAP would award funds to projects in existing plans, based entirely on performance measures — a marked difference from how the Illinois Department of Transportation spends money on politically favored projects like the budget-busting, ill-conceived Illiana Tollway.

The new fund would also put CMAP on surer financial footing. CMAP, as a federally recognized Metropolitan Planning Organization, is funded through the state’s DOT, and cash-strapped IDOT has delayed reimbursing CMAP’s operations costs on multiple occasions.

CMAP’s executive director Randy Blankenhorn said that, while the Illinois General Assembly has yet to write FUND 2040′s enabling legislation, the bill “would outline specific goals” instead of listing projects, places, or formulas to be funded. The legislation, he said, would outline project selection criteria because “it’s a long-term fund, and needs and funds can change.”

Emphasizing general purposes, instead of individual projects, is how the new fund would complement existing funding schemes’ sharp divisions. Existing “state and federal funds are very specific,” Blankenhorn said. “One will build a multi-use trail, but not flood control.”

In keeping with the broad goals of GO TO 2040, Blankenhorn said that CMAP settled on a sales tax, and specifically not a gas tax, because its projects – transportation, parks, and water infrastructure – benefit everyone, both on and off streets. “We admit the sales tax is not the preferred option for many things,” he said, “but this is a broad-based tax, that all users of all of the infrastructure pay into.”

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Active Trans Plans 2015 Pedestrian Infra Campaign, Winter Bike Challenge

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Active Trans will be pushing for dedicated funding for pedestrian infrastructure next year. Photo: Suzanne Nathan.

Last Thursday at the Active Transportation Alliance’s annual member meeting, director Ron Burke announced plans for next year, including campaigns for better downtown bike parking and more funding for pedestrian infrastructure and Safe Routes to School programs. The advocacy group will also continue lobbying for bike access on South Shore Line trains, and launch a new winter bike commuting challenge.

At the meeting, attended by about 75 Active Trans members, Burke began by touting the group’s 2014 achievements. The new Kids on Wheels on-bike education program brought a trailer full of loaner bikes to suburban schools, and Active Trans recently secured funding for a second trailer. The group met with Metra to negotiate the loosening of restrictions on bringing bikes on board, including the elimination of most event-related blackout days and a new policy allowing cycles on early-morning inbound trains.

The Safe Crossings campaign announced the 20 most dangerous intersections in the city and the suburbs as a way to draw attention to pedestrian safety issues. “It’s really all about educating municipalities, and the Illinois Department of Transportation, frankly, about the importance of making our streets safe places for walking and biking,” Burke said.

This year, Active Trans worked with the Center for Neighborhood Technology to launch the Transit Future campaign, advocating for a new Cook County-based revenue stream to expand public transportation. “In Metropolitan Chicago, only one out of four people can get to work by transit in under 90 minutes,” Burke noted. “Our transit system is really from a different era. It really doesn’t work for where people live and work today. It hasn’t expanded — in fact it’s shrunk, a lot.”

Active Trans’ Family-Friendly Bikeways campaign is working to build more miles of advanced bike facilities — such as protected lanes, bike boulevards, and off-street trails – in the suburbs. The group has been pushing for light rail or bus rapid transit to be incorporated into plans for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction, and is also lobbying for better separation of pedestrians and cyclists on the Lakefront Trail.

Active Trans has also helped stage Play Streets events, block parties that open neighborhood streets to pedestrians for healthy recreation. Staffer Jason Jenkins has created clever instructional videos on bike commuting. And the group organized to nip in the bud an alderman’s proposal to license and register cyclists, and has responded to anti-cycling messages in the media, such as bike-baiting columns from Tribune columnist John Kass, Burke said.

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Cook County Forest Preserves Seeking Vendors to Offer Bike Rental Services

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Cycling in a Cook County forest preserve. Rentals for trail riding would encourage more people to ride, which could help build support for on-street bike improvements. Photo: FPDCC

Automated bike-share and bike rental is sweeping the nation, from New York City to Seattle to Chicago to… the Cook County forest preserves?

Divvy-style automated stations are one possible outcome of a recent request for proposals issued by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. They’re looking for one or more concessionaires to operate rental services in local natural areas. “We envision opportunities where people would not have to bring their own bikes, but would have places across the county where they could rent a bike and get right on the trail,” said Daniel Betts, director of permits, concessions, and volunteer resources.

Of course, 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 would help build support for creating low-stress, on-street bike routes as well.

The Forest Preserve, which maintains over 300 miles of paved and crushed limestone trails, turns 100 on November 30. The bike rental idea ties in with its Next Century Conservation Plan, a blueprint for what the upcoming 100 years should look like, Betts said. “This strategy fits in with our goal of getting more people to visit the preserves,” he said. The idea also came up during the recent public input process for the FPDCC’s recreational master plan. “People asked why we don’t already offer rentals.”

The RFP identifies seven primary sites for rental services: Busse Woods Trail, I & M Canal Centennial Bike Trail, Dan Ryan Woods, Bunker Hill Forest Preserve, Poplar Creek Trail, and Schiller Woods. The forest preserve district will work with successful bidders to identify 16 other pilot locations across the county, Betts said.

This is actually the second time an RFP for bike rentals has been issued. The first RFP, released in June, focused on automated rental stations, but there was only one response. That company, which Betts declined to name, went out of business during the negotiation process.

As a result, the Forest Preserve district decided to widen the parameters of the RFP to allow for staffed rental operations as well as automated ones. The service could be run by one large contractor, or several smaller businesses. “That way, it doesn’t exclude John’s Neighborhood Bike Shop, if they decide they’re interested in expanding their business to include rentals on our property,” Betts said.

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CTA Bus Ridership Bouncing Back; Faster Service Would Spur Greater Gains

The CTA forecasts a slight rise in bus ridership next year, after years of sharp declines. Image: Chicago Tribune

In its proposed budget for 2015, the Chicago Transit Authority didn’t take much of a leap of faith when forecasting continued growth in the record crowds boarding its trains. However, CTA also optimistically forecasts that a multi-year slide in bus ridership, which accounts for 57.6 percent of the system’s total ridership, will end — and that instead bus ridership will “stabilize” with a 0.4 percent rebound.

CTA spokesperson Tammy Chase said that bus ridership has “fluctuated in the past five years,” and that some of the key factors that depressed ridership, like fare hikes and unemployment, are starting to wear off. In the long run, she said, “bus ridership is flat,” and “these trends mirror what’s been seen nationally among major U.S. transit agencies.”

Chase said that bus ridership grew from 2006 to 2008, then fell in 2009 and 2010 because of service cuts, a poor economy, and fare hikes — fares went up 25 cents, and discounts for Chicago Card users were eliminated.

Ridership rebounded in 2011 and 2012 as gas prices and employment both rose, Chase said. But even as the city’s economy continued its rebound in 2013 and 2014, bus ridership slid as CTA significantly raised pass prices. She said this would prove to have only a short-term impact, and that passes “were deeply discounted, compared with peer transit agencies.”

Other factors that Chase cited as potentially contributing to the recent slump in ridership include population shifting toward rail stations, service changes associated with the Red Line South reconstruction in summer 2013, a shortened school year in 2013, and last winter’s polar vortex. Essentially, she said, bus ridership should stabilize given “an absence of what brought prior decreases.”

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Oak Park Will Take a Step Backward by Reinstalling Pedestrian “Beg Buttons”

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The Oak Park Village Board and their ironic wallpaper. Photo: Village of Oak Park

The walls of the Oak Park Village Board’s chambers are emblazoned with environmental buzzwords like “Bicycle Friendly,” “Mass Transit,” “LEED Certified,” “Energy Efficient,” and “Clean Air.” So it’s pretty ironic that the board recently voted, in that very room, to make walking harder in order to make driving easier.

Back in 2011, the suburb did the right thing by removing existing walk-signal request buttons at major intersections along Lake Street. Push buttons that make a walk signal appear faster – similar to “induction loops” in the pavement that tell a stoplight when a driver is waiting – are a good thing. But when pushing a button is the only way to get a walk signal at all, as was the case on Lake, the device is disparagingly known as a “beg button,” because it requires pedestrians to ask for permission to cross the street.

Beg buttons are problematic in a number of ways. Unless someone has pushed the button before you arrive at an intersection, you will always have to wait at least a moment before being given the opportunity to cross. If you fail to notice the button, you may wait in vain for a walk signal for a cycle or two before you realize what’s going on. And, since the main purpose of beg buttons is to maximize the length of the green phase for drivers, they send the message that pedestrians are tolerated on the public way, but the real purpose of streets is to move cars.

That’s basically the statement that the village board made yesterday when they voted to reinstall the beg buttons on Lake between Marion Street and Oak Park Avenue. At the meeting, acting village engineer Bill McKenna told the board that bringing back the beg buttons would “decrease traffic congestion,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

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Quinn Talks Good Game On Active Transportation, But Does He Deliver?

6.24.13 Governor Quinn and Indiana Governor Mike Pence Open Business Development Forum in Rosemont

Governor Quinn supports active transportation policy in spirit, but his administration has lavished funds on wider roads and the Illiana Tollway. Photo: Governor Quinn

Governor Pat Quinn, who is up for re-election next week, shared warm words about sustainable transportation with the Active Transportation Alliance in response to their candidate questionnaire [PDF]. His words haven’t always been matched by actions from his five-year-old administration — but unlike opponent Bruce Rauner, at least he’s talking to advocates.

Quinn’s written response stated that, between eight options that Active Trans listed to improve the public’s ability to to get around Illinois, “All are priorities for my administration… with the exception of widening existing roads.” He added that Illinois is a “Complete Streets” state, “where we believe in accommodating the transportation needs of all residents.” Indeed, Illinois was the first state to adopt Complete Streets as law, back in 2007.

Yet under Quinn’s administration, the Illinois Department of Transportation has demonstrated that its priorities include widening existing roads, rather than bus rapid transit, congestion pricing, or the other options Active Trans outlined. IDOT has widened dozens of miles of roads throughout the suburbs, and even widened Harrison Street through the South Loop in 2012 — a move that the Chicago Department of Transportation partially reversed this year with a road diet and buffered bike lanes.

Quinn has also championed the expensive and unnecessary Illiana Tollway as his top priority for IDOT, thereby depriving all other priorities of crucial state funding. That’s even as support for the road continues to diminish: although the state has repeatedly claimed that the road is necessary to support truck traffic, major trucking interests have soured on the proposal.

According to Active Trans, IDOT’s own survey “identified Protected Bike Lanes as the most preferred treatment for making roads safer and comfortable for biking,” but the department currently bans cities from installing protected bike lanes on state roads. Quinn pledges that, during his next term, he’ll install 20 miles of PBLs on state roads. He also took credit for IDOT’s newly cooperative stance regarding a curb-separated protected bike lane on state-administered Clybourn Avenue, after an allegedly drunk driver hit and killed Bobby Cann while Cann was bicycling on Clybourn.

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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

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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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