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Metra’s Strategic Plan: For Commuters, Or For The Railroad?

Metra Arriving at Barrington

Just missed a Metra train? You may have to wait two hours for the next one. Metra’s strategic plan should focus on its customers, not just its operations. Photo: Andy Tucker

Two years after launching its first-ever strategic planning process with a series of public meetings, Metra is at last finalizing basic goals for the plan. Our preview last month showed that the draft plan focused as much on administrative matters as it did on customers and services. That split focus remains, but board members are now debating whether the plan should shift in one direction or the other.

Metra’s director of strategic capital planning, Lynnette Ciavarella, launched a discussion about the draft plan’s ten goals and objectives at the board’s August meeting. The preliminary goals included “continuing to provide a high quality travel experience,” financial stability, “improving agency-wide efficiency,” integrating with regional transportation networks, and expanding the system “as resources allow.” Ciaverella then asked the board, “What’s missing?”

Some board members contended that the strategic plan doesn’t engage enough with the outside world, while one board member wanted Metra to stick to the basics. John Plante, a recently retired CTA manager who was appointed to Metra’s board last October, spoke up first. Plante wanted Ciaverella to add “innovative financing” – namely, public-private partnerships and land value capture, which could hopefully help fund expanded Metra service.

Don DeGraff, appointed in 2011, said he felt there was little coordination among the different transportation providers and planning agencies. He asked, “how does Metra fit with CTA, Pace, Illinois Department of Transportation, and the [South Shore Line], to make sure there’s an effective regional plan?” He continued, “we need a Daniel Burnham: someone to come up with a plan to allow us to be successful in the northeastern Illinois market.” He called on Metra to take on that coordinating role.

Ciaverella assured the board that the strategic plan was coordinated with the Regional Transportation Authority’s strategic plan and the region’s long-range GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan. Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey told me that “the region as a whole has a challenge connecting land use and transportation,” and that Metra can play a greater role in station-area planning “to ensure better connections to jobs and housing.”

One board member, by contrast, wants to throw out half the goals. Director Norman Carlson, appointed just before the CEO scandal came to light, explained that “so often planning doesn’t take into consideration operating perspectives.” Carlson cited his railroad consulting experience at Arthur Andersen to say “an organization can logically take on 3-5 objectives [to] make any measurable progress.” He said that Metra should take on just four goals, but list a fifth goal to be deferred.

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The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride: Pedaling to Every Metra Line Endpoint

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Taking a pit stop in Elburn, the western terminus of the UP West line. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also appeared as a cover story in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

I confess that I’m obsessed with pedaling the perimeters of things. For years, I led the Chicago Perimeter Ride, a hundred-mile bicycle tour of the rim of the city, stopping to admire goofy commercial architecture landmarks, from the Eyecare Indian in Westlawn, to the giant fiberglass wieners of Superdawg in Norwood Park. I’ve cycled the circumference of Lake Michigan and the state of Illinois, and I’ve got a Land of Lincoln tattoo on my left shoulder as proof of the latter. I’ve biked three sides of the continental U.S., and some day I hope to complete the circuit by cycling from Key West, Florida, to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Since my journalistic wheelhouse is local transportation issues, it recently occurred to me that I should pedal the perimeter of Chicagoland, as a way to wrap my head around our vast region, and meditate on the urban planning challenges we face. But how best to define the Chicago metro area? There are a number of different definitions of the region, with one of the broadest being the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area, originally designated by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1950. Along with Cook and the collar counties, it includes swaths of southeast Wisconsin and northwest Indiana, for a total population of 9,522,434, making this the third-largest MSA by population in the nation.

Somewhat arbitrarily, I opted to define the perimeter of the region as being a route connecting the endpoints of the Metra commuter rail system’s eleven lines. This would allow me to skip the nastier industrial sections of the Hoosier State, since Metra doesn’t serve Indiana, while justifying an excursion across the Cheddar Curtain to quirky Kenosha, Wisconsin, one of my favorite nearby cities.

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The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride route. Image: Google Maps

Bicycling between train stops would also make it easy for friends to parachute in and keep me company on sections of the four-day trek, and then catch a lift home at the end of the day from a different Metra line. Decision made, I planned out my route, dubbed The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride, using Google Maps’ bike directions. You can view a Google Map of my itinerary here.

The last twelve months have been rough on Metra. In June of 2013, then-CEO Alex Clifford resigned and was given a jaw-dropping $871,000 severance package, which included a non-disclosure agreement. When local politicians questioned the massive payoff, a memo surfaced, indicating that Clifford was forced out of his job by Metra board members after he refused to bow to demands for patronage hiring and promotions. Some of the pressure apparently came from uber-powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Five board members resigned in the wake of the scandal and, last summer, Governor Pat Quinn responded by creating the Northeast Illinois Public Transit Task Force, to brainstorm ways to fight corruption and ensure the regional transit system is properly funded. In March, the blue-ribbon panel recommended abolishing the four boards of Metra, the CTA, Pace and the Regional Transit Authority, in favor of a new superagency to oversee the three transit agencies, similar to how things work in the New York City region.

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16 Placemaking Events Going on All Around the City This Weekend

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Does this scene look like a good time to you? There are tons of events like it going on this weekend. Photo: MPC

Looking for something fun to do this weekend? Look no further. Below you’ll find a handy chart of all the fantastic community-building events going on from today through Sunday as part of the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Old Place, New Tricks placemaking competition. The contest inspired residents to energize under-used public spaces like vacant lots, plazas and corners with activities and installations.

More than a dozen organizations and individuals rose to the challenge, and there are 16 exciting events going on in communities ranging from Blue Island to Austin to Rogers Park. Happenings include a clothing swap, a sidewalk chalk drawing session, a pavilion for creating self-portraits, and even a watermelon seed spitting competition. Sustainable transportation fans won’t want to miss the Bronzeville Spoketacular, featuring bike repairs and sales from the new Bronzeville Bike Box mini-shop, a bike tour of locations where you can forage wild fruits and herbs and, best of all, a free ice cream social.

The public can vote online to choose their favorite placemaking event from the weekend. The three most successful placemakers will win $1,000 prizes, to be used for more ambitious projects in the future.

Event / Activities Address Date Start End
Playlot maintenance, massage pavilion 6800 S Green St Friday 9 a.m. 12 p.m.
Grow Spaces Picnic 4542 N Ravenswood Ave Friday 11 a.m. 6 p.m.
Basketball, table games, facepainting 4800 W Adams St Friday 3 p.m. 6 p.m.
La Sandia, Loteria! 7070 N Clark St Friday 3 p.m. 6 p.m.
Taste of Division 1200 N Long Ave Friday 3 p.m. 7 p.m.
I Grow Chicago 6402 S Honore St Friday 4 p.m. 6:30 p.m.
Pop-up juice bar, live music, info on local food options 1947 W 63rd St Rescheduled for Sept. 5 TBD TBD
Movie in the Park 4600 N Lawndale Ave Friday 6 p.m. 10 p.m.
Activation Day at the Berm 11900 Vincennes Ave, Blue Island Saturday 9 a.m. 12 p.m.
Austin Peace Lot 624 N Lorel Ave Saturday 10 a.m.
Building a children’s sandbox 8600 S Colfax Ave Saturday 10 a.m.
Building a temporary sculpture and picnic tables 6953 S Dorchester Ave Saturday 10 a.m. 5 p.m.
Groupon activates an abandoned space 800 N Larrabee St Saturday 11 a.m.
Games, t-shirt decorating, clothing swap 1800 S Sangamon St Saturday 12 p.m. 5 p.m.
Chalk the Walk 1100 N Sedgwick St Saturday 3:30 p.m. 6:30 p.m.
Selfie Sunday 2635 N Milwaukee Ave Sunday 10 a.m. 4 p.m.
Bronzeville Spoketacular 320 E 51st St Sunday 2 p.m. 6 p.m.
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Oil-Laden Freight Trains Delaying Amtrak, Commuter Trains Across U.S.

Oil train running on BNSF tracks through Pilsen in Chicago

Tank cars roll through Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood on BNSF tracks.

Oil production is booming across North America, as new technologies make it possible to extract liquid crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota and Montana, or Alberta’s tar sands. The ever-increasing volume of crude oil mined in remote Great Plains locations often finds its way to refineries via ”rolling pipelines” – freight trains that tow a million barrels of oil around the United States every day. Production of Bakken crude has tripled over the past three years, and 79 percent of it is shipped out by rail.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing. Data from EIA, AAR, news reports.

The resulting sharp increase in rail traffic doesn’t just threaten communities along the line that are unprepared for their explosive cargo — a threat that the US Department of Transportation recently issued new rules to address. Growing freight volumes are also delaying millions of passengers aboard Amtrak or commuter trains, most of which share tracks with ever more freight trains. Nationwide, the number of delayed Amtrak trains has increased by almost 75 percent. As Tanya Snyder reported yesterday, that results from a court ruling that left Amtrak powerless against freight train interference. Around Chicago, hub of the continent’s railroad network, delays have multiplied on the region’s busiest commuter rail line – a Metra line operated by BNSF, which is also North Dakota’s biggest freight hauler.

The American Association of Railroads reported an 8.5 percent increase year-to-date in the number of American freight trains carrying oil across the country, and a 9.1 percent increase reported from Canadian trains. Since 2011, the number of cars of crude oil shipped nationwide has doubled.

Oil is having a particularly heavy impact on rail operations along certain companies’ lines, and none more so than BNSF. Its transcontinental trunk line spans North Dakota, and its branches serve 21 of North Dakota’s 25 oil-producing counties. As a result, BNSF hauled more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil in 2013, “up from practically none” just four years ago, NPR reported.

The boom has strained what used to be isolated stretches of railroad. Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder train spans the country’s northern tier, from Chicago to Seattle and Portland via North Dakota and Montana, using BNSF’s Great Northern route almost all of the way. “The Builder” now has the dubious double distinction of being both the most popular of Amtrak’s transcontinental routes and its most delayed route nationwide, arriving on time about once a week. Delays have become so routine that Amtrak recently padded its schedule by three hours. BNSF’s quarterly report [PDF] shows growing volumes across all business lines, but notes that increased industrial shipments in the second quarter of 2014 are “primarily due to increased shipments of petroleum products [and] frac sand.”

Derrick James, Amtrak director of government affairs for the Midwest, told Streetsblog that national on-time performance has seen “a dramatic decline,” dropping “from 80 percent in February 2013 to 55 percent through April 2014.” James said that as reliability has dropped, ridership on both long-distance and short-distance lines has also dropped by 4.9 percent.

Amtrak “conductors produce delay reports,” James points out, “and these delay reports pinpoint a dramatic increase in rail traffic — especially trains connected with hydraulic fracturing, sand trains and oil trains.” On the Empire Builder in particular, Amtrak conductors cite “train interference” as the principal cause of delays.

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Successful Pilot Means New “Bus on Shoulders” Routes For Pace

Governor Quinn Expands Green Transportation Program on Illinois’ Highways

Governor Quinn speaks to the cameras. Photo: Pace, via IDOT

For the past three years, Pace has run two express bus routes down the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) from Bolingbrook and Plainfield to downtown Chicago and the Illinois Medical District, and used the expressway’s shoulders to bypass traffic jams. Creating these dedicated transit lanes has resulted in better reliability — on-time performance jumped from 68 to 93 percent — and faster service, which when combined with comfortable (and wi-fi equipped) buses, has led ridership to jump 226 percent.

Governor Pat Quinn hosted a press conference yesterday at UIC to sign a new law that makes the pilot project permanent, and expands the program. The legislation, sponsored by Representative Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) and State Senator Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), gives the Illinois Department of Transportation full authority to allow buses on any “specially designated” shoulder in the state.

Before the pilot, IDOT spent $9.5 million to rebuild the shoulders on the Stevenson so that the heavy coaches could ride on them, and plans to spend another $363,000 so that the buses get three more miles of smooth sailing. A press release from Quinn’s office said that this fall, IDOT will outline improvements that would be needed to run buses on shoulders along the Edens Expressway (I-94) between Foster Avenue and Lake-Cook Road, through Northbrook, Glenview, and Skokie.

The Illinois Tollway will be including beefed-up shoulders as part of its reconstruction and widening of I-90 from the Kennedy in Chicago to Barrington Road in Hoffman Estates. The tollway and Pace will also construct park-and-ride lots at the Randall Road and Route 25 interchanges in Elgin, and at Barrington Road [PDF]. The press release said that the Tollway is also building the Elgin-O’Hare Western Access Road to accommodate bus on shoulder operations. 

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Requiem for a Librarian: Gigi Galich and the Church Street Protected Lanes

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Gigi Galich. Photo: Evanston Public Library

[This piece also runs in Checkerboard City, John's column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in Wednesday evenings.]

From what I’ve read, it sounds like Gigi Galich, a children’s librarian who died after an Evanston bike crash, was a wonderful lady.

Shortly before 9am on the morning of June 30, Galich was bicycling to work eastbound on Church Street, a roadway where the city of Evanston installed protected bike lanes two years ago. As she arrived at the main branch of the Evanston Public Library, at the northeast corner of Church and Orrington Avenue, she began switching lanes midblock, according to a witness. It’s possible she was crossing the street to park at a bank of bike racks by the library’s main entrance.

As Galich, a fifty-five-year-old Evanston resident, was shifting lanes, a twenty-seven-year-old Chicago man, riding eastbound on a motorcycle, struck her from behind. Although the librarian was wearing a bike helmet, she suffered a severe head injury, according to Commander Jay Parrott from the Evanston Police Department. She died two days later.

Shortly after Galich’s death, the library issued a statement noting that she had originally begun working for the library as a high-school student almost forty years ago. “Gigi was energetic, dedicated and passionate,” said the statement. “Her work will live on through the many, many children who learned to love reading under her care and who will remember her presence and assistance as they came to the library for books, stories, crafts and fun.”

A week later, the Evanston Review ran a tribute to Galich with remembrances from family, friends and colleagues. Fellow librarian Brian Wilson recalled working with her on an early literacy program for babies. “She radiated a joy for these children who would match her captivating smiles with smiles of their own,” he said. “She understood them, loved them and was looking out for them, possessing the belief that all children could become lifelong readers.”

The motorcyclist in the fatal crash was not injured and has not been issued any citations, according to Parrott. When I first read about the case, I suspected that the motorcyclist had been speeding. The default speed limit in Evanston is twenty-five miles-per-hour, a speed at which studies show people struck by motor vehicles usually survive.

However, when I spoke to Parrott two weeks ago, he said the police had determined that “there was no excessive speed on the part of the motorcyclist.” That finding was based on witness statements and a crash scene investigation by a traffic reconstructionist looking for skid marks.

“There was nothing to indicate any wrongdoing on the part of the motorcyclist,” Parrott said. “Apparently, the bicyclist had made a tragic mistake.” He added that, while Galich was an experienced bike rider, it’s possible that the motorcycle was in her blind spot, or that she was distracted, when she began changing lanes.

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Metra Can Follow Toronto’s Lead and Run All-Day, Frequent Service

Metra Electric

Metra Electric service is frequent, until you go south of the three-branch split at 63rd Street. Photo: Eric Alix Rogers

Toronto’s suburban commuter rail service, GO Transit, used to run its trains on a schedule that would seem familiar to Metra riders — bringing commuters from the suburbs in by 9 a.m. and shuttling them from the city after 5 p.m. Last year, though, it launched a new schedule that doubled mid-day frequencies on its two Lakeshore rail lines, from once per hour to every 30 minutes, “turning GO from a bedroom commuter service into full, regular transit,” said Ontario transportation minister Glen Murray. Their reward: a 30 percent increase in ridership on those lines in a year’s time.

Yonah Freemark, writing in The Transport Politic, identifies three characteristics that led to GO Transit’s strategy shift: high-level political leadership at the provincial (state) level, committed leadership and a new strategic direction within the agency, and the fact that GO owns most of its tracks.

Over here on the other side of the Great Lakes, commuter rail ridership on Metra has been growing much more slowly. Some lines are growing, but other lines are declining. Metra, like GO, could gain riders if it switched to “all-day” service that served people whenever they need to use transit — serving people on their schedules, instead of making people adapt to the train’s schedule.

Metra focuses on a central core system, mostly serving workers commuting to downtown Chicago from the suburbs in the morning and back in the evening. Even on the Metra Electric line, which before World War Two ran a rapid-transit like ten trains an hour past high-rises in Hyde Park and South Shore, just one train stops at most stations during the noon hour. It’s hard to use Metra for spontaneous trips – and trips for all of life’s purposes, not just work or carefully planned day trips – if you might have to wait an hour or two for a train.

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Davis Street Disagreement Tables Evanston Bike Plan Progress

Evanston bike plan by Melissa

A map of proposed bike routes in north Evanston, showing the “comfortable bike corridors” along Church and Davis, just west of downtown Evanston.

Last year, the City of Evanston started work on a 2014 Bicycle Plan Update [PDF], envisioning further improvements in its cycling infrastructure. The previous bicycle plan, adopted in 2003, resulted in 38 miles of bicycle facilities and a marked increase in bicycle ridership. The new plan will bring a new focus on “comfortable bike corridors” along Evanston’s major streets, like Howard, Emerson, Greenleaf, Lincoln, Harrison, and Central — and along the intersecting side streets of Hinman, Chicago, Maple, Orrington and Crawford. The city estimates the construction cost of these comfortable corridors at $4 million, and hopes that funding will come from the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program or other state and federal grant programs.

Although the plan update is largely complete, residents concerned with topics like parking and aesthetics have temporarily tabled the plan before the City Council.

On Saturday, the Public Works Department, along with the contractor, TY Lin, hosted an open house for residents that focused on their Sheridan Road proposal [PDF]. The Public Works Department discussed their proposal, and received feedback from participants. A common theme throughout the feedback was that removing parking lanes might cause backlash from drivers.

Other suggestions included wider bike lanes that would permit safer passing, as well as better connectivity from the Green Bay Trail through downtown to Sheridan. Sharon Feigon, an Evanston resident for over thirty years, noted that while conditions have improved since 2003, more work needs to be done. She said that “riding through Wicker Park was safer than in Evanston,” and is thrilled that Evanston is pursuing the Complete Streets concept.

A police officer, and daily bike commuter, who lives in Evanston also attended. Her concern with the new plan was that, while it improves infrastructure and will likely increase ridership, what’s really necessary is more education for both cyclists and drivers. The officer also supported separating driving and biking lanes. When asked about traffic law enforcement, and if it will be increased, the officer replied that the police are limited by manpower — but when residents call in, police are dispatched quickly to react and enforce the law for all parties.

On Monday night, the Evanston City Council’s meeting featured discussion of the Bike Plan on the agenda. Nearly all of the over 20 public comments addressed the bike plan, continuing for 45 minutes. The comments were primarily in favor of the bike plan, though several repeated concerns about its effects on the historic district along Davis Street, near Asbury.

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Metra Ridership Rising Unevenly; Development Could Maximize Its Potential

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Transit-oriented development has transformed downtown Arlington Heights. Photo: JB

Start with the good news: Ridership on Metra, Chicagoland’s main commuter rail service, has grown almost 14 percent over the last ten years. It remains near the all-time high it reached in 2008, just before the Great Recession. On any given weekday, Metra provides nearly 300,000 rides across its 11 lines, or roughly as many as the CTA’s Brown and Blue lines put together. Some lines have even continued to grow, surpassing their 2008 ridership, notably the North Central Service running northwest to Antioch, and the SouthWest Service through Ashburn and Orland Park to Manhattan. Of Metra’s more-established lines, the best performer since 2008 has been the Union Pacific Northwest line, which runs through towns like Arlington Heights (pictured above) and Des Plaines that have pursued Transit Oriented Development in their downtowns.

But in other ways, the picture isn’t so rosy. Overall, Metra ridership has stagnated for the last six years, even as CTA rail ridership has grown 16 percent over the same period. More alarming, ridership on several lines — including the Metra Electric and Rock Island, which have rapid-transit-like stop spacing every half-mile through large parts of the city that lack “L” access — was falling even before the recession.

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Ridership change on Metra lines from 2004-2014 and 2008-2014.

Unfortunately, Metra doesn’t provide up-to-date information on ridership by stop, which makes more thorough analysis impossible. (The freshest station-level data available is from 2006.) But the line data is enough to see some patterns. Unsurprisingly, many services lucky enough to go through high-growth neighborhoods and suburbs have the strongest ridership. Conversely, routes that pass mostly through parts of Chicagoland that have lost population are mostly struggling.

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Metra Electric trains run down the middle of 71st Street in South Shore, the densest community area on the South Side. Photo: David Wilson

That includes Metra Electric and Rock Island, which have the potential to serve as transit backbones through much of the South Side, but currently provide extremely spotty off-peak service. Both lines go through promising territory: Metra Electric’s main line runs from downtown through the South Side’s largest employment hub, Hyde Park, and one branch continues through dense neighborhoods along the south lakefront all the way to 93rd Street. Rock Island stops at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and then makes stops every half-mile at attractive and walkable commercial districts in thriving Beverly and Morgan Park. Read more…

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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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