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Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric Wants More Service, Fare Integration

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The Coalition for a Modern Metra Election, including Walt Kindred (3rd from left), Andrea Reed (4th from left), and Linda Thisted (center) in front of the Metra offices at 547 West Jackson. Photo: John Greenfield

Transportation advocacy organizations and community groups have joined forces as the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric, pushing for improvements to the commuter rail line that could lead to better job access and more economic development on the South Side. They want to see rapid transit-style train frequency, fare and schedule integration with the CTA and Pace, and – eventually – the extension of the line all the way to O’Hare.

Right now Metra generally runs trains only once an hour on the Metra Electric District line, which goes about 30 miles from Millennium Station to south suburban University Park, with a few more trains running during the morning and evening rush hours. As such, it’s not nearly as useful as an ‘L’ line for general travel, and it’s not a great option for non-standard work commutes.

However, it wasn’t always that way. The MED started its life as a rapid transit line with dedicated tracks and closed stations. The Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric wants to go back to the future, so to speak, by bringing back frequent service, with trains every 10-15 minutes, all day long.

Nowadays, if you need to ride downtown from the south suburbs or Southeast Side via the Metra Electric and continue on to a workplace on another side of the city, you need to pay the Metra fare, which is higher than the $2.25 charge for an ‘L’ ride, and then pay full fare for another train ride. Unlike riding on the CTA with a Ventra card, you don’t get a free transfer. As a result, some South Side residents choose to take a CTA bus to an ‘L’ line for their commute because it’s cheaper, even though the MED would be quicker.

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Using a tap-on/tap off system on the MED would allow for fare integration on the CTA and Pace, which would save riders money. Image: CMME

The coalition wants to fix that problem by piloting tap-on and tap-off use of Ventra on the MED. This would allow customers to tap their Ventra card on a sensor before and after their ride, with the appropriate fare deducted according to the distance traveled. It would make it possible to provide a transfer discount for customers switch to the CTA or Pace.

In the long run, the coalition wants to see the MED connected to O’Hare Airport using Metra right-of-way, with stops at McCormick Place and Union Station, a scenario the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has proposed as part of its CrossRail plan to build a regional network of fast trains.

Mayor Emanuel wants to establish an express train between O’Hare and the Loop, so the MED solution would be a way to do this while creating better transportation access for residents of low-to-moderate-income communities on the South Side. That way the O’Hare Express wouldn’t just be a train for elites, and there would be the added benefit of direct access from the airport to conventions at McCormick Place for business travelers.

The idea of rapid transit on the Metra Electric has been around for decades. In the Nineties, rail advocate Mike Payne proposed having the CTA take over the MED, a scheme he called the Gray Line. In the 2000s, residents proposed a similar idea dubbed the Gold Line to provide frequent transit service to the Southeast Side as part of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

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Moreno Announces Chicago’s First Affordable TOD Project in Logan Square

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Rendering of the planned affordable TOD, 2031 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Transit-oriented development is a sensible way to build housing. Creating dense housing within a short walk of transit stations, without a lot of off-street parking makes it easier for more people to live without having to own a car. It leads to fewer newcomers bringing autos into neighborhoods, which reduces congestion and pollution. And, since garage spaces cost tens of thousands of dollars to build, it saves money for developers, which can result in lower condo prices and apartment rents.

Unfortunately, in Chicago TOD has become associated with luxury. Virtually all of the dense, parking-lite towers that have been constructed since the city’s TOD ordinance passed in 2013 have been high-end buildings in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods.

In Logan Square, anti-displacement activists like Somos (“We Are”) Logan Square have argued that new upscale TOD towers being built along Milwaukee Avenue near Blue Line stations will accelerate gentrification by encouraging other landlords to jack up rents. On the other hand, pro-TOD advocates such as the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which recently held a workshop on equitable TOD development, say that building more units in gentrifying neighborhoods can take pressure off the existing rental market.

For better or for worse, the poster boy for TOD in Chicago is 1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, who sponsored the 2013 ordinance, which halved the city’s usual 1:1 parking ratio requirements for new developments within 600 feet of an ‘L’ or Metra station. City Council passed a beefed-up version of the ordinance last fall, which essentially waived the parking requirements completely for developments within a quarter mile of stations, a half mile on designated Pedestrian Streets.

Moreno, unlike most Chicago aldermen, insists that ten percent of the units in new developments in his Ward be on-site affordable housing, instead of allowing developers to take the cheaper route of paying into the city’s affordable housing fund, before he’ll approve zoning changes.

However, he’s come under fire from Somos Logan and other activists, who’ve held protests against upscale TOD developments like the Twin Towers and “L” on the 2200 block of North Milwaukee Avenue. They argue that to mitigate what they say will be the gentrifying effect of these projects, the developers should be forced to make 30 percent of the units affordable. And while the city defines affordable units as being affordable to those making 60 percent of the Chicago region’s area median income, the activists say the threshold should be lowered to 30 percent, to make the units affordable to the community’s Latino families.

To promote these goals, Somos and several other groups are holding a protest and march today called “Our Neighborhood is NOT For Sale / El Barrio NO Se Vende: Rally Against Alderman Joe Moreno and Luxury Development.” It starts at 11:30 at Moreno’s office, 2740 West North, and is ending at the twin towers, 2923 North Milwaukee.

The activists are also calling for a moratorium on rezoning for new luxury developments “until we can establish policy for truly equitable development in our community.” They also want to see the Chicago Housing Authority’s surplus for Project Based Vouchers to get more affordable units in luxury developments.

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Last month members of Somos Logan, Lifted Voices, and other groups barricaded Milwaukee to protest the Two Towers TOD project. Photo: Eric Cynic

So it’s probably not a coincidence that Moreno is holding his own event a couple hours later today to promote the city’s first 100-percent affordable TOD, an 88-unit, LGBT-friendly apartment building planned for the current Congress Pizza parking lot at 2031 North Milwaukee. From 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. the alderman is hosting an open house at the site to release more details about the plan as the first step in the community review and approval process for the proposal.

Moreno’s office didn’t respond to an interview request I made yesterday, but it’s safe to assume that, as an affordable TOD located a four-minute walk from the Blue Line’s Western stop, it will have far less than a 1:1 parking-to-units ratio.

It’s not yet clear exactly what aspects of the tower will be LGBT-friendly, but it will likely have some similarities to the Town Hall Apartments in Boystown, which provide affordable senior housing geared towards the LGBT community, including onsite social social service providers. Low-income LGBT individuals often face housing discrimination and estrangement from family members who might otherwise provide support.

The Logan development is called the John Pennycuff Memorial Apartments at Robert Castillo Plaza, named after two men who were partners in life and activism, advocating for LGBT rights as well as affordable housing in Logan Square, according to Moreno. The project will be funded by tax-increment financing dollars, plus Chicago Housing Authority money.

It’s great to see that the TOD ordinance is finally being used to create a building dedicated to transit-friendly affordable housing. The Pennycuff apartments will make it easy for residents of modest means to get around without having to rely on driving, which will further reduce their living expenses.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Somos Logan spokeswoman Justine Bayod told me yesterday. “We consider any affordable development in Logan Square a win for our community.” She said Somos will send representatives to the open house.

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Eyes on the Street: Dearborn Detour Suggests Salmoning on Lake Street

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The Dearborn bike lane yesterday. Note to contractors: This isn’t an appropriate bike lane detour sign. Photo: Mike Bingaman

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The City of Chicago has made notable progress on expanding its network of protected bike lanes into more community areas and communities of color than it had before Rahm Emanuel became mayor, but it seems nothing is better about the way bicyclists and pedestrians are accommodated around construction projects. The city has even beefed up detour rules contractors must follow multiple times to benefit human-powered transportation.

The two-way bike lane on one-way Dearborn Street is one of the city’s most important bike lanes, because it carries hundreds of people on bikes each day, through the heart of the Loop, where few blocks have a bike lane relative to the number of people who bike downtown.

It’s regrettable, then, when bicyclists, who have few options in the central business district, receive the suggestion to bike against vehicle traffic on Lake Street to reach Clark Street in order to get around a construction project. That was the situation Wednesday and today for people cycling southbound on Dearborn. People bicycling north, in the same direction as Dearborn vehicle traffic, at least had the option to merge with vehicle traffic.

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The construction takes up the parking lane, a travel lane, and the bike lane. Photo: Mike Bingaman

The construction project, according to four permits on the city’s open data portal, is to cut open a trench and install Comcast fiber cables, and a new Peoples Gas main.

Yesterday, a hand-painted sign on Dearborn, just south of Lake Street, said “Bike lane closed – use Clark St.” But any reasonable person would see why this is foolish. To follow these directions, a bicyclist would have to head the wrong way against eastbound traffic on Lake Street to reach Clark, or else use the sidewalk.

I notified the Chicago Department of Transportation, which reviews detour plans before permitting construction sites. CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey couldn’t confirm today if the contractor was following an approved detour plan. Streets with protected bike lanes, like Dearborn, also have a special step in the permitting process “to ensure proper reinstallation of all bicycle facility elements.” Read more…

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Green Space for Greenbacks: The Debate Over Private Fests in Public Parks

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Sharaya Tindal, Nance Klehm, and Sara Heymann stand in a bare patch at Douglas Park eight months after Riot Fest. Photo: John Greenfield

[Note: This Chicago Reader article lies a bit outside Streetsblog Chicago’s usual wheelhouse of transportation and livable streets topics, but since it covers an important local public space issue, I thought it might be of interest to Streetsblog readers.]

On a recent Monday afternoon, members of a group called Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglas Park guided a visitor around the west-side green space they say was disfigured by the three-day music festival last fall. Eight months after the fest, the south end of Douglas Park—bounded by Ogden, Albany, 19th, and California and occupied by soccer and baseball fields—still displays tire ruts and wide, muddy areas where heavy foot traffic from 135,000 festgoers tore up the turf. Although the tour took place days after the last rainstorm, pools of standing water remained on the compacted dirt.

The fest debuted in Douglas Park last September after it was ousted from Humboldt Park, where it had taken place since 2012. Humboldt Park residents complained that the event turned that park’s turf into a mud zone that Riot Fest organizers never properly repaired, prompting 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado to pull his support for the concert.

Members of Concerned Citizens say Douglas Park has experienced the same problems. In the immediate aftermath of the concert, much of the south end of the park was fenced off until November while crews hired by the festival made repairs—but the activists say it’s obvious the green space remains in disrepair.

“This park is not structured to receive that many people and maintain its health,” says nearby resident Nance Klehm, a veteran landscaper and sustainability advocate. “There’s no Band-Aid to that. It needs to be restructured, and the soil needs to be reengineered.”

Concerned Citizens activists say that Riot Fest should never have come to Douglas Park. They claim that Riot Fest, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Park District, and the local aldermen made the decision to move the event to the park with little or no input from the primarily African-American and Latino residents of the neighboring North Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods.

They’ve hosted public meetings on the subject, collected signatures on petitions against the fest, held protests, and have lobbied their aldermen and the Park District about the matter. At a 24th Ward community meeting in June 2015, the first to take place after it was announced Riot Fest would be held in Douglas Park, Concerned Citizens members displayed signs reading “A 3-day binge is not an economic development plan” and “Lawndale is a community, not a commodity.”

“It’s disrespectful to tell two communities that something is going to happen in their park instead of asking them to let you have it in their park,” says UIC grad student Sharaya Tindal, who helped form Concerned Citizens in spring 2015 because she was worried about the impact Riot Fest would have on Douglas Park.

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MCZ’s Car-Centric West Loop Project Thumbs Its Nose at the TOD Ordinance

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Two whole floors of the 75-unit development will be dedicated to warehousing up to 140 cars. Image: MCZ / HPA

Talk about a missed opportunity.

It’s good news that a parking lot located at the southeast corner of Lake and Aberdeen in the burgeoning Fulton Market District will soon be replaced by a mix of residences, office space and retail. But it’s a crying shame that the developer MCZ Development is also building a glut of off-street car parking on the site, which is located a mere three-minute walk from the CTA’s Morgan ‘L’ station.

It’s especially regrettable because, thanks to the 2015 update of the city’s transit-oriented development ordinance, MCZ is effectively not required to provide any parking at all. The beefed-up ordinance waives the usual parking requirements for new developments within a quarter mile of a rapid transit stop, and within a half mile on designated Pedestrian Streets. Instead of taking advantage of this perk, the developer is choosing to build an excessive number of car spaces, which will encourage residents, workers, and shoppers to drive.

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When a building is a 3-minute walk from the ‘L’, is it really necessary to provide a car spot for every unit? Image: Google Maps

As recently reported on Curbed Chicago, MCZ was recently issued a foundation and crane permit for the 0.66-acre site, referred to as 165 and 175 North Aberdeen. Before it was a parking lot, the location housed the three-story Best Meats building, which was razed in 2014. The building permit for the new 11-story structure was issued last year.

The development will feature 15,000 square feet of ground floor retail, 40,000 square feet of office space, and 75 housing units, ten percent of which will be affordable units. So far, so good.

But not only will every one of those units have a car space earmarked for it, but MCZ is building 65 spots for office workers and shoppers. That’s a whopping 140 spaces for the 75-unit structure. Essentially, the developer is flipping the bird at the opportunity provided by the TOD ordinance.

As Mayor Emanuel is fond of pointing out out, one of the big reasons why the Fulton Market District is booming is because of the Morgan stop, which opened in May 2012, attracting major players like Google to the area. Along with amenities like the Randolph restaurant row, the district’s pedestrian- and transit-friendly nature is a key factor in why it’s a such hot area right now.

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Star-Crossed Crosswalks: Peds Will Have to Wait for Safe Passage in Lakeview

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Looking east at Newport and Southport. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday there was some good news about the intersection of Newport Avenue and Southport Avenue, located half a block north of the Brown Line’s Southport stop:

However, it didn’t turn out to be accurate news. When I called the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce this morning, executive director Lee Crandell, he said that the installation of planned crosswalks on the north and south legs of the T-shaped intersection have been delayed until next year.

“The crosswalks were supposed to rolled into a project to make other improvements at the intersection,” he explained. A water main on Newport was recently replaced, and the crosswalks were supposed to be striped after the water main on Southport was replaced and the street was repaved.

“I had heard earlier that this was moving forward and tweeted it out, but it didn’t work out,” Crandell said. That was certainly an honest mistake — I’ve made far worse fumbles on social media myself.

Still it’s unfortunate that the crosswalks aren’t going in this year, because they’re sorely needed. As Crandell pointed out, Newport is the first crossing opportunity north of the station, and new businesses like LUSH Cosmetics and the Mint Julep boutique are located nearby.

Despite the lack of marked crosswalks, it’s legal to cross Southport at Newport. The east-west pedestrian routes are what’s called “unmarked crosswalks,” and there are wheelchair ramps on the east side of Southport, although not on the west.

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Celebrate The 606 at Its One-Year Anniversary Party Next Month

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The anniversary celebration will feature many processions like this one, which took place on opening day. Photo: John Greenfield

It’s hard to believe it’s been less than a year since the Bloomingdale Trail, also known as The 606, debuted last June 6th (6/06). The elevated greenway already seems like a Chicago institution, and it’s a little hard to remember a time Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park didn’t have a ribbon of recreational space running through them.

On Saturday, June 4, the Chicago Park District and the Trust for Public Land, which is managing the ongoing development of the path and access park system, are celebrating its one-year anniversary with The 606 Block Party. The festival will be similar to last year’s opening celebration, which drew an estimated 50,000 attendees to check out the new trail, a street party on Humboldt Boulevard, live music, and parades along the path.

“It was no small task to turn an unused rail line into a green, open space – with a network of parks, art installations and community programming that supports recreation, education, and wellness,” stated Jamie Simone, who took the reins of TPLs regional office after director Beth White recently stepped down to lead a parks group in Houston. “The 606 Block Party is our way of thanking the communities, partners and donors who helped build this beloved Chicago park and make it a success.”

The opening of the Bloomingdale has helped spur a wave of upscale along the trail corridor, and some longtime residents have expressed concerns that rising property values, property taxes, and rents may price them out of the area. However, TPL noted in the news release for the anniversary celebration that, in addition to the trail’s massive popularity as a recreational resource, there have been a number of positive milestones on the trail in the past year year:

  • The installation of Chakaia Booker’s “Brick House 2015” sculpture
  • Star-gazing events with the Adler Planetarium and the Chicago Park District at the observatory at the path’s western trailhead
  • Youth ambassadors from West Town Bikes promoting bike safety on the path
  • Moos Elementary School students participating in an after-school running club
  • Quarterly celebrations and community events with Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail.

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City Announces Extended Routes, Service for South Side Bus and Rail Lines

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Bus stop sign for the #26 South Shore Express. Photo: Jeff Zoline

For all his warts, Mayor Emanuel has a strong record on improving public transportation, including initiatives like the South Red Line reconstruction, the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor, the Your New Blue rehab, and several completed and in-progress station construction projects. Today’s announcement that several South Side bus and rail lines will have more frequent service and/or extended routes also appears to be a step in the right direction.

Six bus routes and two branches of the south Green Line are affected:

Having a continuous route down 95th seems logical, since this is one of the city’s major thorughfares, with plenty of retail and other destinations. Extending the Cottage Grove bus will improve access to the Pullman National Monument.

The mayor also announced that the Cottage Grove and Ashland/63rd branches of the Green Line will see increased frequency during the morning and evening rush hours.

“With this expansion, the CTA is continuing the important work of connecting more residents to jobs and economic opportunities,” Emanuel said in a statement. “This announcement builds on the strides we have made to improve connections to and from downtown.”

Announcements of new initiatives on the South and West Sides have become more common this year as the mayor seeks to repair his image in the wake of the Laquan McDonald case. However, Emanuel continues to show more interest in leveling the playing field for residents of underserved communities, including better transit access to jobs and schools, that can only be a good thing for the city.

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CTA: We Can’t Reduces Fees That Social Service Providers Pay on Ventra

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A CTA bus doubles as an info display during the 2013 Ventra rollout. The switch to Ventra created problems for social service providers, but the CTA says it’s working on fixing one of them.

The Chicago Transit Authority said that it’s working to address some of the new burdens that the switch to Ventra has created for social service providers, as described in a study from the Chicago Jobs Council, which I reported about on Monday.

The study was based on a survey of 53 organizations that provide transit fare assistance to their clients, who may be job seekers, homeless individuals, or young people. The problems include the 50-cent surcharge on single-ride Ventra tickets, which has resulted in these organizations collectively paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

Another issue is the need to mail in forms and checks in order to buy Ventra cards in bulk. The study also found that a majority of the organizations waited a long time to receive their bulk orders, and unpredictable delivery delays forced them to scramble to find alternative ways to buy tickets.

According to the report, in 2013 the CTA told the Chicago Jobs Council that online ordering would be available in 2014. Last February, the CTA estimated online ordering would be available by the end of this year. The CTA said in a statement yesterday “work is already underway with our vendor to make online credit card purchases and delivery tracking available.”

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis of the North Lawndale Employment Network said she tries to plan ahead for the long wait by ordering two months worth of tickets at a time. That can be an issue, she said, because the nonprofit’s cash flow doesn’t allow for spending large sums of money on a monthly basis, and the purchase price can be so large that it requires approval from the board. If a delivery is late, staff members go to train stations and use the organization’s bank cards, or even their own bank cards, to buy tickets.

The CTA said that they weren’t aware of any bulk card orders taking two months two arrive, adding that “99.7% of all bulk orders CTA receives are delivered within 11-14 business days and more than 88% of all bulk orders are delivered within seven to 10 business days – or faster.”

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Study: Ventra Fees Cost Social Service Providers 140,000 Bus Rides Per Year

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A CTA staffer demonstrates how a Ventra machine works. Ventra replaced simpler and cheaper ways for social service organizations to procure transit cards for their clients. Photo: CTA

Ever since the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace switched from magnetic stripe fare cards to the Ventra smart card system in 2013, social service providers across Chicago have been spending more money on paying for their clients’ transit rides, and giving out fewer rides. A new report from the Chicago Jobs Council details the burdens that Ventra fare policies and ticket ordering delays place on social service organization staff members and money dedicated to helping clients. The jobs council works to change laws and policies to increase access to jobs for marginalized workers.

The report says that for the organizations to provide fares to their clients they have to spend more time and money. The money they spend on the new Ventra fee could otherwise be spent on  hundreds of thousands in additional rides for job seekers. It starts with the cost of a new card. Ventra cards cost $5.

While the CTA refunds the $5 as credit for future rides if the account is registered, staff must spend time managing that registration process, and checking often to see how much value each card has left. In addition, it’s possible for clients to run up a negative balance on their card that, to continue using the card, the organization has to pay off.

The report said that the plastic multi-ride cards “do not make sense for programs that serve highly transient populations” because they represent a “financial liability if they are lost or used to accrue a large negative balance.” Ventra also doesn’t offer a way to register or manage many cards. “Overwhelmingly,” the report said, “providers rely on single-use paper tickets to provide transit assistance.”

Anyone can run a negative balance because bus fare readers sometimes let people on even if they have less than $2.00 on their Ventra account. The CTA assumes you’ll eventually put more money on the account to reach a positive balance.

If an organization doesn’t want to wait long for a bulk order, which has to be mailed in, or pay off negative balances, then they’re out there at CTA stations buying single-use tickets for $3.00, and racking up hundreds of dollars in “limited-use media” (disposable) fees, at a cost of 50 cents per ticket. That’s the fee CTA charges to print a one-time use ticket and encourage using the hard plastic Ventra card.

The report surveyed 53 organizations which provide job training, shelter for the homeless, and youth services and found they’re spending $280,000 annually in fees – the equivalent of 140,000 additional bus rides. Read more…