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No 5th Ward PB Election This Year, But Residents Still Have Input on Budget

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A display board at a 5th Ward participatory budgeting expo last year. Photo courtesy of the 5th Ward

As we recently reported, 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston experimented with participatory budgeting process in 2013 but won’t be holding a PB election this year. However, it turns out that Hairston will still allow constituents to have some input on how the ward’s $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funding is spent. Last year, only about one in 500 residents of the ward residents voted in the budgeting election.

In a January Hyde Park Herald article, one constituent who helped organize the process attributed the low turnout on the relatively remote poling place location. A rival candidate said dissatisfaction with Hairston’s leadership was to blame. Another possible factor in the low turnout that wasn’t mentioned in the article was Hairston’s decision to exclude several outside-the-box ideas for promoting biking and transit use from the ballot. Instead, she designated these proposals as “service requests” that should instead be funded by city departments, the CTA or the park district.

When I spoke with 5th Ward Chief of Staff Kim Webb yesterday, she said the main factor in the decision not to hold a budgeting election this year was complaints from residents that the PB process was too time-consuming. “People were happy about the transparency of the process, and they liked being involved in the decision-making process, but they thought there were too many meetings,” she said. Hairston is allowing residents to provide input on how $1 million of the menu money is allocated, a process she’s calling the “infrastructure improvement program.”

Four committees, representing the neighborhoods of Hyde Park, South Shore, Grand Crossing and Woodlawn, are each tasked with making recommendations on how $250,000 should be spent. Committee members will mostly be surveying the condition of streets, alleys, sidewalks and lighting in their communities, with a focus on fixing potholes in the wake of the harsh winter, Webb said. If residents feel there’s enough money left over after addressing infrastructure repairs, they can also recommend spending menu money on neighborhood enhancements like murals, community gardens and dog parks. Webb said it’s also possible that ideas that were excluded last year, like new bus stop benches and bike lanes, could be included in the committees’ recommendations.

The committees will turn in the results of their surveys on April 25, and Hairston will submit her budget to the city the following week. It would be great if, along with the usual meat-and-potatoes infrastructure repairs, the committees advance some innovative transportation projects into the 5th Ward’s budget this year.

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Alderman Beale Opposes Extending Red Line South on Halsted

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95th Street Red Line station. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday’s Sun-Times update on the CTA’s proposed South Red Line extension included some interesting details about the project, as well as a few misguided comments about transit from 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, who is also the chair of City Council’s transportation committee.

The CTA is considering two rail routes for the $2 billion, roughly five-mile extension. Bus rapid transit is a third possibility under consideration. One rail alternative would follow existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks, initially paralleling Eggleston, a half mile west of the current terminus at 95th and State.  After continuing south for a few miles, the route would gradually make its way southeast to 130th and King, by the Altgeld Gardens housing project. For this option, the CTA plans to build new stations at 103rd, 111th, 115th, and 130th. View a map of the route here. The agency selected this scenario as the “locally preferred alternative” in 2009 based on initial analysis and public feedback.

The other rail option would travel down Halsted, through a more densely populated area. From the 95th station, it would travel in the median of I-57 until reaching Halsted, where it would operate as an elevated train and continue to Vermont Avenue, just south of 127th. Stops would be located at 103rd, 111th, 1119th, and Vermont. View a map of the route here.

While several Metra lines serve this part of the South Side, the proposed station locations for both rail options would mean that the ‘L’ stops would generally be several blocks from the nearest Metra station. That way, the Red Line service wouldn’t necessarily be redundant, but would instead provide convenient transit access for new areas of the city.

However, a total of up to 2,000 parking spaces is proposed for the four new Red Line stops, which seems excessive. The potentially valuable land around the stations shouldn’t be largely used for warehousing cars. Instead, the focus should be on developing housing, retail, and other uses that take advantage of the proximity to rapid transit.

Beale, who was briefed on the two options Tuesday, was enthusiastic about the UPRR route, but expressed a strong distaste for building ‘L’ tracks on Halsted. “Halsted Street is wide open,” he said. “Putting elevated tracks down the middle of the street would disrupt the integrity and cosmetics of Halsted. It would hurt existing businesses.

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New Law Could Pre-Empt Parking Lots Along Albany Park’s Main Streets

A proposal to build a suburban-style Walgreens at the busy corner of Lawrence and Kimball avenues in Albany Park, across from the Brown Line’s terminus, has sparked a proposal to introduce Pedestrian Street designations to the lively, diverse neighborhood.

The most recent available rendering from Centrum Properties.

33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell has expressed her disapproval of the design, requesting a more walkable store more in keeping with the neighborhood. Mell has stalled construction by asking CDOT not to issue permits for the parking lot’s new curb cuts, and has also requested that Walgreens and the developer meet with her and her staff to come to a better design for the neighborhood. So far, Walgreens has not agreed.

In the meantime, Alderman Mell’s office has asked CDOT to study and provide recommendations for a Pedestrian Street, or P-street, designation along several corridors in the ward. A P-street designation would not only prevent this particular development from building new driveways, but would also require all new buildings along these corridors to have pedestrian-friendly street frontages.

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BRT Doubters Interested in Working With City to Tweak the Plan

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Rendering of BRT on Ashland.

The city of Chicago has been pretty quiet on the subject of its Ashland bus rapid transit plan lately, but recently there have been encouraging signs that even some skeptics are warming to the concept.

During a presentation about the project to the Wicker Park Committee neighborhood group last week, WPC member Alan O’Connell, an urban planner who works at a shipping logistics company, encouraged BRT doubters to work with the city to improve the plan rather than fight it, DNAinfo reported. The committee had previously voted against the plan, which would nearly double bus speeds on Ashland between 95th and Irving Park by converting two out of four travel lanes to dedicated bus lanes, building ‘L’-style median stations, and adding various other time-saving features.

“This isn’t something you should all be scared of,” said O’Connell, a Cleveland native who has witnessed the success of that city’s Health Line. “It’s really good when done right.”

Some Chicago residents have opposed the Ashland plan on the grounds that the lane conversions will create gridlock – the CTA predicts car speeds will be reduced by only ten percent – and that the prohibition of most left turns off of Ashland will drive traffic onto side streets. In reality, it will be fairly simple for drivers to plan routes that don’t require lefts off the street.

Not all attendees were persuaded by O’Connell’s words. “It will destroy our community totally,” said Mitchell Hutton, a Wicker Park resident. Hutton worried that pedestrians could be struck by cars as they cross to the median stations. Commenters on the DNA piece pointed out that people are already crossing Ashland to access bus stops on the opposite side of the street, and the BRT stations will improve pedestrian safety by doubling as refuge islands.

O’Connell said the city should fine-tune the plan, to make it more acceptable to residents. Allowing more left turns at main intersections is a possibility, although this would delay the BRT buses and other through traffic. He added that the city should come up with strategies, such as traffic calming, to keep vehicles off residential streets. And while the Ashland plan currently calls for retaining curbside local bus service, he argued the CTA should discontinue it, so that it doesn’t cannibalize BRT ridership.

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Hairston, Cappleman Pass on Participatory Budgeting This Year

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Proposed design of SherMon Plaza, which won funding last year in the 46th Ward.

As we’ve recently reported, the 49th Ward is holding its fifth participatory budgeting election this year, the 45th Ward is holding its second, and the 22nd Ward is taking the process for a spin for the first time. However, the 5th and 46th wards, which experimented with PB last year, won’t be taking part.

It’s no shock that Alderman Leslie Hairston’s 5th Ward, on the south lakefront, isn’t holding a PB election: last year, only about 100 out of the district’s 50,000-plus residents voted. In Alderman Joe Moore’s 49th Ward, largely made of Rogers Park, a whopping 1,400 people cast ballots. John Arena’s 45th, largely Jefferson Park, and James Cappleman’s 46th, largely Uptown, drew 650 and 390 voters, respectively.

Hairston’s office didn’t return my call, but in January, the Hyde Park Herald reported that the alderman decided not to stage an election this year because of the low turnout. She also cited the expense of running the election, which she said included $60,000 for a staffer to administer the program, plus money out of her own pocket for materials and refreshments, and added that some constituents found the PB process too time-consuming.

A resident who helped organize the election blamed the low turnout on the location of the poling place, in a relatively remote corner of the ward. A candidate who ran against Hairston in the last election attributed the lack of participation to constituents being unhappy with the alderman’s leadership.

One possible factor in the low turnout that wasn’t mentioned in the Herald is Hairston’s decision to exclude several nontraditional ideas for promoting biking and transit use from the ballot. Unlike the other three aldermen who held elections, Hairston designated these proposals as “service requests” that should instead be funded by city departments, the CTA or the park district. However, street, sidewalk and lighting repairs, which can also be paid for by city agencies, were left on the PB ballot. The winning three projects were an urban garden, street lamp improvements, and new lighting in Metra viaducts.

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Elston Has a Speeding Problem — A Safe Bike Lane Can Help

Without protected bike lanes on Elston, bicyclists will continue to get the truck route squeeze

Without protected bike lanes on Elston, bicyclists will continue to get squeezed between trucks.

To reach Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of having five percent of trips under five miles made by bike, bicycling will have to appeal to a much broader base of people than it does today. CDOT’s bikeway projects will only succeed at that goal if new cyclists feel safe and comfortable while riding in these lanes — which, in turn, largely depends on whether they feel safe from nearby traffic.

Elston Avenue, where a proposal for buffered bike lanes has proven contentious, is a good place to measure how fast people are driving — and whether bike lanes provide sufficient separation from speeding cars. CDOT has proposed a buffered bike lane from North Avenue to Webster Avenue, and, at some point in the future, an extension further north through Avondale and beyond. The North Branch Works business association isn’t pleased with the proposal, saying that it will impede truck traffic.

John Greenfield and I spent last Tuesday morning measuring drivers’ speeds at two different locations on Elston. We used our new radar speed gun — donated by Streetsblog readers — to collect data on northbound drivers on Elston at Blackhawk/Magnolia, where Elston bends slightly, and on Elston at Willow, next to the Creative Scholars Preschool. The Blackhawk/Magnolia intersection is part of the stretch of Elston that has a bike lane separated from traffic by flexible posts, and the Willow intersection is part of CDOT’s new project area.

The proportion of speeders was high at both locations. At Blackhawk/Magnolia, 37.6 percent of drivers exceeded the 30 mph speed limit, and at Willow, 32.3 percent of drivers were speeding. We measured vehicle speeds for 15 minutes at each location, capturing 100 drivers apiece. While ideally a larger sample would be collected to gauge the extent of speeding, our measurements suggest there is a higher proportion of speeders on Elston than on other bike routes known for high speeds, like Marshall Boulevard and 55th Street.

High motor vehicle speeds not only pose a danger to people who bike, they also discourage people from biking in the first place by increasing the perception of risk. Likewise, bikeways that provide greater separation from speeding traffic not only reduce the risk of injury, they also lead more people to bike by increasing the perception of safety. To compensate for the high level of speeding on Elston — and the preponderance of truck traffic — the street should have the safest bicycle infrastructure available.

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Chicago Building Four Miles of Protected Bike Lanes This Year

Can you believe this road was expanded from 4 lanes to 6?

CDOT will install a buffered bike lane on Harrison Street through this asphalt monstrosity built for the Congress Parkway interchange expansion.

The City of Chicago announced a new slate of bikeway projects today, outlining about 15 miles of new buffered bike lanes and a little more than four miles of protected lanes to be built in 2014.

Under the plan for this year, protected bikeway construction in Chicago would continue to outpace every other American city except perhaps for New York. But the city still embellishes its progress by counting buffered lanes as protected lanes, saying that it is already halfway to the goal of building 100 miles of protected lanes by 2015. (In fact, just under 17 miles of protected bike lanes have been built.)

It’s unfortunate that the city continues to mislabel buffered bike lanes, not only because it’s misleading but because it cheapens the substantial progress being made in Chicago — often in the face of difficult obstacles like the Illinois Department of Transportation ban on protected bike lanes on state jurisdiction streets, including Clybourn Avenue and parts of Elston Avenue. (The ban has now been lifted on a trial basis on Clybourn.)

This year, about 4.25 miles of new bike lanes will be physically protected from traffic by parked cars and/or flexible posts. CDOT Assistant Director of Transportation Planning Mike Amsden said in December that the city is considering using curbs for protection on Clybourn Avenue from Division Street to North Avenue — a stretch that traverses the intersection where cyclist Bobby Cann was fatally struck by drunk driver Ryne San Hamel — and State Street south of 26th Street. The news release says this is still being designed. (CDOT said at the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting in March that curb separation was “still on the table.”)

The new protected bike lanes are:

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Jefferson Parkers Can Vote for Bike Lanes, Metra Improvement in PB Election

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Conventional bike lanes on Lawrence could be upgraded to buffered lanes. Image: Google Street View

Last year, residents of the 45th Ward, made up largely of the Jefferson Park neighborhood, had the opportunity to vote for a number of outside-the-box transportation projects in the ward’s participatory budgeting election. Most of those proposals, including bike lanes on Lawrence and Milwaukee, and on-street bike parking corrals, didn’t win, but voters did opt to spend $125,000 of the ward’s $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds to install a new pedestrian crossing light at the Jefferson Park Transit Center.

This year, in the ward’s second PB election, there are fewer livable streets projects to choose from, but the proposal to stripe buffered bike lanes on Lawrence, from Cicero to Long, is back on the ballot. Voters can also opt to replace the fences on a pedestrian bridge over the Kennedy that serves the Gladstone Park Metra station.

Alderman John Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh says Arena decided to bring back the PB process this year because last year’s election succeeded in getting constituents more involved with their community – over 650 people voted. “This is the taxpayer’s money, and the taxpayers should have a direct voice in how we’re spending it,” Brugh said. “This really gives them the power to make important decisions that will affect the ward for years to come.”

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Eyes on the Street: Windy City Limousine Blocks Downtown Bike Lanes

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Windy City Limousine buses are frequently found blocking Chicago’s precious few downtown bike lanes. Photos: Brian Elmore

As if bicycling downtown, where there is little space to safely pedal, wasn’t hard enough, private limo bus company Windy City Limousine frequently blocks bike lanes on Franklin Street outside Walgreens and Orleans next to the Merchandise Mart.

Brian Elmore bicycle commutes from Madison Street and Wacker Drive to Ukrainian Village by taking the bike lanes on Franklin and Orleans, to Hubbard, Kingsbury, and Kinzie. He says that Windy City Limousine chauffeurs are parking their wide charter buses in bike lanes on both streets “constantly” during rush hour. Elmore sent in these photos and explained the issue.

It’s problematic because it’s a very congested area around rush hour, and motorists are traveling at a high rate of speed down Franklin & Orleans. More so than anything, it’s inconsiderate to the vast number of cyclists that commute to and from The Loop daily.

The law is on Elmore’s side, and the city’s website succinctly explains why: ”motorists parking in bike lanes endanger bicyclists by forcing them to merge unexpectedly with faster moving motor vehicle traffic.”

If you encounter this situation you can call police dispatchers at 911 (calling 311 will transfer you to 911) to report a bus blocking the bike lane, or go straight to the source. Windy City Limousine’s phone number is right on the back of the bus.

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Regional Transit Needs New Funding to Meet $20 Billion Backlog

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The Regional Transportation Authority estimates $20 billion is needed to clear the transit infrastructure maintenance backlog. Photo: CTA

Transit systems in Northeastern Illinois face a $20 billion maintenance backlog. Now the question is how to pay for it.

Governor Pat Quinn’s Northeastern Illinois transit task force has shown some of the possibilities at the region’s disposal, but hasn’t staked out a position on how to secure the necessary revenue to keep Chicagoland’s track, trains, and buses from sliding into disrepair.

All told, the Regional Transportation Authority estimates that $20 billion is necessary to bring existing transit infrastructure into a state of good repair, with an initial five-year outlay of $4.7 billion called for in its capital plan. Expanding service will require funding in addition to meeting those maintenance needs.

The transit task force highlighted 12 funding sources used by national transit agencies and reviewed many short-term financial options “common in the private” sector. New funding sources could include fuel taxes, a broader sales tax that covers services, a payroll tax, land development charges, and parking fees. However, the task force stopped short of recommending new funding sources for the integrated transit agency it proposes.

The task force analyzed regional transit’s existing funding, noting how reactive the transit agencies’ financial planning has been. “The region,” the task force writes, “lacks a strategic financial plan for transit that does more than show funding gaps based on the status quo.” The agencies don’t work together, so there’s no “coordinated planning for investments to increase or improve inter-system connectivity.” CTA, Metra, and Pace have a “natural desire” to “minimize RTA oversight” and choose priorities independently — or not choose at all, as Metra has done since 1992 by not adopting a capital plan.

Currently, highway and transit projects are partially funded by state and federal fuel taxes, levied in cents per gallon of gas or diesel sold. However, both taxes are in decline as gas sales slip; the federal Highway Trust Fund will again run out of money this summer. A new fuel sales tax would instead tax the final purchase price, at a set percentage. The report calls it “easy and inexpensive to implement and administer,” but could push drivers to buy gas outside the area, or switch to electric vehicles.

The report specifically warns against continued reliance on federal gas tax grants, which paid for a quarter of Chicagoland’s transit construction projects between 2002 and 2012. “At best,” the task force writes, “future federal funds for transit will stagnate, at worst they will decline.” Read more…