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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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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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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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Rogers Park Participatory Budgeting Ideas Include a North-South Greenway

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Discussing proposals at a 49th Ward participatory budgeting meeting in 2011. Photo by John Greenfield.

Chicago aldermen traditionally use their $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” money for basic street, sidewalk and lighting improvements. However, this year a handful of wards are holding participatory budgeting elections. These often result in money being set aside for innovative transportation projects, and walking and biking infrastructure is a relative bargain. 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, who five years ago became the first U.S. elected official to pioneer the participatory budgeting process, is once again holding a PB election, and a few walking, biking, and transit projects may be on the ballot.

The ward has hosted two community events so far, where residents have had the opportunity to discuss proposed projects. The final meeting takes place this evening at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church by the Lake, 7100 North Ashland. PB committee members will draw upon feedback from constituents to narrow down the candidates to a final ballot, according to Moore’s aid Bob Fuller. Early voting will take place from April 26 to May 2, with the final election happening on May 3. “We’ve been doing this for five years now, and by all accounts things are going smoothly this year,” Fuller said. “But it’s certainly a challenge finding consensus in a neighborhood of 56,000 people.”

The ballot will have a section where residents vote on what percentage of menu money should be spent on street and alley repaving, sidewalk repair and streetlights, from zero to 100 percent. The results are averaged – last year it was 62 percent – and the remainder of the money is awarded to nontraditional projects, according to how many votes they garnered.

The winning proposals in 2013 included funding a $30,000 pedestrian safety engineering study on hectic Sheridan Road, exploring whether bumpouts, signal timing improvements and other strategies could make the street more walkable. Voters also opted to spend $75,000 to install bike-and-chevron shared lane markings on Clark from Albion to Howard. Other proposals that won funding the restoration of cobblestones on Glenwood, and cherry blossom trees and a new water fountain at Touhy Park.

None of the above projects have been finished yet. “It definitely takes more than a year for some things to get done,” Fuller said. The traffic safety study and sharrows are pending the completion of gas line work on Sheridan and Clark.

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State Rep Want to Bus Students Who Currently Use “Safe Passages” Routes

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Mary Flowers. Photo: Associated Press

I’m sure state representative Mary Flowers, a South Side Democrat, had the best of intentions in pushing for new legislation requiring the school system to provide free bus service for students who currently walk to school along Safe Passages routes. The bill passed the Illinois House 73-39 on Thursday and now moves on to the Senate, the Sun-Times reported. However, it’s not clear this would be a wise policy.

When the CPS closed 50 schools last year, mostly in low-income areas on the South and West sides, ensuring students’ safety on their way to school gained new importance. Many kids are now required to cross gang lines while walking to their new schools. As a precaution, the school district budgeted $7.7 million to hire 600 “CPS Community Watch” workers to provide security on 53 Safe Passages routes between 91 schools.

Many residents feared there would be an upswing in violence as students made their way to their “welcoming” schools, but the school district claims the strategy is working. There have been no major incidents involving students near their new schools during program hours, about two hours before the morning bell and three hours after classes end, according to the CPS.

Flowers said the bill was motivated by her concern for the safety of students walking to school on Safe Passages routes, citing the brutal assault and rape of a 15-year-old girl on her way to school last December in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. The attack took place at about 6 a.m. near a Safe Passages route, although it appears to have been a random act of violence that had nothing to do with crossing gang lines. A legislative analysis of Flowers’ bill found that over 260 shootings and murders took place along the routes during the 2012-2013 school year, presumably not during the program hours.

State law already requires school districts to bus students who live 1.5 miles or more from their schools and don’t have access to public transit. The CPS currently only buses students with disabilities and students from recently closed schools whose welcoming school is more than eight-tenths of a mile, about a 15-minute walk, from their old school.

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Blue Line Construction Strands Shuttle Bus Riders Amid Detoured Traffic

Heavy traffic in Logan Square

Two southbound shuttle buses took about six minutes to travel 500 feet through Logan Square’s traffic circle.

Last weekend’s Blue Line track work, just one week of the months-long Your New Blue project, pushed rail riders onto shuttle buses that ran along Milwaukee Avenue — and right through a traffic jam created by the very same track work. Instead of following the designated detour, drivers diverted from Fullerton and Sacramento Avenues under the Blue Line piled onto Milwaukee Avenue and slowed buses to a crawl.

An alternative approach that I’d suggested earlier would have set up diverters on Milwaukee, preventing through traffic while still allowing access to all businesses and parking spaces. Since there were no diverters to keep Fullerton drivers off Milwaukee, many drivers continued on Fullerton and then — at the last minute — turned onto northwest-bound Milwaukee, adding more traffic to a stretch that’s already plenty busy during weekends. The resulting traffic jam paralyzed not only the Blue Line shuttle buses, but also the heavily used 74-Fullerton and 56-Milwaukee bus routes.

CTA Blue Line traffic detour

This diagram shows the intended detour in blue, designated by signs on the street, and the more commonly used detour in orange that slowed buses. Image: Adapted from Chicago Transit Authority

A small sign on Fullerton directed drivers to turn onto California, but the road ahead was wide open, and barriers didn’t force a turn off Fullerton until Milwaukee. Forcing a turn at California would have kept Milwaukee relatively clear for the many shuttle buses needed to carry Blue Line passengers, minimizing their delay and keeping the “rapid transit” service at least a little bit “rapid.”

Traffic jam on Milwaukee Ave. during Blue Line track work

The little detour sign that most westbound drivers on Fullerton ignored.

Gareth Newfield, a longtime Logan Square resident I interviewed while we both watched crawling, bunched-up shuttle buses from inside the Logan Square Comfort Station, noted that “the CTA always provides complete service” during construction projects, “but it doesn’t provide good service.”

Newfield suggested shifting priorities. “How about we say, ‘Getting people to the airport is such a priority that we’ll shut down a [traffic] lane to run express buses’ ” and maintain adequate service for Blue Line riders traveling through Logan Square. “The city isn’t taking [that trip] seriously, but the CTA does.” Newfield added that the few personnel dispatched to a site aren’t thinking about traffic jams as a system: “even a cop… isn’t thinking about it – ‘hold on folks, this bus needs to go first’ — or limit[ing] turns.”

Traffic jam on Milwaukee Ave. during Blue Line track work

Drivers line up to turn onto Milwaukee from Fullerton, instead of making the recommended detour earlier.

Even where there were additional lanes, for example through the square, no space was dedicated for transit; instead, both lanes were filled with cars. The CTA didn’t respond by press time to a request about shuttle bus speed data.

He later tweeted that “[I] probably could have walked faster.”

Police officers or Traffic Management Aides were not on scene to change or hold traffic signals, or to prevent turns onto Milwaukee when they saw a shuttle bus coming.

Erin Borreson was biking northwest on Milwaukee to the Comfort Station; she had to get off her bike and walk on the sidewalk because there was too much traffic. “Buses were [driving] so close to the parked cars,” she explained, “and there’s no way a biker could have gotten through.” Borreson said she was not only more comfortable on the sidewalk than in the jammed street, but added “I was faster on the sidewalk.”

The next Blue Line bus bridge along an equally congested stretch of Milwaukee will start Friday, April 4, replacing Blue Line service at Damen and Western. The shuttles will run a much longer route than the first weekend — from Western Avenue to the Clark/Lake station –  because it’s the only way to provide fully accessible service.

The same problems may recur that weekend, unless there are appropriately enforced detours. Whenever there are more buses on the road, that means more traffic. The city has a lot of options at its disposal to live up to the spirit of its Complete Streets policy, and to put transit riders first.