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

Photo by @UncleTaco

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

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

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.

construction scene on Dearborn

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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“Summer by Rail” Train and Bike Blogger Checks Out Chicago Infrastructure

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“Summer by Rail” blogger Elena Studier on Northerly Island, a rustic park on a peninsula that used to be an air strip. Photo: Mariah Morales

National Association of Railroad Passengers intern Elena Studier is taking a 38-day-trip around the country on Amtrak with her bicycle to document the current state of the U.S. passenger rail system and its connectivity with cycling. It’s a timely journey, since we’re now living in an era when an increasing number of Americans are interested in getting around without having to rely on driving.

Her 10,000-mile trip launched on Sunday in New York City, and Chicago was her first destination – a fitting one, since our city is the railroad hub of the nation. After she arrived here on Monday, staffers from Amtrak and the Active Transportation Alliance gave her a grand tour of the highlights of our local rail, path, and parks networks on two wheels.

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An Amtrak worker hands Studier her bike at Chicago’s Union Station. Photo: Mariah Morales

Studier, a second-year international affairs and geography major at George Washington University in D.C., got the idea for the project, dubbed “Summer by Rail,” while brainstorming ideas for an epic journey using an Amtrak USA Rail Pass. She’s using a 45-day pass, which allows you to take a voyage around the country with up to 18 different segments for $899 ($440.50 for children 2-12). 15- and 30-day passes are also available.

After she started her internship with NARP, which advocates for improving and expanding passenger rail service, she pitched the idea of riding the Amtrak system to highlight how it connects communities and provides access to local transportation networks. The folks at NARP thought it was a great idea, so they agreed to sponsor her travels and worked with Amtrak to coordinate the trip.

Studier will be documenting her adventures on the Summer by Rail blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. From Chicago, she’ll be taking the Empire Builder to Seattle, and then heading down the West Coast to Los Angeles, east to New Orleans, and then up the East Coast to D.C., with lots of stops and side trips along the way. For example, on Tuesday she rode Amtrak’s Lincoln Service to Normal, Illinois, to check out the town’s new multi-modal transit center and bikeways.

She brought her Vilano hybrid bike “Stevie” along with her not only to facilitate touring and travel within cities and national parks, but also to showcase how Amtrak and other rail systems have become increasingly bike-friendly in recent years. She’s also helping Amtrak test out roll-on service on lines where cyclists are currently required to box their bikes.

For her trip from NYC on the Lakeshore Limited train, which doesn’t yet have roll-on service, Studier was allowed to bring her cycle to the baggage car, where a worker hung in on a vertical bike rack. It’s the same convenient amenity that Amtrak debuted earlier this month on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service and the Chicago-to-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette Service. Amtrak hopes to offer roll-on service for the Lakeshore Limited to the public in late summer or early fall.

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It’s a Lobby-palooza! Join MPC’s 43 Minutes for $43 Billion Infrastructure Push

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MPC says Investing $43 billion over the next years could help get the CTA system, and other Illinois infrastructure, in good working order. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Are you ready for (almost three-quarters of) an hour of power?

That’s what the Metropolitan Planning Council has planned for Wednesday, May 18, at 11 a.m., when they’ll hold the 43 Minutes for $43 Billion transportation infrastructure lobbying jam session. They’re asking Chicagoland residents to call their legislators and contact leaders in Springfield to ask them to commit to investing $43 billion over the next ten years to fund repairs and improvements to transit, bridges, and roads. They’re also asking citizens to tweet about the fact that we’re sick and tired of the shoddy state of Illinois’ transportation network.

The action is timed to coincide with Infrastructure Week, which Washington, D.C. infrastructure advocates have organized over the last few years, as well as the May 31 adjournment date for the Illinois state legislature. According to MPC executive vice president Peter Skosey, there appears to be plenty of interest on both sides of the aisle for a new transportation funding bill, but the general consensus is that the initiative won’t move forward until the state budget, which has been mired in partisan deadlock, moves forward.

“It’s problematic that we don’t already have a transportation bill,” Skosey said. “In [MPC’s] opinion, it needs to be done immediately, but it also needs to be done adequately.” He noted that if, say, lawmakers agreed to budget $1 billion a year for infrastructure, many Illinoisans would think that’s a big expenditure. “But that wouldn’t be sufficient,” he said. “A billion a year would only make us fall behind farther. It has to be $4.3 billion to get us up to par.”

While MPC hopes a bill can be passed before legislators adjourn at the end of the month, Skosey said there are other windows of opportunity for getting it approved. It could also happen during the November vetoe session (when the governor signs or vetoes legislation the general assembly has passed), or else it could take place during the lame duck session following the November elections, when Illinoisans will vote on every House seat and some Senate seats.

However, it would be much more difficult to pass a bill after May 31 because a two-thirds majority of the assembly would be needed. After January 1, only a simple majority of 51 percent would be required.

At any rate, it makes sense to get the word out to leaders sooner than later that we’re fed up with slow, unreliable train and bus service, potholed roads, and increasingly unsafe bridges. Skosey said MPC came up with the idea for 43 Minutes for $43 Billion as an alternative to organizing a lobbying day in which representatives from the 43 local companies and nonprofits who’ve endorsed the Accelerate Illinois infrastructure funding campaign would have to schlep down to Springfield. “We figured that calls, emails, and social media would be a fast, effective way to send a message,” Skosey said. Here’s how you can get involved.

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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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Other Reasons Why The 606 Gets More Ridership Than the Major Taylor Trail

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The 606’s popularity is largely due to what it lacks: at-grade crossings. Photo: John Greenfield

The Chicago Tribune’s new transportation columnist Mary Wisniewski, a former Sun-Times transportation reporter, is off to a good start. She’s written a number of article that show an interest in promoting sustainable transportation, rather than the windshield perspective that has been all-to-common in the mainstream media.

For example, her articles about bicycling have asked *what* Chicago should be doing to encourage bike riding, rather than *whether* we should be promoting cycling at all. That’s a refreshing change from some of the Tribune’s previous misinformed, overly skeptical coverage of new bicycle infrastructure. And let’s not even get started on columnist John Kass’ irresponsible bike trolling.

This new approach is part of the general positive trend of Chicago’s mainstream media coming around to the idea that biking is good our city, as the Active Transportation Alliance recently noted in a blog post.

Wisniewski recently ran an interesting column looking at why the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway on the Northwest Side, which opened last June, is already so much better known and used than the nine-year-old Major Taylor Trail on the Southwest Side. That’s despite the fact that the Bloomingdale, also known as The 606, is only 2.7 miles while the Major Taylor is a full 6.5 miles.

According to members of Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, even some folks who live close to that trail seem unaware of its existence.

Wisniewski highlights several reasons why the Major Taylor gets less use. Broken glass is a problem. There are some challenging streets crossings that need improvement, such as those at Halsted Street and 111th Street. There’s a gap in the path between 105th Street and 95th Street, which forces riders to take a somewhat convoluted route on streets between the two segments.

Wisniewski notes that the Major Taylor runs though less densely populated neighborhoods than the Bloomingdale. She also points out that The 606 connects with Milwaukee Avenue, the city’s busiest biking route, nicknamed “The Hipster Highway.”

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Trying Out New Roll-on Bike Service on the Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee

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Maybe “Hoist-on service” would be more accurate, but simply handing your bike to an Amtrak worker is much more convenient than boxing and checking it. Photo: John Greenfield

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

This morning as officials cut the ribbon for roll-on bike service on Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service trains, a whole new set of destinations that can easily be accessed without a car opened up for Chicago and Milwaukee residents.

While the Hiawatha line has allowed passengers to check boxed bikes as luggage for years, it’s a relatively expensive and cumbersome affair. There’s a $10 surcharge each way, the boxes are $15 if you purchase them from the railway, and then you have to dissemble your bike and box it up on each leg of the trip.

Now passengers can pay a mere $5 surcharge each way and simply roll their bikes up to the baggage car, where a staffer will hang it on a vertical bike rack. The one-way adult fare for the Hiawatha Service is $25, with discounts available for ten-ride tickets and monthly passes.

Reservations are required for the roll-on service. To reserve a space for your bike, select “add bike” when booking your trip online, on the phone at 800-USA-RAIL, or when using the ticket counters or the Quik-Trak SM kiosks at both stations. Only standard-size bikes are permitted.

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Bikes in the baggage car — some were more festive than others. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday I rode Metra to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with my bicycle (one-way weekday fare from the Ravenswood stop was $9) and then pedaled some 40 miles to Milwaukee for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was attended by a dozen or two local bike advocates.

“We have worked with [the Wisconsin Department of Transportation] by thinking ‘out of the box’ and mounting 15 bike racks in the [baggage car] on each of the Hiawatha trains,” said Jim Brzezinski, Amtrak’s senior regional director for state corridors. “This will make bringing your bike along on these trips more welcoming and get you on your wheels and pedaling away immediately after arrival.”

“No assembly required, starting now for bicyclists,” said John Alley, WisDOT’s transit, local roads, railroads & harbors manager. “This saves our bicycling passengers money and makes their everyday journeys or vacation trips to explore Milwaukee and Chicago so much easier.”

When the folks with bikes approached the baggage car, Amtrak employees cheerfully hauled their cycles onboard. I was asked to remove my panniers beforehand.

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Big Marsh could be a terrific bike park, but it’s not yet safe to pedal there

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A winter Slow Roll ride to Big Marsh. Photo: Slow Roll Chicago

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Last week I rode the Red Line to 95th Street with my cruiser bike in tow, then pedaled about six miles to the future site of Big Marsh Bike Park, just east of Lake Calumet. Boosters say it will be a world-class, family-friendly venue for BMX riding, mountain biking, and cyclocross racing that will also provide recreational and economic opportunities for residents of low-income southeast- side neighborhoods near the park.

The bike park will lie within Big Marsh, a 278-acre expanse of open space that the Chicago Park District acquired in 2011. Environmental remediation is currently under way, since the area was formerly a slag-dumping site for steel mills, and the Park District expects the facility will open in late fall.

But my ride from the el station would have been traumatizing for novice cyclists. It was comfortable at first—a bike lane led south on State Street, then another took me east on 103rd. But after I passed under the Metra Electric tracks at Cottage Grove, the bike lane disappeared and 103rd ballooned into a four-lane highway with fast traffic, including several 18-wheelers.

Next I rode south on Stony Island toward Lake Calumet, but things weren’t much better on that stretch of road. Although Stony and Doty, the two streets that circle the lake, offer scenic views of the remediated landfill, with its tallgrass, ponds, and a variety of wild birds, they’re also frequented by fast-moving trucks headed to and from industrial businesses. I got spooked by a huge gas tanker thundering by even though I spent six years of my life working as a bike messenger on the mean streets of the Loop.

Getting to Big Marsh is equally arduous if you’re coming from the Roseland and Pullman communities to the west, the East Side, South Deering, and Hegewisch neighborhoods to the east, or the Altgeld Gardens housing project to the south. There is no direct transit access to the park, although several CTA bus lines terminate at a bus garage a 2.5-mile bike ride from the park.

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Shop by Bike and Win Prizes During the “Ride & Seek Lakeview” Promotion

Bike Friendly Business

This sticker in a shop’s window means they offer a discount to cyclists.

Smart community leaders brainstorm ways to get more butts on bicycles. After all, more people traveling in the neighborhood on two wheels instead of four means less traffic congestions and pollution. And when more shoppers access retail strips by bikes instead of cars, there are similar (or even better) economic benefits for the area, with less need for car parking. Plus, when people travel at slower speeds, they’re more likely to notice local storefronts and consider patronizing the businesses.

Accordingly, the Lakeview and Lakeview East chambers of commerce are partnering this year on a Bike-Friendly Business District program that promotes shopping local and helps promote the Lakeview neighborhood as a great place to shop by bike. The Lakeview chamber originally launched the initiative in 2014 through a partnership with the West Town Chamber of Commerce and the Active Transportation Alliance. The program includes improved cycling infrastructure, promotional materials and bike maps, plus educational and encouragement activities like workshops and rides, plus a discount program for customers arriving by bicycle.

Both the Lakeview and Lakeview East chambers have installed dozens of branded bike racks on their business strips featuring the names of the neighborhoods, paid for with Special Service Area funds. The Lakeview East racks have temporarily been removed for refurbishing.

Last year the Lakeview chamber installed a fix-it station at the Southport Brown Line station with a pump and tools for simple repairs. Unlike the fix-it stations that West Town Bikes recently installed on the Bloomingdale Trail, which sadly were vandalized soon after installation, the Southport facility hasn’t seen major tool theft problems, according to SSA 27 manager Dillon Goodson.

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Indiana Will Fund Rewriting Faulty Illiana Environmental Impact Statement

Photo of the then-recently opened I-355, 127th St overpass

The Illiana’s high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

The Illiana Tollway, a proposed highway boondoggle that would run through land south of the Chicago metro area, is the project that just won’t die. The tollway would be a joint project of the Illinois and Indiana transportation departments and cost Illinois taxpayers a minimum of $500 million. That’s $500 million that might otherwise be spent on necessary and financially viable projects like rebuilding the North Red Line, constructing the Ashland bus rapid transit route, and building Pace’s transitways.

Greg Hinz recently eported in Crain’s that it appears the two states have reached an agreement that Indiana will spend money to rewrite the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, which a federal judge ruled invalid last June. This federally-required document was supposed to explain why the tollway is needed, and how all impacts – to people and their property, flora and fauna – would be mitigated. Since the Illinois still hasn’t passed a state budget, it’s unable to pay for updating the EIS. We don’t know how much Indiana would spend on this.

Last year, the Environmental Law & Policy Center represented Openlands and the Midewin Heritage Association in a lawsuit against the Illiana and won by pointing out that the original EIS used circular logic. The document argued the tollway was needed in order to provide transportation access new residential and industrial development. However, its projections were based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, and would therefore induce new development in an area of farmland and nature preserves.

There are many reasons why building the Illiana would be a bad idea. For starters, most American roads don’t even pay for their own maintenance, let alone construction. Illinois’ transportation infrastructure network already has a $43 billion maintenance backlog.

Additionally, construction of the tollway would be funded through an extremely dubious public-private partnership scheme, requiring the state to compensate the concessionaire if the highway doesn’t generate a certain amount of profits. Since the plan calls for high tolls, many motorists were predicted to use alternative routes, so the Illiana would see relatively little traffic and not be a money-maker, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the revenue shortfall.

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