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City Is Wrapping Up Loop Link Improvements on Canal, Prepaid Boarding Pilot

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The new mid-block crosswalk and pedestrian island on Canal by Union Station. Photo: John Greenfield

About a year after the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor debuted downtown, the city is continuing to improve the route. Back in August the Union Station Transit Center opened, making it easier to transfer between buses, Metra, and Amtrak, and helping to organize West Loop traffic. Recently the Chicago Department of Transportation added new stretches of red bus-only lanes on Jackson and Canal streets, and completed other changes to Canal to sort out the different travel modes.

Previously there was a northbound conventional bike lane on Canal, which was difficult to use due to the chaotic mix of CTA buses, private buses, taxis, and private cars. As part of Loop Link, the Canal bike lane was removed and a two-way protected bike lane was built a block west on Clinton Street.

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Canal Street, as it appeared prior to the recent street remix. Image: Google Street View

CTA buses on Canal previously picked up and dropped off passengers at the train station via a southbound lane on the otherwise northbound street, separated from other traffic via a concrete Jersey barrier. That bus loading area has been moved to the transit center, located on a former parking lot directly south of the station, with a stairway, elevator, and tunnel under Jackson Boulevard providing a car-free pedestrian route to the Metra and Amtrak platforms.

The old bus lane in front of the station on Canal has been replaced with a cabstand. There are two mixed-traffic through lanes to the right of that.

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The current configuration on Canal by Union Station. Photo: John Greenfield

A median has been striped in the middle of the road, and then there’s the red bus lane, which also has a wheelchair symbol on it to indicate that people with disabilities may use it to access the station. To the right of that is a curbside lane that may used by private vehicle drivers from drop-offs, pick-ups, and right turns.

A mid-block crosswalk with a pedestrian island has also been added in front of the station. Previously the Jersey wall prevented people from crossing the street in this location.

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Of Shipyards and Golf Courses: Infrastructure and Economic Nostalgia

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group.

Politics has an indispensable role to play in infrastructure decision-making. There is and can be no objective definition of a society’s infrastructure “needs” — rather, they are shaped by economics, culture and the conscious expression of a society’s values and priorities through the political system.

So, at this time of intense political conflict and renewed interest in infrastructure investment, what are people out there saying about those priorities? Let’s start with Trump advisor Steve Bannon:

I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.

Let’s talk about shipyards. The Trump campaign’s emphasis on restoring the industries that fueled the early- to mid-20th century American economy was curious to many, but it did seem to help propel the president-elect to victory in the Rust Belt. Shipbuilding was once an economically vital industry in many cities — my grandfather, for example, worked in a shipyard near Pittsburgh during World War II. But that was a long time ago. U.S. shipbuilding collapsed beginning in the 1970s and today employs 110,000 people, or roughly one out of every 1,430 Americans. Those jobs are certainly valuable, but getting shipyards “all jacked up” could not possibly happen overnight given the capital investment required, and, even if it did, it would have only a small impact on the overall economy.

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Discussing TIFs, Trump and Boneheaded Road Users on “Chicago Newsroom”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining veteran newsman Ken Davis on his CAN TV program “Chicago Newsroom” to discuss recent local and national transportation stories. We had a spirited conversation that threatened to become a heated debate when the question of whether lawbreaking cycling is a bigger problem than reckless driving came up. But overall it was a fun dialogue with an insightful interviewer. If you’re short on time, here are some of the highlights.

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TIF Passed, Making It Likely RPM Will Be Funded Before Trump Takes Over

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A Red Line train this morning. The CTA says the RPM project will allow them to run 15 more trains an hour during peak periods. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago straphangers can breath a sigh of relief. This morning aldermen voted 46-0 to pass the tax-increment financing district that will help fund the $2.3 billion Red and Purple Modernization project, which will provide critical capacity and speed improvements.

Today is the deadline for the CTA to apply for the $1.1 billion federal Core Capacity grant that will cover the first phase of construction, but Chicago needed to line up a local match in order to win the grant. The TIF will be used to pay back a $622 million federal loan that, along with $468 the transit agency plans to borrow, will be used for the matching funds. Since the feds are expected to approve the Core Capacity grant by January 15, the Council’s decision means that RPM will be probably funded be funded before the Republicans, whose platform called for eliminating federal transit funding, take over.

RPM would rebuild the Red and Purple Line tracks from Lawrence to Howard, upgrade signals, reconstruct four station and create a flyover just north of the Belmont stop to eliminate conflicts between Red, Purple, and, Brown Line trains. The CTA says the latter feature will allow them to run 15 more trains an hour between Belmont and Fullerton during rush periods, which will be crucial for addressing overcrowding on the at-capacity Red Line as the North Side’s population grows.

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By the Belmont flyover will eliminate conflicts between Brown, Red, and Purple trains. Image: CTA

Before the vote, 14th ward alderman Ed Burke, a Southwest Side politician who’s chair of the finance committee, argued that the TIF was necessary because crowding on the Red Line “has frustrated and inconvenienced thousands of members of the riding public,” adding that the line is “an invaluable economic engine that benefits the entire city.” He also noted that only five of the 14 stations between Belmont and Howard are wheelchair accessible, a problem that rebuilding the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stops will help address.

Burke added the RPM project is expected to create 5,700 new construction jobs, and promised there will be a strong workforce diversity outreach program to ensure that a fair number of positions go to people of color and women. “The future of Chicago public transit may well rest on the decision made in the Council today,” he said.

48th Ward alderman Harry Osterman, whose district includes Edgewater, where two of the station reconstructions will occur, noted that slow zones on the North Red Line affect transit downtown and on the South Side as well. He added that, unlike traditional tax-increment financing districts, the transit TIF won’t divert money from the schools.

Osterman noted that creating more capacity on the Red Line will help get cars off of roads like Lake Shore Drive. “But if we don’t act now, the federal money is not going to be there,” he warned.

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5 More “Your New Blue” Station Rehabs Completed, Only 1 Elevator Added

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The renovated Irving Park Blue Line station. Photo: CTA

Yesterday the city announced the completed renovation of five Northwest Side Blue Line stations as part of the $492 million Your New Blue modernization of the line’s O’Hare branch, including the rehabbing of 14 stops. The five recently completed stations are the Addison, Irving Park, Montrose, Harlem, and Cumberland stops.

This latest $43 million station rehab represents the second phase of Your New Blue. Only the Addison stop received an elevator during this round of work. While the Harlem and Cumberland stops already had elevators, the Irving Park and Montrose stations remain inaccessible to wheelchair users and other Chicagoans who can’t take the stairs.

“Today is an important milestone in our efforts to modernize transit infrastructure in Chicago, and we will continue making these much needed investments across the City to ensure we are providing the safest, most reliable service for commuters,” said Mayor Emanuel in a statement. “There are now new tracks, signals and power between the Loop and the northwest side – all of which will make the ride smooth, safe and speedy.”

Previous Your New Blue work included including track improvement work from Damen to Logan Square, completed in 2014, plus rehabs of the California, Western and Damen stations. The California and Damen stops remain non-wheelchair accessible.

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As CTA Pushes to Pass TIF for RPM, $75M Earmarked for South Red Extension

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Rendering of the 103rd Street station for the Red Line extension, if the eastern route is selected. Image: CTA

As we’ve covered the CTA’s efforts to get a transit TIF (tax-increment financing) district passed to help fund the Red and Purple Modernization project, some readers have commented that the $2.1 billion initiative would be a case of the city lavishing money on North Side transit while neglecting the South Side. Surely other Chicagoans feel the same way. But yesterday the CTA announced a new $75 million investment towards the $2.3 billion Red Line Extension on the South Side transit, which may help blunt those criticisms.

The transit agency spent $425 million on the successful South Red Line reconstruction project in 2013, is currently working on the $280 million 95th Street station renovation, and has recently completed or started several other projects in historically underserved neighborhoods. But South Siders have had a legitimate grievance that the long-awaited Red Line Extension project, which would continue the line from 95th to 130th Street, has crept along at a snail’s pace for many years.

There was finally some significant movement on RLE in October. At that time the CTA released the draft environmental impact statement for the project in order to seek feedback from the public on the two potential routes being considered for the extension, either east or west of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The agency held a public hearing on November 1 and will continue receive feedback on the project until this Wednesday, November 30. Feedback received during this review period will be included in CTA’s analysis of the final proposed route.

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The proposed routes for the Red Line extension. Image: CTA

November 30 also happens to be the deadline for the CTA to submit an application for $1 billion in federal Core Capacity funding for the RPM project, which would pay for its first phase, in order to line up the money before the anti-transit Trump administration takes over. The transit TIF for the RPM project would be used to pay back a federal loan to cover the required local matching funds for the Core Capacity grant.

Since the CTA is rushing to get aldermen to approve the new North Side TIF this week, perhaps it’s not coincidental that yesterday Mayor Emanuel and the CTA announced a new milestone in the Red Line Extension project. It’s possible that they hoped this news would help counter criticisms that they’re overly focused on improving North Side transit.

Here’s the news on RLE. The CTA board has approved an amendment to its FY2016-FY2020 Capital Improvement Plan to include $75 million for preliminary engineering and analysis necessary to make the final determination on the route and to complete the final environmental impact statement. The engineering work is also required for CTA to apply for another $1 billion-plus in federal funds to help pay for the $2.3 billion project.

The transit agency expects that procurement for further environmental planning and engineering work will happen in 2017. The $75 million amendment will be funded by CTA bonds.

City Council will vote on the RPM TIF at a special meeting that takes place this Wednesday at 10 a.m. at City Hall.

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Ben Joravsky’s an Astute Pundit, But His Transit TIF Takedown Is Misguided

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Ben Joravsky with Mayor Daley at a 2010 budget hearing. Photo: Hunter Clauss via Chicago Reader

For many years Ben Joravsky, my columnist colleague at the Chicago Reader, has provided an important service to the city with his insightful political commentary. He’s been as a key watchdog for local government, speaking truth to power on issues like Richard M. Daley’s effort to bring the Olympics to town, and educating the public about complex topics like the tax-increment financing program.

Although Joravsky and I have often differed on matters like the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts proposal, I’ve never felt the need to respond in full to any of his articles until now. But the column he ran yesterday about the CTA’s rush to get a transit TIF passed in order fund the Red and Purple Modernization while Obama is still in office contains some questionable logic that needs to be addressed.

Joravsky argues that the funding push is an example of Mayor Emanuel acting on his motto “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste,” taking advantage of post-election anxiety to pass what amounts to a huge property tax hike. “How can the mayor and aldermen say they’re not raising property taxes when actually they’re about to do just that?” he asks.

Joravsky is an influential figure, so it would be a huge loss if his article sways enough City Council votes to kill the TIF plan and, by extension, the crucial $2.1 billion RPM project, which surely wouldn’t get funded under the anti-transit Trump administration. (I didn’t provide input for Joravsky’s column but I gave him and our editor a heads-up about this Streetsblog post prior to publication.)

RPM would rebuild the Red and Purple Line tracks from Lawrence to Howard, upgrade signals, reconstruct four station and create a flyover just north of the Belmont stop to eliminate conflicts between Red, Purple, and, Brown Line trains. Under Obama, the U.S. Department of Transportation is likely to provide $1 billion in Core Capacity funding to cover the first phase of construction if Chicago applies by November 30. But first we need to line up local matching funds.

Earlier this year the state passed the transit TIF law, which allows Chicago to designate a zone near the RPM project area in which part of any future increase in property tax revenue will be captured in a special fund. The city estimates that this TIF will generate $625 million over its 35-year life span. This captured revenue would be used to pay back a federal loan to cover the local match for the Core Capacity grant.

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North Side CTA trains are often packed during rush hours. Photo: John Greenfield

While tax-increment financing was originally created to help “blighted” communities, Joravsky implies that the transit TIF would have a reverse-Robin Hood effect. He notes that the new district would only exist on the North Side and would include decidedly un-blighted neighborhoods like the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, and Lakeview, allowing them to keep most of their additional tax revenue in the area rather than sharing it with poorer parts of the city.

However, the faster and more frequent ‘L’ service enabled by the RPM improvements will benefit everybody who rides the Red, Purple, and Brown Lines, and hundreds of thousands of residents across the city live within a ten-minute walk of the Red Line alone. And then there’s all the citywide congestion, air quality, health, and economic benefits of encouraging more transit ridership and less driving.

Joravsky correctly notes that, unlike traditional tax-increment financing districts, the transit TIF wouldn’t divert any money from the Chicago Public Schools, an issue that he’s done a great job of highlighting in the past. Under the new law, the CPS gets the same proportion of any additional property tax revenue that they would receive if the transit TIF didn’t exist.

“But the city, county, and parks won’t get the tax dollars they’d otherwise get from this area,” Joravsky adds. “That means that when the mayor looks to spend more money to pay for something like hiring police, he’ll likely have to raise property taxes to compensate for the money he’s not getting from this TIF district over the next three-plus decades.”

The problem with this logic is that these taxing bodies can’t get their fair share of any additional property tax dollars if that additional revenue isn’t generated in the first place. Here’s why that might be the case if the transit TIF isn’t passed and RPM doesn’t get funded.

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Trump’s Infrastructure Plan: A Deal With the Devil for Illinois Leaders?

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Donald Trump

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print.]

As it was for the people behind virtually every other progressive cause, the election of Donald Trump was a sad day for those of us who want to see the U.S. move toward a more efficient, healthy, and equitable transportation system.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that, with Republicans in control of both the Oval Office and Congress, our country is going to become only more car dependent. The party’s 2016 platform calls for eliminating federal funding for Amtrak, mass transit, bike-share programs, trails, and sidewalks—basically any kind of ground transportation that doesn’t involve cars or trucks.

Some leading Democrats have implied that Trump’s grand infrastructure plan could be a silver lining to the disastrous election. And some transportation advocates hope that, as a lifelong New Yorker, he might appreciate the importance of subways and city buses.

But within days of winning the election, Trump was already threatening Chicago’s roughly $1 billion in overall annual federal funding by promising to cut funds to all “sanctuary cities” that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. To make matters worse, the president-elect picked road-industry lobbyist Martin Whitmer to lead his “transportation and infrastructure” transition team. And former Reason Foundation analyst Shirley Ybarra, a toll-road champion who has called for defunding transit, is in charge of finding the next U.S. transportation secretary and may be in the running herself.

Under the Obama administration, our city won many federal grants and loans for CTA track and station improvements, as well as bike and pedestrian projects like the Divvy system, the Bloomingdale Trail, and the Chicago Riverwalk extension. But regime change will force advocates to shift from progress to defense, says SRAM Cycling Fund director Randy Neufeld.

“We will move from growing the bike, pedestrian, and transit shares of [transportation funding] to fighting to hang on to eligibility for these modes,” Neufeld says. “Treading water is the best we can do. We may drown. Cities will be punished at every opportunity.”

This may be why the CTA is hustling to line up about $1.1 billion in federal funding for the $2.1 billion Red/Purple Modernization project before Obama leaves office. For what it’s worth, though, CTA officials claim that the rush isn’t about fears that Trump will be anti-transit or anti-Chicago, but rather that any presidential administration change could delay the RPM grant by as much as a year.

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Take a Virtual Bike Ride on the New 35th Street Bike and Pedestrian Bridge

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The new bridge, viewed from the lakefront. Photo: John Greenfield

Thanks to an elegant new bridge over Lake Shore Drive, in the shadow of the Stephen Douglas memorial pillar, it’s now possible to bike directly down 35th Street from Bronzeville to the Lake Trail.

Billed as the city’s longest pedestrian bridge, spanning 620 feet and six Metra and South Shore Line railroad tracks, the single-cable suspension bridge was officially opened last week. It’s the first of five new bridges planned over the drive on the South Side.

Designed by Teng and Associates, the S-shaped span replaced a rusty old bridge build in 1933, which required users to climb a set of stairs and one end and descend a staircase at the other, making it impassible for wheelchair users and inconvenient for bike riders. The new bridge has a 20-foot-wide deck, and the A-shaped center support pylon is about 120 feet tall. The $26 million project was bankrolled with federal and state funds.

The bridge creates a new connection to a new arts and recreation center at Ellis Park, featuring a gym with basketball courts, an indoor pool, rooms for art and education programs, a fitness center and studio, a meeting hall, and music and theater performance spaces.

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After Noah Katz’s Death, Ald. Arena and CDOT Commit to Fixing Intersection

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Noah and Rachel Katz. Photo courtesy of the family

In the wake of the crash that tragically took the life of two-year-old Noah Katz and injured his mother Rachel, 39, as they crossed the street on Sunday afternoon in Portage Park, safety improvements are planned for the intersection.

At about 4:10 p.m. Sunday, Noah and Rachel were crossing east in the crosswalk on the south leg of the southernmost intersection of Giddings Street and Central Avenue, according to police. Van driver Alexander Vasquez, 48, was heading west on Giddings and turned south on Central, striking them. Noah was pronounced dead on the scene; Rachel was hospitalized with injuries that were believed to be non-life-threatening.

Vasquez was issued one citation for failure to stop at a stop sign, two for failure to reduce speed, and two for failure to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk, police said. According to personal injury attorney Michael Keating (a Streetsblog sponsor) the multiple counts reflect the fact that there were two victims.

Keating added that the fact that Vasquez’s speed contributed to the crash could eventually lead to more serious charges. If, after further investigation, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office determines that the driver acted “recklessly,” he could potentially face felony charges.

However, the police recently told 45th Ward alderman John Arena they do not expect the charges to be upgraded, according to Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh.

“I am deeply saddened by Sunday’s tragic [crash],” said the alderman in a statement. “It is every parent’s worst nightmare to lose their child, and I send the family my deepest condolences.” He noted that a crowdfunding page has been created in support of the family. So far over $22,000 has been raised.

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