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Posts from the "Infrastructure" Category

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95 Problems: A Walk Down the South Side’s Most Notorious “Stroad”

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Memorials to the people who died in the Oak Lawn crash. Photo: John Greenfield

[A version of this article also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

“I avoid 95th Street as much as possible for my safety and sanity,” said Beverly resident and Streetsblog contributor Anne Alt, in the wake of a horrific multi-car crash on the massive road earlier this month. This senseless disaster in west suburban Oak Lawn injured almost a dozen people and killed three, including two nuns.

On Sunday, October 5, at around 4:30 p.m., witnesses noticed retired contractor Edward Carthans, eighty-one, slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup near 95th and Western, police said. Carthans refused help and instead sped west on 95th, colliding with three cars at Keeler. He kept driving, blew a red light at Cicero, and then veered into the eastbound lanes, causing an eleven-car pile-up. After his truck became airborne, he was killed, along with Sister Jean Stickney, 86, and Sister Kab Kyoung Kim, 48, who were driving home from a shopping trip.

“It’s a miracle that we don’t have serious crashes on 95th more often than we do,” Alt commented on Streetsblog. She noted that much of 95th is a “stroad,” a street/road hybrid with straight geometry and multiple, wide lanes that encourage highway speeds within populated areas. “The mix of congestion and speeding — depending on location and time of day — can be quite scary, even when the situation isn’t as extreme as what happened on Sunday.”

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95th Street near the Oak Lawn Metra stop. Photo: John Greenfield

Before this tragedy occurred, I was already planning to walk the entire length of 95th in Chicago. So far, I’ve hiked more than a dozen streets, as part of my ongoing quest to see as much of the city on foot as possible. After 19th Ward Alderman Matthew O’Shea recently blamed Beverly’s lackluster retail scene on a supposed dearth of parking along 95th, Streetsblog’s Steven Vance suggested I stroll the 7.5-mile street. It’s one of the least pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares in town, but I’m never one to say no to a sustainable transportation challenge.

When I get off Metra’s Southwest Service line in Oak Lawn on a gorgeous Indian summer afternoon, I gaze at the bleak, seven-lane expanse of 95th and wonder if I’d bitten off more than I can chew. As I trudge east through several blocks of big-box retail, I encounter almost no pedestrians. There are a handful of people on bikes, but they’re all riding on the sidewalk.

I get an eerie feeling as I approach as I approach 95th and Cicero, the gigantic intersection where Carthan’s trail of destruction ended. Next to an empty storefront, there are two white, wooden crosses for Stickney and Kim, plus a red, wooden heart for Carthans. Stuffed animals and flowers are scattered at the bases of the memorials, and nearby someone has lit a votive candle for Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations. A wide groove, between the sidewalk and the curb, is still filled with shattered auto glass.

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Spruced-Up California Station Reopens After Six-Week Closure

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CTA Chairman Terry Peterson, State Senator Iris Martinez, Emanuel, Borggren, Durbin, and Claypool. Photo: Lisa Phillips.

The freshly renovated California station on the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch reopened today after being closed for six weeks, an interminable wait for locals who rely on the train stop. Originally opened in 1895, the station recently received both structural and cosmetic improvements. These include a larger building footprint, refurbished walls, stairs, and platforms, new lights and signs, and more bike racks.

California is one of 13 stations on the O’Hare Branch, from Grand to Cumberland, that are being rehabbed as part of the CTA’s $492 million “Your New Blue” initiative, which also includes repairs to aging signals, power systems, and tracks. Launched nine months ago, the project is the largest investment in the Blue Line since it was extended to the airport in 1984. The branch currently carries about 80,000 riders each weekday.

Speaking at the California stop’s ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning, CTA President Forrest Claypool boasted that the station rehab was completed on time and on budget. He added that the Blue Line work will “not only make the [riding] experience more comfortable, but also ultimately take ten minutes off the commute to O’Hare Airport from downtown and back.” Claypool noted that the faster travel times will be a boon for local commuters, as well as tourists coming into the city from O’Hare.

“All of this is part of an unprecedented $5 billion CTA modernization plan launched by Mayor Emanuel in 2011, and supported staunchly and consistently by Governor Quinn and Senator Durbin,” Claypool added. “It’s been a true partnership from the very beginning between the state and city… demonstrating that modern, effective mass transit is worth the investment — because of the jobs, and because of the [improvement to] quality of life in neighborhoods like Logan Square.”

Erica Borggren, acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, speaking on behalf of Governor Pat Quinn, argued that investing in transit helps the city and state stay globally competitive. She promised that the current work is a harbinger of more such investments to come during a third term for Quinn, who hopes to be reelected on November 4.

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A New Bike Network Takes Shape, and Atlantans Turn Out in Droves

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

The capital of the New South is working on its latest “highway” network. This one is going to be a lot quieter.

The massive Beltline trail and an impressive grid of protected lanes that will connect the trail system to key urban destinations are poised to remake transportation in the city that anchors the country’s ninth-largest metro area. Striving for Mayor Kasim Reed’s goal of making Atlanta one of the country’s top ten cities for biking, Atlantans have shown their enthusiasm with their feet: An estimated 95,000 to 106,000 people attended the open-streets event Atlanta Streets Alive on September 28 — shattering the previous record by at least 12,000 people.

For comparison’s sake, Portland’s Sunday Parkways festivals also set an attendance record in 2014 — by drawing 109,000 attendees to all five events combined.

As the video above shows, Atlanta’s embrace of open streets is part of a bigger shift in a city that’s shaking off its old “Sprawlville, USA” image with a combination of new housing and bike and transit infrastructure.

“It’s really shifting the way people think about living in the City of Atlanta,” says Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. “The focus is on the core of the city.”

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

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Making It Easier to Get to the Museum Campus Without a Car

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Residents asked for protected bike lanes near the Museum Campus at the meeting.

It’s already a bit of a hassle to get to and around Chicago’s Museum Campus, which includes the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, and Soldier Field. In light of plans to build the Lucas Museum, as well as Rahm Emanuel’s goal to increase tourism from 49 million visitors last year to 55 million in 2020, the problem could get worse.

This summer, the mayor created the Museum Campus Transportation Task Force to review how people currently get to the campus and travel between the attractions, as well as to propose transportation improvements. The Metropolitan Planning Council is heading up the task force, which also includes city agencies, the leadership of the four main campus amenities, and nearby neighborhood groups.

MPC president MarySue Barrett said Emanuel gave the task force 90 days to finish the study. The report will serve as the transportation component of the Chicago Park District’s long-term Framework Plan. Plans for the Lucas Museum were announced after the task force convened. “Access has been troublesome for a while before that,” Barrett noted.

“This is the first time there’s been planning for the museum campus since the relocation of Lake Shore Drive,” Barrett said. The northbound lanes of the highway, which formerly ran between the Field and the Shedd, were moved west of the football stadium in the late 1990s, which allowed for the creation of the campus. The budget for that project didn’t “have enough give at the time,” Barrett said, for the kind of transportation planning and improvements the task force is now considering.

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MarySue Barrett (right) co-chairs the task force with Chicago Chief Operating Officer Joe Deal (left).

Barrett said that the first step in the task force’s research process is to collect public input and information from the dozen involved organizations. “There are five million visitors annually to the Shedd, Adler, and Field Museums,” she said, adding that they’re trying to get input from three types of visitors: Chicagoans, suburbanites, and visitors from outside the region. “We’re looking at the museums’ attendance surveys to see how people arrive,” she said.

To brainstorm ideas for improving access to the museum campus, MPC is hosting three public meetings, the first of which was held yesterday evening at their downtown offices. See below for details on the two remaining events. The public is also encouraged to submit ideas and concerns about campus transportation issues online.

Roughly 70 people attended last night’s session. Issues ranged from security measures during special events that block park access days after the event, to police hassling pedicabbers when they offer Bears fans rides to transit stations or bars. Attendees were invited to sketch out their ideas on maps. Some South Loop residents highlighted streets where they’d like to see protected bike lanes.

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Active Trans Launches a New Crusade Against Dangerous Intersections

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McCormick and Touhy in Skokie was ranked the worst intersection for pedestrians in suburban Cook County. Image: Google Maps

The Active Transportation Alliance was instrumental in creating the Transit Future campaign, with the goal of creating a dedicated funding source for regional transit. Now they’re also pushing for dedicated funding for pedestrian infrastructure, while raising awareness of Chicagoland’s many hazardous intersections, with their new Safe Crossings initiative.

“It’s really important that we recognize the challenges that pedestrians face across the region,” Active Trans’ director of campaigns, Kyle Whitehead, told me. “People tend to assume that these dangerous and difficult intersections are going to stay that way. We want people to realize that there are proven solutions to address these issues. If we can raise awareness and muster resources, there’s the potential to solve these problems throughout the region.”

This morning, Active Trans released a list of ten of the most dangerous intersections in the city of Chicago, and ten of the most hazardous junctions in suburban Cook County. Topping the urban list is the notoriously chaotic North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection in Wicker Park, with 43 reported pedestrian and bike crashes between 2006 and 2012. In the ‘burbs, the worst-ranked junction is Skokie’s McCormick and Touhy intersection, where two six-lane roads cross next to the North Shore Channel Trail bike-and-pedestrian path.

The crash data, provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation, was only one of the factors Active Trans used to compile the lists. They also incorporated feedback from their planning and outreach staff, plus public input. The group received more than 800 responses to an online survey that was posted on their blog, shared via social media, and emailed to members. Here are the full lists:

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Englewood Flyover Now Smoothing Out South Side Metra Rides

The Englewood Flyover train bridge unofficially opened three weeks ago, carrying test trains along the Metra Rock Island District tracts. The mile-long flyover, near 63rd Street and Wentworth Avenue, is one of the largest projects within CREATE, a larger program to untangle railroad flows around Chicago. The $141 million project could eliminate 7,500 hours of Metra delays each year that stem from this busy intersection, which sees 78 Metra, 60 freight, and 14 Amtrak trains every day.

Anne Alt is a regular rider of the Rock Island line between Beverly and the Loop. (Anne works for FK Law Illinois, a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor.) Alt described the delays on her commute as erratic: “I can go weeks or months without seeing any delays there, and then go two or three days in a row where my train waits anywhere from a few minutes, to 10 or 15,” an appreciable amount on a half-hour ride. Metra’s July delay report [PDF] listed multiple delays at the Englewood interlocking, varying from five to 15 minutes long.

Metra will be the only user of the Englewood Flyover, sending its Rock Island trains soaring over three previously intersecting tracks. Metra will soon add a third track to the flyover for SouthWest Service trains, after another CREATE project is constructed. That flyover [PDF], at 75th Street and Normal Avenue, will allow SWS trains to head to downtown Chicago on the RID tracks. The switch would also send SWS trains into LaSalle Street Station rather than Union Station, freeing up room at Union Station for other Metra lines and for Amtrak service to Michigan and Missouri.

Alt said that her first impression of the new flyover was that it “feels real solid.” She added, “I’m really hoping that the flyover will help reduce weekend delays, which often make it difficult to be on time for things unless I leave ridiculously early (like a couple of hours early) or take the [CTA] Red Line.”

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Transit Future Slowly Building Coalition to Fund Expanded Transit

CNT says there is poor transit service between where low-income workers live and where most jobs are. They're developing research that would show the impact of building new lines outlined in the Transit Future campaign.

CNT says there is poor transit service between where low-income workers live and where most jobs are. They’re developing research that would show the impact of building new lines outlined in the Transit Future campaign.

The Transit Future campaign sure did arrive with a bang. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle both spoke at its April announcement, which was accompanied by a splashy map and website. It seemed like a huge expansion of the region’s transit network was closer than ever, once Cook County and Chicago officials rallied around the idea (imported from Los Angeles) to use local taxes to leverage big dollars for projects. But ever since then, though, its backers — the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Active Transportation Alliance — have been fairly quiet.

CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw and Active Trans executive director Ron Burke recently gave a glimpse into what’s next for Transit Future at DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute. Ever since its launch, 12 of Cook County’s 17 commissioners have signed on to the campaign. Several of them told Grimshaw that the campaign should also meet with mayors and other elected officials in their districts, so CNT has expanded its outreach accordingly.

“It’s important to build a coalition,” Grimshaw said, “to share the message and get the electorate involved.”

Grimshaw was candid about the progress of Transit Future since April, saying she had asked Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle to include a new transit fund within the FY2015 budget proposal. “But Toni had a bigger nut to crack,” Grimshaw said, “and that’s pensions.” (The current, election-year budget also, conveniently, does not include any new taxes.) Grimshaw added, “The best we can hope for now is the 2016 budget.”

The Transit Future map shows many new and extended ‘L’, Metra and arterial rapid bus routes. Grimshaw explained that “we didn’t just make up these lines.” Many of them were on the wish lists that transportation agencies, departments, and other governments had submitted to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, for potential inclusion in the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan. The routes “were vetted, part of a public engagement process, and screened,” she added. “What these lines lacked is funding” (unlike some other projects), and so they weren’t included in the final GO TO 2040 plan.

Transit Future is developing a compelling public case for why these transit lines are needed. Campaign manager Ronnie Harris said that they’re racing to develop a report clearly showing the benefits and return on investment “of going ahead and doing this.” The report, he said, will “outline the benefits of [the region] buying into Transit Future.”

Cook County certainly could use more extensive transit service. County residents take transit for just seven percent of all trips, Burke explained, because it’s inconvenient for most of their trips. Transit service just isn’t available, or is infrequent, in the areas where most county residents work. Decades of sprawl have pushed jobs from downtown Chicago to newer centers, around O’Hare Airport and to suburban corridors in the north, northwest, and west suburbs. Getting to jobs in those locations is impractical by transit, since these transit deserts see only infrequent Pace buses and practically nonexistent reverse-commute Metra service to faraway stations.

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An Update on the Lawrence Streetscape and the Ravenswood Metra Stop

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A curb bump-out and a pedestrian island makes it much easier to cross Lawrence than before, while a new bike lane encourages cycling. Photo: John Greenfield

The long-awaited Lawrence streetscape and road diet is is almost complete, and the project has already transformed a corridor that had been unpleasant for pedestrians and cyclists into a much more livable street. Meanwhile, construction is also wrapping up on a new, supersized Metra station house on Lawrence.

First announced in 2010 and launched in July of 2013, the streetscape has changed the stretch of Lawrence between Western and Clark from a four-lane speedway into a much calmer street, with two mixed-traffic lanes plus a turn lane. This was formerly a “reverse bottleneck,” since it was the only section of Lawrence in the city with four lanes. The road diet has made room for wider sidewalks, which will provide space for café seating, plus non-buffered bike lanes, where there were formerly only shared-lane markings.

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The same intersection as the above photo, Lawrence and Seeley, before the road diet. Image: Google Maps

The section from Ravenswood – where the new Metra stop is located – to Western is largely completed. Many pedestrian islands have been built. In a few locations, there are also curb bump-outs that reduce crossing distances for people traversing Lawrence. Crosswalks made of eye-catching red asphalt, stamped in a brick pattern, have been put in at all intersections.

Workers have installed old-fashioned acorn-style streetlamps, as well as standard inverted-U bike racks, according to to Brad Gregorka, an assistant to 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar. Benches and trash cans will soon be added. Two Divvy bike-share stations have been returned or relocated to spots by the Metra stop and at Lawrence/Leavitt.

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Seven Ways to Stop The Illiana Boondoggle

Two votes yesterday by a committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicagoland’s federally-designated regional planning organization, have cemented CMAP’s approval of the sprawl-inducing, budget-busting Illiana Tollway. Since federal transportation dollars can only be spent on projects included in an adopted regional plan, this gives Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation the consent that they needed to continue preparations for the Illiana Tollway.

South suburban legislators are happy that Quinn is steering the dollars in their direction, and spoke up in favor of the road yesterday — many saying that the Illiana would free them from the scourge of truck traffic on existing roads. State Senator Pat McGuire (D-43) said the Illiana “would improve the environment” and “save lives.” He didn’t specify how, especially since IDOT’s own analysis says that the Illiana would increase car traffic (and presumably car crashes) in the study area, decrease truck traffic only minimally, and result in more smog and acid rain.

State Representative Al Riley (D-38) heads the house’s mass transit committee, and brushed aside criticism of the road in this spirited, if garbled, testimony yesterday:

The Tier 2 EIS just came out, so everybody’s supposed to be stupid. [People are saying] the FHWA, you know, who did the report, doesn’t know what they’re doing. Their pronouncements don’t make any sense. Well, of course they do. Everything made sense throughout the entire process. Of course they know what they’re doing!

Despite yesterday’s vote, there are still several ways the Illiana could be stopped well before the bulldozers arrive to pave over every pristine prairie and family farm in their path. Here are seven possible routes:

1. The state legislature could rescind the law giving IDOT authority to enter into a public-private partnership, or otherwise step in and keep IDOT from spending the funds it’s budgeted for the project. IDOT’s idea of a “PPP” amounts to bribing private investors with a $250 million (minimum) up-front payment, plus additional money when toll revenues fall short. Another avenue the legislature has is preventing IDOT from spending its $250 million budget for acquiring land, relocating utilities, and other site-preparation work.

This seems rather unlikely, given the project’s avid proponents in the General Assembly. State Senator Toi Hutchinson (D-40) spoke at yesterday’s meeting, reminding the policy committee that she helped craft the enabling legislation in 2010. She added that this project “is important to us,” referring to her south suburban district.

2. A more likely route is through the environmental evaluation process, which is already well underway. IDOT released a Tier 2 environmental impact statement for the road on September 26, but it — and its predecessor — have critical flaws that the Environmental Law & Policy Center hopes could trip up the road. The EIS outlines for the Federal Highway Administration, and the public, how IDOT intends to mitigate the road’s impacts to people, wildlife, and air and water quality.

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Illiana Forced Into CMAP Regional Plan By Springfield, Suburban Reps

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The MPO Policy Committee listened to a panel of speakers testify this morning. Photo: Steven Vance

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s MPO Policy committee today approved the Illiana Tollway, among other projects, as part of GO TO 2040, which the agency calls “the comprehensive regional plan… for sustainable prosperity through mid-century and beyond.”

Committee members representing Chicago, Cook County, and McHenry County, which together are home to almost two-thirds of Chicago area residents, voted twice against adding the Illiana to the plan. However, they were overruled by representatives from other suburbs and from state agencies. The committee voted twice today: first on a motion to specifically exclude the Illiana from a larger package of GO TO 2040 updates, which failed 10-8 with one abstention, followed by a vote to adopt the update with the Illiana, which passed 12-6 with one abstention.

If the Illiana gets first dibs on state funding, as Governor Pat Quinn and IDOT intend, then those same suburbs will see at least $500 million robbed from the funds that pay for their own infrastructure projects.

Pace continued to stick it to its riders, with its representative supporting the Illiana in both votes. Metra’s representative abstained from voting on both motions, although its vote would not have swung either result. Metra frequently uses IDOT capital funds to purchase new equipment — but, next year, it intends to stick its riders with that bill, hiking fares by 11 to 19 percent.

Erica Borggren, the acting secretary at the Illinois Department of Transportation, began the meeting by introducing herself as an expert in being dropped into unfamiliar situations, like the debate over the tollway. She previously served in the military, but has no prior experience evaluating transportation improvements.
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