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Rauner’s Latest Weird Illiana Move: Pushing for Tax Breaks to Contractors

What is Bruce Rauner up to with contradictory movements on the wasteful Illiana Tollway?

Rauner has taken contradictory actions on the Illiana. Just what is he up to?

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has taken action to kill the wasteful, destructive Illiana Tollway, which his predecessor Pat Quinn championed. Lately, however, Rauner has made some odd steps that suggest he may be interested in keeping the project on life support.

In June, the governor ordered the Illinois Department of Transportation to remove the tollway from its multiyear plan, and said he would stop spending state funds on the project. But, earlier this month Rauner signed a bill authorizing $5.5 million in spending to “wind down” the project.

Recently, Rauner submitted a proposal to the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules that would give any Illiana contractors – should there be any – an exemption on paying sales taxes for materials they buy to build the tollway.

The Illiana is the epitome of a highway boondoggle. It would cost more to construct than it would ever collect in tolls, leaving Illinois taxpayers on the hook for $500 million in borrowing. It would also destroy valuable farmland and induce suburban sprawl. Quinn tried to steamroll the project forward in order to garner support from South Side and Southland politicians and residents for his failed reelection effort.

The governor’s spokesman Lance Trover insted that the tax break “is in no way an effort to revive a project that the Illinois Department of Transportation has pulled from its multiyear plan,” according to Crain’s. Terry Horstman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, couldn’t explain why Rauner recently submitted the bill, but he said the new legislation is required by the 2010 law that authorized building the Illiana.

If Rauner is serious about not building the Illiana then the sensible thing to do would be to rescind any legislation authorizing its construction. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules should also reject the tax break proposal.

The regional leaders at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning should also take action to ensure that the boondoggle doesn’t get back. Although Quinn bullied the CMAP board into putting the project on the organization’s high-priority projects list, the agency should demote it from the list.

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Recent Chicago Pedestrian and Bicycle Fatalities

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63rd Street near Ellis, where Dillan Harris was fatally struck. Image: Google Maps

Man Fleeing Police Fatally Strikes 13-Month-Old Boy in Stroller

Dillan Harris, a 13-month-old boy who was sitting in a stroller, was run over and killed by a driver who was being chased by police in the wake of a gunshot murder, prosecutors said.

On Saturday, July 11, at around 1:40 p.m., an off-duty police officer saw Antoine Watkins, 21, “calmly” walking away from the location where local rapper Marvin “Capo” Carr had just been murdered, at 77th and Kingston in South Shore, according to prosecutors. Watkins then entered a red Toyota Avalon and drove away.

The officer called 911 to report the license plate number, and then drove after Watkins for several blocks, according to prosecutors. Other police officers pursued Watkins and pulled him over near 65th and Richards. When the officers exited their vehicle and approached his car, Watkins sped off, reaching speeds of 60-70 mph on 63rd Street, which has a 30 mph speed limit. Officers in several vehicles pursued him.

At 63rd and Ellis in Woodlawn, Watkins lost control of his car, struck a light pole, and careened onto the sidewalk by a bus stop, where Harris was in a stroller, prosecutors said. Watkins fled the scene in his car, dragging the boy and the stroller under the vehicle.

The driver crashed the car in a nearby alley, where he was soon apprehended by police officers, prosecutors said. Harris was transported to University of Chicago Comer Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, according to the police.

Watkins, of the 8100 block of South Bennett in South Shore, was charged with the murder of Harris, fleeing police, and driving without a license or insurance. At a hearing on July 13, he was ordered held without bail.

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Homicide Charge Dropped in Cann Case; Driver Still May Get Stiff Sentence

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Bobby Cann. Photo: Groupon

At a hearing on Friday, a judge dismissed reckless homicide charges against Ryne San Hamel, the driver who fatally struck cyclist Bobby Cann while allegedly drunk and speeding. While this decision represents a setback in the case against San Hamel, he is still charged with aggravated DUI resulting in a death, which carries a potentially heavier sentence.

On the evening of May 29, 2013, Cann, 26, was biking from work when San Hamel, 28, struck and killed him at the intersection of Clybourn Avenue and Larabee Street in Old Town. According to police, San Hamel was driving 50 mph and had a blood-alcohol content of 0.127, well above the legal limit of 0.08. He had been arrested on alcohol-related charges while driving, including a DUI, on two previous occasions and received relatively light penalties, according to a Chicago Reader article.

After San Hamel struck Cann, in addition to the reckless homicide and aggravated DUI charges, he was charged with misdemeanor DUI, reckless driving, and failure to stay in the lane. Last fall, San Hamel retained defense lawyer Sam Adam Jr., whose previous clients include ex-governor Rod Blagojevich and R&B star R. Kelly.

Adam recently filed a number of motions, including the motion to dismiss the reckless homicide charge. He asserted that the charge was not specific enough for San Hamel’s team to adequately prepare his defense, according to Cann family attorney Kate Conway. While it might seem obvious that speeding while intoxicated is reckless, Adam argued that these actions weren’t sufficiently spelled out in the indictment.

Judge William Hooks agreed that the charge was too vague. However, he dismissed the charge “without prejudice,” which means that the Cook County State’s Attorney can potentially re-indict San Hamel with more specificity in the future, Conway said. “It’s certainly not an end to the case, it’s simply an end to one of the indictments.”

Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for the State’s Attorney’s office, did not say whether Assistant State’s Attorney Maria Augustus, who is prosecuting the case, plans to re-bring the reckless homicide charges. However, Simonton noted that the aggravated DUI charge is the more serious felony. “We’re still moving forward with the case,” she said.

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New Uptown Buildings Would Have 240 Units, Only 72 Parking Spots

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Rendering of the 975 W. Wilson Ave. proposal.

Cedar Street Cos., the company behind the FLATS Chicago developments, which typically involve converting single-room occupancy buildings to more upscale rental units, has proposed two new apartment buildings near the Wilson ‘L’ station in Uptown.

One of the buildings would be virtually across the street from the station, at 1050 W. Wilson Ave., and the other would be a block east, at 975 W. Wilson, on the southeast corner of Wilson and Sheridan Road, DNAinfo reports. The first building at 1050 would feature 102 residential units and the second would have 138 units. Both structures would be seven stories tall.

The city’s zoning code usually requires one car-parking space per unit for new construction, regardless if the developer says residents won’t use them. However, Cedar Street is proposing transit-oriented developments with much lower parking ratios. 1050 W. Wilson would include 21 spaces, for a roughly 1:5 ratio, and 975 W. Wilson would have 52 spots, one space for every 2.7 units.

Since these buildings are a stone’s throw from the Red Line, these are sensible ratios, but there’s likely to be some opposition from existing residents. When dense, parking-lite TOD developments are proposed, neighbors typically argue that it result will in a parking crunch. At the same time, they worry that there will be more traffic congestion, which is exactly what happens when developers provide too much parking, encouraging new residents to bring cars to the neighborhood.

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CDOT Says Controversial Jeff Park Street Closure Is About Reducing Crashes

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Arena blockaded CDOT’s cul-de-sac construction site on Monday morning. Photo: Kenji Kerins

Some Streetsblog Chicago commenters have argued that Steven Vance and myself are always in favor of limiting car access in the name of street safety, but that’s not the case. We’re still not sure whether a Chicago Department of Transportation street closure project in Jefferson Park was prompted by a speeding and crash problem, as CDOT claims, or if the main motivation was to make room for a digital billboard.

On Monday morning, 45th Ward Alderman John Arena used his car to blockade the intersection of Wilson Avenue and Lamon Avenue, where CDOT crews were tearing up the asphalt in preparation for building cul-de-sacs. Arena says the department did not notify him of the work before it started last weekend, and he’s opposed to the project because he feels its main purpose is to give public space to a private billboard company. The alderman’s stunt resulted in plenty of media coverage, and it was also effective in getting CDOT to the bargaining table – officials met with him that day to negotiate, and agreed to halt the project until a public meeting can be held.

Back in 2013, City Council voted to allow the advertising company J.C. Decaux to install a digital signs at this location by the Kennedy Expressway and many other spots near expressways across the city. Arena, a member of the council’s Progressive Caucus who often opposes Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiatives, voted against the deal.

The original proposal was to install the Wilson/Lamon sign on the front lawn of the adjacent Mayfair Pumping Station, but permanently closing the intersection will allow the 90-foot tall sign to be erected in the middle of Wilson. However, in a statement released on Monday before the meeting with Arena, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey said that the decision to build cul-de-sacs was in response to “a history of excessive speeding on Lamon and Wilson due to cut-through traffic.”:

“These improvements, while addressing traffic safety and improving conditions on the increasingly residential section of Lamon, also accommodate the placement of a digital sign which was approved by City Council in 2013,” Claffey stated. “These changes will address the speeding problem, eliminate crashes from cars that lose control at the curve from Lamon to Wilson, and reduce the number of trucks that strike the low-clearance viaduct on Wilson.”

After meeting with CDOT, Arena told DNAinfo that the department agreed to fill in the hole they dug and temporarily cover it to allow car access. In addition to holding a yet-to-be-scheduled community meeting about the project, CDOT promised to look into alternative locations for the sign and study the potential traffic impacts of the road closure, Arena said. “Special interests like the lobbyists behind the digital billboard industry in Chicago should not control the streets in our communities,” he added.

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Despite the Day Pass Hike, Divvy Is Already Making Money, Not Losing It

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The Divvy day pass hike will largely affect visitors, not locals. Photo: John Greenfield

In Friday’s Chicago Tribune article about the impending price hike for Divvy day passes, transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch implied that the extra revenue is needed because the bike-share system has been a money loser. In doing so, he ignored a statement he received from the Chicago Department of Transportation noting that, when you factor in sponsorship and ad money, Divvy is actually generating revenue for the city.

Starting this Wednesday, the price of a 24-hour pass will increase from $7 to $9.95. CDOT and Motivate, the Divvy concessionaire, expect this will generate an additional $800,000 per year. The cost of an annual membership will remain at $75, a steal when you consider that a year of monthly CTA passes costs $1,200.

The day pass price hike will largely affect visitors to Chicago, since about two-thirds of the passes are purchased by out-of-towners, according to CDOT. 86 percent of the system’s roughly 27,400 annual members live within the city limits. The $9.95 price for a 24-hour pass also puts Divvy on par with New York City’s Citi Bike, which is also run by Motivate, while an annual membership in NYC costs almost twice as much, at $149.

Hilkevitch spun the news to suggest the higher day pass rate is a fiscal austerity measure for a bike-share system that is hemorrhaging cash. “The daily fee to rent a Divvy bike will jump by more than 40 percent next week because of a deficit and escalating costs to run the expanding bicycle-sharing system,” he wrote. “Divvy has yet to steer clear of red ink.”

The reporter notes that the program’s stated goals include financial self-sufficiency, as well as generating surplus revenue that would help fund other bike infrastructure. He points out that the system, which launched in June of 2013, posted a $171,000 operating loss for the remainder of that year, and a $500,000 operating loss in 2014.

Hilkevitch’s piece is largely based on a statement provided by CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. She said the department is raising the day pass price “in order to maintain and build on Divvy’s success and maintain the high level of service that our users are accustomed to.”

Scheinfeld acknowledged that the original projections for how much revenue would come in from usage fees, and how much it would cost to run the system, were not 100-percent accurate. “Divvy was launched at a time when big cities were just beginning to launch bike share programs and many of the financial predictions we made were based on other industries, without having a direct precedent to look to in the bike share world.”

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Driver Who Killed Cyclist Hector Avalos May Plead Guilty Soon

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Hector Avalos. Photo via Facebook.

A key hearing in the criminal case against the driver who allegedly struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk will take place on August 20.

Robert Vais was charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges in the wake of the December 6th, 2013 crash. Vais has asked the judge for a “402 Conference,” a conference between his lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge, which could pave the way for the defendant to plead guilty. If the parties agree on a potential sentence for Vais, he will have the option of pleading guilty, so that the case does not go to trial. In such cases, it’s common for some leniency to be granted in exchange for the guilty plea.

It’s critical that there be a strong turnout at the hearing from supporters of the Avalos family, including members of the bike community, to let the judge know they want to see justice served. If Vais is guilty of taking a life while driving drunk, he must not be let off with a slap on the wrist.

On the night of the fatal crash, Avalos was biking back to the South Side from his job as a line cook at El Hefe restaurant in River North. Vais, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside in his minivan when he struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park. The victim was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:38 a.m.

Avalos was 28 years old at the time of his death. He loved to camp, fish, barbecue, and share his knowledge of outdoor skills with his many friends. After serving his country in the Marines, he began working in the restaurant industry with the goal of becoming a chef. Sadly, that dream will go unrealized because his life was tragically cut short.

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Active Trans Marks 30 Years With 5 Big Goals, New Sister Organization

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One of the five goals is to create biking/walking education programs in all IL elementary schools. Photo: Active Trans

Streetsblog Chicago is on vacation from July 13-17 and will resume publication of Today’s Headlines and daily articles on Monday, July 20. We’ll keep in touch this week via social media and occasional posts.

The scrappy little advocacy group that was founded in 1985 as the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation is now the Active Transportation Alliance, a venerable institution with a major influence on local transportation policy.

As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, Active Trans recently announced five major goals for promoting safe, efficient streets, and started a fundraising campaign to help pay for these initiatives. They also heralded the birth of a new sister nonprofit called Walk Bike Go, which will take over the organization’s paid consulting work.

“Our main theme this year is ‘We still have a long way to go,’” said Active Trans executive director Ron Burke. “With recent developments like protected bike lanes and the Divvy bike-share system, we’ve made progress to the point where rapid change is possible.”

The five objectives of the so-called 2020 TransFormation Campaign are all projects that the group has already been working on to some degree, but now they plan to shift their activities into a higher gear. The goals are:

  1. Region-wide low-stress bike network: A dense, connected network of low-stress bike routes across Chicago and the suburbs.
  2. Transit Future: Funding for the “Transit Future” plan to build multiple new rapid transit projects.
  3. Biking/walking education in elementary schools: All public elementary schools in the state begin teaching biking and walking safety and encouragement.
  4. Mobility education in high schools: High school driver’s education becoming “mobility education” with bike, walk and transit training in addition to driving.
  5. Vision Zero: The state, the city of Chicago and suburbs adopt and implement comprehensive Vision Zero plans that focus on eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

In order to pursue these objectives, Active Trans is launching a new fundraising drive, with the goal of raising an additional $250,000 per year for the next five years, in addition to its current annual operating budget of about $3 million. “We want to be able to expand and take on these projects, but we don’t really have the capacity right now,” Burke said. The additional revenue would mostly be used for new staff, including a full-time director of government relations, and new community organizers.

Political lobbying will be key for achieving most of the five objectives. Burke cited the example of mobility education. “The way we can win this particular goal is in Springfield, by getting legislation passed, or getting the state board of education to change their curriculum for driver’s ed or phys ed.

Right now, Active Trans and the Center for Neighborhood Technology are trying to persuade Cook County commissioners to create a dedicated funding stream for Transit Future in conjunction with a proposed sales tax hike to address the pension crisis.

The organization also announced that the new Walk Bike Go nonprofit will be taking over its fee-for-service work. I myself am a former Active Trans consultant – during my stint at the Chicago Department of Transportation bicycle program in the early 2000s, I was actually an employee of the nonprofit, which was paid by the city to provide bike program staff. A few Active Trans employees are currently stationed at CDOT.

The advocacy group is also helping to run the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Play Streets block party program. They’re also developing active transportation plans and complete streets policies in several low-income Cook County municipalities as part of a contract with the county’s health department. Active Trans has also done consulting work for many other suburbs over the years, helping to create pedestrian and bike plans, as well as mobility education programs.

There has long been a perception that Active Trans’ consulting work conflicts with its advocacy work, especially when it comes to the organization’s relationship with the city of Chicago. Many peer organizations, such as New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, don’t do consulting work for their city governments.

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CNT, Active Trans to County: If You’re Going to Raise Sales Tax, Fund Transit

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Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle and CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw/Photo: CNT

Streetsblog Chicago is on vacation from July 13-17 and will resume publication of Today’s Headlines and daily articles on Monday, July 20. We’ll keep in touch this week via social media and occasional posts. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from this week’s Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column, which appears in print in Newcity Magazine.  

Back in 2010, when Toni Preckwinkle was running against incumbent Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, she successfully used Stroger’s one-cent sales tax hike as a campaign issue, going as far as to make an ad with a Benjamin Franklin impersonator. “I used to teach my history students about Ben Franklin,” said Preckwinkle, a former high school teacher, in the spot. “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

After she was elected, Preckwinkle rolled back the sales tax to the current 9.25-percent rate. As president, she’s generally been credited with improving the efficiency of the county government and cutting costs, avoiding the allegations of patronage and incompetence that hounded Stroger.

However, to address pension obligations, Preckwinkle is now calling for a return to the higher county sales tax. In response, a Crain’s magazine cartoonist recently portrayed her as a mad scientist crying, “It’s alive!” as the 10.25-percent tax rises from the operating table like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a saying in politics, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Accordingly, The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance are using this moment when the Cook County commissioners may vote for a tax hike to promote their Transit Future funding campaign. They’re asking the commissioners to simultaneously create a dedicated revenue stream for public transportation infrastructure in the county. CNT vice president of policy Jacky Grimshaw explained the reasoning behind this new push.

John Greenfield: Why is Preckwinkle talking about raising the sales tax? That seems like political Kryptonite, considering that Stroger lost the election to her over that issue.

Jacky Grimshaw: Well, she has spent about four-and-a-half years cleaning up county government, creating opportunities to be more efficient, eliminating positions that were not crucial to the operations of government and bringing the budget within the means of the county. At this point in time, it’s become crucial that there’s action taken to fund the pensions. As she said, it’s costing about $30 million a month the longer there is a delay in putting in new provisions for pension reform.

Greenfield: So Active Trans and CNT support this tax hike?

Grimshaw: Yes. The reason why we support the tax is because, when we talked to the president about backing Transit Future, she said she was supportive but had to take care of pensions before she could deal with any kind of transit expansion. So her taking action to deal with the pensions is the first step toward us getting the support we want for public transportation.

Read the rest of the interview on the Newcity website.

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Rauner Authorizes More Illiana Spending to “Wind Down” Project

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Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the Illiana “gravy train” needs to end. Photo: ELPC

Governor Bruce Rauner signed a bill last week that authorizes spending $5.5 million more on the Illiana Tollway, a month after he announced he was suspending the project.

The Illiana would have been a new highway a couple miles south of the existing Chicago metropolitan region that would have encouraged suburban sprawl. Tolls would have been high enough that the road would have likely seen little use, but taxpayers would have been on the hook for covering revenue shortfalls as part of a public-private partnership. Ex-governor Pat Quinn, who was fighting for his political life at the time, pushed hard for the Illiana, hoping that support from Southland legislators and voters would help him win reelection.

Crain’s Chicago columinst Greg Hinz reported that the $5.5 million is for to pay consultants to “wind down” contracts and for covering litigation fees. A Rauner aide told Hinz that the fact that Rauner has authorized the expenditure doesn’t necessarily mean the Illinois Department of Transportation will spend the money.

While this development doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a backroom conspiracy to keep the Illiana on life-support, some of the text in the measure is a bit fishy. The bill says that the money is going to IDOT to “enable the Illiana Expressway to be developed, financed, constructed, managed, or operated in an entrepreneurial and business-like manner.”

Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which has sued IDOT twice over the Illiana, told Hinz that Rauner is not keeping his June 2 promise to “[suspend] all existing project contracts and procurements” related to the project. “It’s time to bring the wasteful Illiana tollway gravy train for consultants to an end,” Learner said. “These public funds should instead be used to meet our state’s high-priority needs.”

The most recent stake in the heart of the tollway was when a district court ruling invalidated the project’s federally required Environmental Impact Statement. The judge noted that IDOT’s justification for the highway was based on circular logic. The department argued that more road capacity is needed because new residents will be moving to the area. However, IDOT’s projection was based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, which would have encouraged development sprawl. However, IDOT could potentially rewrite the EIS to pass muster.

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