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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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Eyes on the Street: Clybourn Curb-Protected Bike Lanes Are Halfway Done

Construction of the Clybourn Avenue curb-separated bike lane

The northbound bike lane runs past the memorial to fallen cyclist Bobby Cann. Photo: Steven Vance. More photos.

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

Note: Keating Law Offices, P.C. has generously agreed to sponsor two Streetsblog Chicago posts about bicycle safety topics per month. The firm’s support will help make Streetsblog Chicago a sustainable project. Keating Law Offices is not involved in the Bobby Cann case.

Just over a month ago, the Illinois Department of Transportation started constructing curb-protected bike lanes in Old Town, on Clybourn Avenue between Halsted Street and Division Street, and on eastbound Division between Clybourn and Orleans Street. They’ve already made significant progress on the northbound section of Clybourn.

In most sections, the curbside bike lanes will be protected from motorized traffic by a three-foot wide curb plus a lane of parallel-parked cars. Even though the project is far from complete, cyclists are already taking advantage of the safer bikeway by riding in it.

Construction of the Clybourn Avenue curb-separated bike lane

A bus stop island is being constructed to the left of the bike lane on eastbound Division. Photo: Steven Vance

It’s notable that the IDOT is spearheading this project, with assistance from the Chicago Department of Transportation, because IDOT has blocked CDOT from installing protected bike lanes on state-jurisdiction roads within the city since 2011. That changed after cyclist Bobby Cann was struck and killed by an allegedly drunk, speeding driver at Clybourn and Larrabee Street in May of 2012. We’ll have an update on the criminal case against the driver, Ryne San Hamel, later today.

While the state hasn’t fully lifted their ban on PBLs, in response to the Cann tragedy, they agreed to “pilot” the new bikeway. This will be only the second location with curb-protected lanes in the city – CDOT installed a similar facility on Sacramento Boulevard in Douglas Park in May of this year.

Crews are also currently working on the curb-protected bike lane on eastbound Division. This section includes a bus stop island – CTA riders cross the bike lane to access the bus stop. It appears that this is Chicago’s first bus stop island, but CDOT is also building a handful of island bus stops adjacent to a protected bike lane on Washington Street as part of the Loop Link bus rapid transit project in the city center.

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More Deets on the Divvy Funding Situation

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While Divvy has previously used CMAQ money to cover operations shortfalls, they probably won’t need to in the future. Photo: John Greenfield

In an article last Friday, the Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch implied that the new price hike for Divvy day passes is a desperate measure the city is taking because the bike-share system is bleeding cash, when that’s not the case at all. “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.”

Hilkevitch noted that 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. However, he chose not to include info that Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld sent him in a statement:

The overall system revenue, including the Blue Cross Blue Shield sponsorship [$12.5 million over five years] and advertising on kiosks, brings in income to Divvy and the city’s bike programs. Overall Divvy is not losing money.  CDOT is investing the revenue from Divvy in bike infrastructure improvements such as bike lanes, bicycle safety education and other programs that benefit the entire city of Chicago, not just Divvy users.

Divvy gets guaranteed advertising revenue from the docking station placards via its outside ad vendor Outfront, formerly Van Wagner, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey told me yesterday. The minimum amount of revenue for the city was $31,250 per month back when the system had 300 stations. Now that Divvy has expanded to 476 stations, the guarantee has risen to about $45,000 per month.

Around the time the bike-share program launched, Hilkevitch and the Tribune published a series of articles disparaging it. However, a few months later, the reporter ran a column that basically admitted he was wrong to suggest no one would use the wildly popular system. Last Monday, I responded to Hilkevitch’s latest Debbie Downer Divvy article with a Streetsblog post.

On Wednesday, the first day of the price hike, the Trib ran another piece by Meredith Rodriguez featuring quotes from bike-share users. Most of them had no problem with the price of 24-hour passes rising from $7 to $9.95. Once again, the article contained Hilkevitch’s misleading statement that the program “has yet to steer clear of red ink.” When I called him out on Twitter for repeating the same claim twice, he had an interesting response. Read more…

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What’s Rush Hour Traffic Really Like at the Lincoln Hub?

There have been have been plenty of complaints in the media that the Lincoln Hub placemaking project is causing a traffic nightmare at Lincoln, Wellington, and Southport in Lakeview. The intiative was spearheaded by the local chamber of commerce in order to create safer conditions for all road users and encourage people to linger and spend money at the six-way intersection.

The project uses flexible posts and brightly colored paint dots on the sidewalks and streets to create curb extensions, eliminating several dangerous channelized right turn lanes, aka slip lanes. The curb extensions double as seating plazas, with café tables, round concrete seating units, and colorful planters, which provide additional protection from cars.

Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin recently criticized the street redesign, arguing that replacing the slip lanes with pedestrian space has created a headache for drivers:

By gobbling up space once occupied by right-hand turn lanes along the curbs, the project forces drivers to make looping turns through the center of the intersection. Frustrated motorists honk their horns, an ironic outcome for a project devoted to “traffic calming.”

Local resident Luis Monje launched an online petition to “redesign/rethink/rescind” the Lincoln Hub, which has garnered over 580 signatures. He delivered a printout of the signatures to local alderman Scott Waguespack on July 15. “We have noticed a MARKED increase in the amount of traffic congestion on our block as cars/trucks/service vehicles struggle with the sharp turns that have been made much tighter due to this ‘improvement,’” Monje wrote in the petition.

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MPC’s “Grow Chicago” Campaign Calls for Beefing Up the TOD Ordinance

SBC readers learned about the 1611 W. Division building, which has no parking for residents, on our TOD bike tour last spring. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Planning Council launched “Grow Chicago,” a new policy change initiative to unleash growth in the city by leveraging our public transportation assets and promoting transit-oriented development.

The push includes a report penned by MPC and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy recommending broader zoning and financial incentives to attract more development near rapid transit stations. The Grow Chicago website also features an interactive TOD calculator that will help quantify the potential benefits of proposed developments.

MPC executive vice present Peter Skosey, project manager Yonah Freemark, and communications director Mandy Burrell Booth discussed the new campaign. “We’re at a point in time in this country where people are gravitating towards cities with good transit systems,” said Skosey. “Chicago needs to capture that growth and ride that trend.” He noted that the populations of other cities with mature transit systems are growing at a much higher rate. Minneapolis, with even harsher winters than Chicago’s, is growing five times as fast.

“We need to build on this asset we have and make it possible for more people to avail themselves of the benefits of public transit,” Skosey said. He pointed out that while Chicago has recently seen growth downtown and in parts of the Southwest Side, “hot” transit-friendly neighborhoods like Lincoln Square and North Center have actually been losing population. This can partly be attributed to deconversion (reducing the number of units in buildings), smaller households, and high demand for housing, which leads to higher prices and rent.

While Grow Chicago seeks to create more housing in high-demand areas, it also aims to ensure that development near transit benefits Chicagoans of all income levels, according to Burrell Booth. “We’re advocating for including affordability in strong housing markets, and also using TOD to bring amenities to underserved neighborhoods.”

The website summarizes the different proposed initiatives. While the city’s 2013 transit-oriented development ordinance has been wildly successful in encouraging new projects, with over 20 buildings proposed and six currently under construction, the MPC/ITDP report calls for expanding it. The law currently reduces the minimum parking requirements and allows additional density for new and renovated buildings located within 600 feet or a rapid transit stop, 1,200 feet on designated Pedestrian Streets.

The report recommends providing these incentives for all new construction within at least 1,200 feet of stations, possibly further away, and doing away with minimum parking requirements within these zones altogether. It also calls for streamlining the approval process for TOD projects.

“We’re not calling for completely eliminating parking at these buildings,” Skosey said. “But let’s let the developer and the community make that decision on the right amount based on actual market demand, which the TOD calculator will help predict, rather than having the zoning ordinance dictate it. Excess parking spaces are $20,000 a pop, and that translates to higher sale prices and rents.”

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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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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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MPC’s Skosey Wants to Help Spur Economic Growth as a CMAP Board Member

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Peter Skosey

I’m glad to share the news that Peter Skosey, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council and a key player in the local transportation advocacy scene, has joined the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Earlier this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him earlier this week to replace outgoing CMAP board member Raul Raymondo. Skosey has served the planning council’s transportation committee since its inception, but as he wrote in a recent blog post, sitting on the board will be a whole new ball of wax.

Skosey told me he’s jazzed to take on this important role in helping to guide the future of regional development. “I am a planner, with a planning degree,” he said. “CMAP is the largest regional planning body in Illinois. Where else can I go and be a part of discussions that affect the entire region? CMAP is it. I’m really excited to take my work at MPC, bring it to CMAP, and do my best to improve planning in the region.”

The most notorious failure of the regional planning process was when CMAP’s Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee, under pressure from then-governor Pat Quinn, voted to classify the Illiana Tollway boondoggle as a high-priority project. This was despite the fact that the CMAP board had voted against the sprawl-inducing exurban highway, because the project was at odds CMAP’s GO TO 2040 Plan, which calls for focusing new development in the existing metro area.

“I do think one of the issues that the board and the policy committee need to work out is how to avoid such a schism in the future,” Skosey said. “It’s not good for the organization, and it’s not good for the region.”

Fortunately, the Illiana is largely dead in the water because current governor Bruce Rauner’s recently froze the project, citing budget constraints, and because of a recent lawsuit ruling that nullified federal approval of the Environmental Impact Statement for the project. Perhaps one of Skosey’s first orders of business as a board member should be to make a motion to demote the tollway from CMAP’s primary projects list, so that the Illinois Department of Transportation no longer has the authority to build it. This would also need to be approved by the policy committee.

Skosey told me this is a particularly exciting time to join the board because CMAP will be working on creating the next regional plan as a follow-up to GO TO 2040, which was published in 2010. “This is an opportunity to address some of the issues with the plan and determine what we can do better,” he said.

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