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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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North LaSalle Street Is a Deathtrap for Pedestrians. How Can We Fix It?

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LaSalle and Chicago, where Phillip Levato Jr. was fatally struck. Photo: John Greenfield

[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.]

Days after a man was fatally struck by a hit-and-run SUV driver in River North, there were still chunks of road salt on the west side of LaSalle Street just north of Chicago Avenue. According to a security guard at a nearby building, city workers hosed the victim’s blood off the street after the crash and spread the salt to keep the pavement from icing over in the freezing weather.

According to police, 23-year-old Phillip “Philly” Lovato Jr. was in a crosswalk at the intersection at about 4 AM on Sunday, November 20, when he was run over by the southbound driver of a white 2016 Jeep Compass with the Indiana license plate number BU3440. The driver continued south without stopping to render aid.

Levato, of the 1300 block of West 32nd Place in Bridgeport, was transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead at 4:35 AM, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Then, on Wednesday, November 23, 26-year-old Kyle Hawkins of the 2600 block of South 13th Avenue in Broadview turned himself in to Chicago police, the department says. Hawkins was charged with a felony for failing to report an accident resulting in a death.

Levato was at least the fourth pedestrian fatally struck within the last four years on this six-block stretch of LaSalle between Chicago, at 800 North, and Schiller, at 1400 North, making it one of the deadliest sections of roadway in the city. It appears that the layout of LaSalle, a broad, five-lane road that essentially functions as an extension of Lake Shore Drive, was a contributing factor in these tragedies.

On Sunday, March 24, 2012, around 2:30 AM, 32-year-old Northwestern University law student Jesse Bradley was crossing LaSalle westbound on Division when he was struck and killed by Bianca Garcia, 21 at the time, who was speeding south, according to police. Garcia, who was found to have twice the legal blood alcohol limit and a cocktail of hard drugs in her system, fled the scene but was soon arrested. She was eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison.

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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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Cops Serve and Protect by Ticketing Cyclists for Totally Harmless Behavior

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One of the cyclists receives a ticket. Photo: Alisa Hauser, DNAinfo.

Chicago’s police resources are spread thin. On top our city’s gun violence crisis, an average of 110 people are killed by reckless drivers each year, and thousands more are injured. This problem should be addressed with crackdowns on the most dangerous behavior by motorists, such as speeding, red light running, DUIs, and distracted driving.

But apparently some officers have enough time on their hands to ticket bicyclists for crossing the street after a leading pedestrian interval walk signal comes on, but before they get a green light. While this move is technically illegal, it doesn’t present a safety hazard for anyone, so writing tickets for it is a complete waste of resources.

That’s what happened yesterday in Wicker Park during the morning rush, according to DNAinfo. At about 8:15 a.m. two men who were biking downtown on Milwaukee stopped at a red light next to a squad car at the six-way North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection. After pedestrians were given a walk signal, but before the cyclists’ light turned green, the bike riders crossed the west leg of the intersection and waited for the next light change by a Starbucks, presumably while hanging onto the adjacent guardrail.

It’s a very common move for bike commuters on the Milwaukee Avenue “Hipster Highway,” the city’s busiest biking street, and one that doesn’t endanger pedestrians, drivers, or the cyclists themselves. If it’s safe for people on foot to cross with the early walk signal, there’s also no risk that bike riders will be struck by drivers while making the same maneuver. And since the cyclists are traveling parallel to people on foot, they aren’t going to run into them.

As I’ve often said, cyclists who mindlessly blow red lights without regard to cross traffic are a danger to themselves and others and deserve to be ticketed. However, unlike for people who are driving multi-ton vehicles with blind spots, which can easily kill other road users, it’s not dangerous for bike riders to treat stop lights like stop signs, and stop signs like yield signs, proceeding through the intersection after making sure it’s safe to do so.

In fact, the state of Idaho has officially endorsed the latter move by legalizing the “Idaho stop.” And when cyclists cross an intersection with a leading pedestrian interval walk signal, it’s that much safer because there’s no cross traffic.

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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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After Referendum Calling for More Affordability, Activists Blockade TOD Site

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Activists at last Saturday’s protest. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Last Saturday work ceased at one of Logan Square’s newest construction sites for a high-end transit-oriented development. Representatives from the anti-displacement groups Somos Logan Square, the Autonomous Tenants Union, and Grassroots Illinois Action blocked access points to the site at 2501 West Armitage Avenue. (Disclosure: I am a member of GIA.)

At this location, a former vacant lot located a short walk from the O’Hare Branch’s Western station and an entrance to the Bloomingdale Trail, Spearhead Properties is building a 78-unit building with relatively few car parking spaces. Rents are expected to start at $1,300 for a studio. The activist were there to protest this project, as well as larger phenomenon of upscale TOD construction along the Blue Line corridor, especially in the First Ward, where alderman Joe Moreno has supported this type of housing. They say the TOD trend is accelerating the pace of poor and working-class people being displaced from the neighborhood.

Protesters picketed the site while chanting slogans like, “Hey Moreno! What will it be? Luxury or family?” and “¿Que queremos? ¡Viviendas económicas!” (“What do we want? Affordable housing!”). Others took more extreme measures. Two activists locked themselves to cement barrels in the front and back of a construction crane, while four more were locked down in front of one of the site entrances. The demonstration and blockade continued for about four hours, with no arrests made.

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Maria Calvilla, 58, locked to a cement barrel behind a crane. Photo: Lynda Lopez

The current wave of upscale TODs on and near Milwaukee Avenue was spurred by a recently passed city ordinance which waives the usual off-streets parking requirements and allows additional density for projects near train stations. This transit-friendly, parking-lite housing makes it easy for tenants to live without owning a car. Groups like the Metropolitan Planning Council have also argued that building new market-rate housing in gentrifying neighborhoods takes pressure off the existing rental market and helps prevent tear-downs — multi-unit buildings being replaced by luxury single-family homes.

However, the activists say the pricey new apartments are contributing to higher property values, property taxes, and rents in the area, which are forcing out many longtime residents, especially Latinos. In May DNAinfo reported that between 2000 and 2014, the number of Latino residents in Logan Square dropped by about 19,200, a 35.6 percent decrease.

“We are tired of our community being taken from us,” said Alma Zamudio, a member of Somos Logan Square. “We have tried everything. We collected signatures against the Twin Towers [a controversial high-end TOD near the California Blue Line stop.] We have had people go to community meetings. [Moreno and the developers] aren’t willing to negotiate with us.” Zamudio said that blockading TOD construction sites is a way to draw attention to what they see as a displacement crisis in the midst of the Logan Square development boom.

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After Noah Katz’ Death, Ald. Sposato Prioritizes Moving Cars Over Saving Lives

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Noah Katz

It’s bad enough that it took the death of a small child at a Northwest Side intersection to spur the city into moving forward with prior plans to improve safety at that location. But it’s downright shameful that 38th Ward Alderman Nick Sposato is still pushing back against the project on the grounds that it will inconvenience drivers.

At about 4:10 p.m. on Sunday, November 13, Noah Katz, 2, and his mother Rachel, 39, were crossing east in the crosswalk on the south leg of the southernmost intersection of Giddings Street and Central Avenue in the Portage Park community area, 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 minor injuries. 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 local alderman John Arena’s office, in mid-2015 45th Ward residents voted via the participatory budget process to use the district’s discretionary “menu money” to install curb bump-outs at several locations, including the crash site. Spurred by Noah’s death, Arena and the Chicago Department of Transportation are working to get the curb extensions, which will shorten pedestrian crossing distances and help calm traffic, installed at Giddings/Central as soon as possible.

To install bump-outs at the crash site, first rush hour parking restrictions need to be removed on this stretch of Central. The parking restrictions are currently in place northbound from 7-9 am and southbound from 4-6 p.m., with the theory being that clearing the parking lanes facilitates traffic heading to and from the Kennedy Expressway.

The restrictions on Central also exist south of Arena’s district in the 38th Ward, which has previously expressed resistance to lifting the rush hour parking ban, Arena’s chief of staff Own Brugh told me last week. Therefore, Arena planned to negotiate with Aderman Sposato to only have the restrictions lifted in the 45th Ward on Central south of Lawrence.

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