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Indiana Will Fund Rewriting Faulty Illiana Environmental Impact Statement

Photo of the then-recently opened I-355, 127th St overpass

The Illiana’s high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

The Illiana Tollway, a proposed highway boondoggle that would run through land south of the Chicago metro area, is the project that just won’t die. The tollway would be a joint project of the Illinois and Indiana transportation departments and cost Illinois taxpayers a minimum of $500 million. That’s $500 million that might otherwise be spent on necessary and financially viable projects like rebuilding the North Red Line, constructing the Ashland bus rapid transit route, and building Pace’s transitways.

Greg Hinz recently eported in Crain’s that it appears the two states have reached an agreement that Indiana will spend money to rewrite the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, which a federal judge ruled invalid last June. This federally-required document was supposed to explain why the tollway is needed, and how all impacts – to people and their property, flora and fauna – would be mitigated. Since the Illinois still hasn’t passed a state budget, it’s unable to pay for updating the EIS. We don’t know how much Indiana would spend on this.

Last year, the Environmental Law & Policy Center represented Openlands and the Midewin Heritage Association in a lawsuit against the Illiana and won by pointing out that the original EIS used circular logic. The document argued the tollway was needed in order to provide transportation access new residential and industrial development. However, its projections were based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, and would therefore induce new development in an area of farmland and nature preserves.

There are many reasons why building the Illiana would be a bad idea. For starters, most American roads don’t even pay for their own maintenance, let alone construction. Illinois’ transportation infrastructure network already has a $43 million maintenance backlog.

Additionally, construction of the tollway would be funded through an extremely dubious public-private partnership scheme, requiring the state to compensate the concessionaire if the highway doesn’t generate a certain amount of profits. Since the plan calls for high tolls, many motorists were predicted to use alternative routes, so the Illiana would see relatively little traffic and not be a money-maker, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the revenue shortfall.

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CNT’s “AllTransit” Tool Can Help Legislators Understand Transit Needs

Highballing Kedzie

Metra stops only a few times each day at the Kedzie station in East Garfield Park (near Inspiration Kitchens), but AllTransit considers transit frequency when calculating a place’s transit quality. Photo: Jonathan Lee

A new tool shows just how much advantage residents in some Illinois cities might have over others accessing jobs with low-cost transit, and just how much difference state legislators could make if they chose to fund more transit. AllTransit, an analysis tool from the Center for Neighborhood Technology and TransitCenter (a Streetsblog Chicago funder), shows information about access to transit that residents and job seekers have in any part of the United States, using data about transit service, demographic information, and job locations.

CNT project manager Linda Young told me those Springfield legislators can use the tool to understand the quality of transit their constituents have access to. They can also compare their districts to those of their fellow elected officials. For example, Illinois state representative Mike Quigley would see that AllTransit gives his 5th district the highest score in Illinois, and, unexpectedly, the 22nd district, covering East St. Louis, Illinois, and parts south, represented by Mike Bost, is second. The 9th district covering northern Chicago, Evanston, and parts of northwest Cook County, and represented by Jan Schakowsky, comes in third.

While aldermen may also find it useful to see the plethora or lack of transit options their constituents have, the info isn’t broken down by Chicago wards. However, it is possible to search by ZIP code.

Young added that elected officials might also be interested to see how many jobs people who live in designated affordable housing can they get to within 30 minutes. “We see more and more that people are wanting to live in areas where there’s mixed uses and transit access,” she said.

Business owners can also benefit from AllTransit info since it can them how many people can access their business within a certain amount of time. If you look at the Inspiration Kitchens restaurant in East Garfield Park at 3504 West Lake, AllTransit reports that there are 438,632 “customer households” within a 30-minute transit commute.

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MPC: Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax Makes Sense, Won’t Happen for a While

electric car charging point

Cullerton: This guy is partly to blame for falling gas tax revenue. Photo: Frank Hebbert

Earlier this month the Metropolitan Planning Council released a report that found Illinois needs to raise $43 billion in revenue over the next decade to get our roads, bridges, and transit lines in a state of good repair. They called for raising the state gas tax, which has stayed flat at 19 cents since 1991, as well as raising vehicle registration fees. That idea got a mixed reception from state politicians, some of whom viewed a gas tax hike as political Kryptonite.

Interestingly, Senate President John Cullerton came out with his own infrastructure funding plan this week. He proposed implementing a vehicle miles traveled tax as a way to deal with falling gas tax revenue due to the growing popularity of more fuel-efficient hybrid and electric cars. Cullerton noted that even so-called “green” cars inflict wear-and-tear on Illinois roads, so It’s necessary to develop a more effective way to tax them.

“If all the cars were electric, there would be no money for the roads,” Cullerton told the Daily Herald. “The Prius owners are the reason we need the bill,” he said.

There are a several ways the VMT tax could potentially be collected, ranging laughably simple to high-tech. The first would be have drivers simply agree to pay the 1.5-cent per year based on the assumption that they’ll drive $30,000 miles a year, for an annual total of $450. Of course, that would be a great deal for Illinoisans who drive much more than that each year, and a terrible for those who drive much less.

A second option would be to have citizens self-report their mileage on a paper form. What could go wrong?

A third alternative would be an electronic device that would hook up to your vehicle’s odometer to provide an accurate count of how many miles you drive. However it might not know when you’ve left the state or are driving on a private road and therefore arguably shouldn’t be taxed by the state for those miles.

The most high-tech solution would be a GPS-powered gadget that can accurately keep track of exactly how many miles, on what roads, you’ve driven. Of course, there’d be privacy issues. What guaranteed would there be that a technician wouldn’t blackmail you after they observed you driving to a hideaway with your secret paramour? But that’s merely a hypothetical at this point.

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MPC: We Can Solve IL Infrastructure Woes via Higher Gas Tax, Vehicle Fees

east from Ashland

Looking east along the Green Line from Ashland. According to the RTA, about a third of the Chicago region’s transit network is not in a good state of repair. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

A new report by the Metropolitan Planning Council finds that Illinois needs to invest $43 billion over the next decade to get its roads, bridges, and transit lines in a state of good repair. This is a daunting number, especially for a state that has gone over nine months without a budget plan. However, the nonprofit argues that this goal is achievable if leaders recognize the importance of facing the problem head-on by creating a new funding stream, rather than dealing with the costly consequences of continuing to neglect our transportation network.

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Chart: MPC

“The $43 billion needed to rebuild and improve our transportation infrastructure is less than what we’re wasting today on vehicle repairs due to poor road conditions, time lost to traffic congestion, and population and jobs going to neighboring states,” said MPC senior fellow Jim Reilly in a statement. “To reverse these costly trends, we need a significant, reliable state revenue source dedicated to infrastructure investment.”

The new study notes that Illinois’ fixed, per-gallon gas tax was last raised in 1991. During the quarter of a century that followed, the purchasing power of the tax has dropped by over 40 percent. The average Illinois resident’s contribution to the gas tax fund has declined from the equivalent of $160 to less than $100 (in 2013 dollars). As a result, the state is spending 40 percent less money on transportation infrastructure than it did 25 years ago.

The report finds that, as a result of Illinois’ lack of investment in rebuilding infrastructure, one out of five roads in the state is in a state of disrepair. The group says twice as many roads will be in poor condition by 2021 if we continue this trend.

Similarly, the Regional Transportation Authority says that only about two-thirds of Chicagoland’s transit network is in a state of good repair. That will drop to less than half of the network by 2030 if we don’t take action.

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CDOT Plans a (Conservative) Safety Overhaul of Belmont, Ashland and Lincoln

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The vast, crooked intersection is dangerous for all road users. Image: Google Street View

The six-way intersection of Belmont, Ashland, and Lincoln in Lakeview is one of the most confusing and scariest intersections on the North Side, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The north and south legs of Lincoln don’t line up properly. The six-way junction is a massive expanse of asphalt, roughly 150 feet across at its widest point, creating a long exposure time for cyclists on the diagonal street, a recommended bike route. Pedestrians are forced to make as many as three street crossings to get where they need to go, using long, skewed crosswalks.

Not surprisingly, the intersection has a high crash rate. According to Steven Vance’s Chicago Crash Browser, based on state collision statistics, from 2009 to 2013 there were 185 total crashes at the intersection, including 12 in which bicyclists were injured, and five in which pedestrians were injured. The junction is sure to become even more chaotic in early 2017 when a new Whole Foods opens at the northeast corner with a whopping 300-plus car parking spaces.

In an effort to increase safety for all road users, enhance walkability and reduce the “barrier effect” of the intersection, The Chicago Department of Transportation will be making some safety improvements. It’s part of a larger streetscape project that also includes making the Lincoln Hub placemaking pilot, located two blocks southeast at Wellington/Southport/Lincoln, a permanent – though scaled-back – feature of Lakeview.

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The northern seating plaza of the Lincoln Hub. Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT will be holding a public hearing to discuss their plan next Tuesday, March 29, from 6-7:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Church, 1500 West Belmont. Last Tuesday the department held a private meeting to outline the project with local aldermen Scott Waguespack, Tom Tunney, and Ameya Pawar, plus the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce and other neighborhood organizations.

Waguespack’s chief of Staff Paul Sajovec filled me in what was discussed at the recent meeting. CDOT considered making some fairly bold changes to Belmont/Ashland/Lincoln, including closing off Lincoln Avenue entirely in one direction or the other, Sajovec said. However, they ultimately decided to go with options that involve the least amount of changes to motor vehicle throughput, according to Sajovec.

It’s tempting to fault CDOT for prioritizing traffic flow over improvements that would maximize safety and walkability here. However, the changes to the intersection will require approval from the more conservative Illinois Department of Transportation. In addition, all three streets are bus routes (or will be, once the CTA’s #11 Lincoln route re-launches this year), so unless the redesign includes dedicated bus lanes, reducing throughput would slow down transit trips.

Moreover, from what Sajovec told me, some positive changes are planned. Curb extensions will be added to some of the six corners, shortening crossing distances for pedestrians. In addition, these will help reduce the kink in Lincoln.

Left turns from that diagonal street will be banned in both directions. That will allow bike lanes to be striped on Lincoln through the intersection, which will make pedaling across the vast expanse a little less nerve-wracking.

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Party Time, Excellent! Aurora, Illinois, Now Has a Curb-Protected Bike Lane

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The River Street curb-protected bike lane. Photo: Lindsay Bayley

No, I haven’t been binge watching “Wayne’s World.” I’ve had Aurora, Illinois, on the brain lately because the western suburb has been doing some babelicious street makeovers.

Last week we looked the totally awesome Downer Place streetscape project, included corner bump-outs to shorten pedestrian crossing distances, storm water-absorbing rain gardens, brick crosswalks, and attractive plantings.

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The bike lane fills in a gap in the Fox River Trail. Image: Google Maps

Now let’s check out the City of Lights’ most excellent River Street curb-protected bike lane, which opened last December, according to the website Downtown Aurora. This “8 to 80” facility is located on the east side of the roadway, filling in a half-mile gap in the popular Fox River Trail. The bi-directional bikeway is ten feet wide.

The lane was put in as part of the reconfiguration of River Street from a wide, three-lane, one-way street to a two-lane, two-way street. Back-in, diagonal parking is being added on the block between Cross and Benton Streets. All of these changes should help calm traffic and prevent crashes, and pedestrians now have fewer car lanes to cross, so the project is a win for all road users.

Formerly River Street and Lake Street, one block west, formed a couplet, with River serving as the northbound street and Lake functioning as the southbound route. The city is planning on converting both streets to two-way traffic on the entire 1.1-mile street between New York and Gale Streets.

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Metra To Study Changes to Make its Fare Structure More “Creative”

tickets, tickets.

Metra wants a consultant to study how it might changes its fare structure. Photo: Jessica Davidson

Metra, the regional commuter train operator, is seeking a consultant to develop “creative recommendations” on how to change its fare structure. The consultant would be in charge of finding the pros and cons of the current fare structure, comparing it to Metra’s commuter rail peers around the country, and building a model that allows Metra to test how different fare policies would affect ridership and revenue. The Request for Proposals is due at the end of the month.

There are some drawbacks to Metra’s current fare policy. Trips that have a nearly equivalent route via the Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ and bus cost over $1 more, which in some cases means people are opting to take a slower but cheaper trip via CTA. There’s also no transfer discount except for those who buy $55 Link-Up passes to be used on CTA in combination with a monthly Metra pass during rush hours only.

Recently Metra raised the fares for trips within and between Zones A and B at a higher percentage than other zones, partly because of the need to stick to $0.25 increments. A coalition of South Side community organizations has asked transit agencies and legislators to study transfer discounts, and integrating fares with CTA and Pace because they say the Metra Electric line is hampered by a fare structure more appropriate for suburban lines. The Kenwood, Hyde Park, South Shore, and South Chicago neighborhoods are entirely within Zones A and B.

Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis said the RFP offers room for a unique fare policy, and that any recommended changes would “reflect our efforts to modernize operations and increase ridership. We want to see creative and innovative fare structure scenarios that can bring some excitement to our product.”

Changing the fares, or allowing new kinds of fares – like transfer discounts – could have positive ramifications for the nine million people who live in the region. People would have new transit travel options if transferring between a Metra train and a CTA or Pace bus didn’t require two full fares.

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Experts and Advocates Weigh in on Rauner’s Proposal to Widen the Stevenson

Sunday morning Stevenson

The Stevenson, just west of the Dan Ryan. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

On Thursday, Governor Bruce Rauner announced a new proposal to address congestion on the Stevenson Expressway, aka I-55, by adding lanes. The construction would be financed via a public-private partnership, and the new lanes would be tolled. Revenue would go to the concessionaire, allowing them to recoup their investment.

The so-called “managed lanes” would be an option for drivers who are willing to pay a premium to bypass traffic, while the existing lanes would not be tolled. Some local transportation experts and advocates lauded the plan as a creative way to address congestion woes. But others argued that our region’s focus should be on providing better alternatives to single-occupant vehicle commutes, rather than simply building more capacity for them.

The proposed lanes would cover a 25-mile stretch of the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Veteran’s Memorial Tollway, a segment that carries about 170,000 vehicles a day. The plan calls for adding at least one lane in each direction, at an estimated cost of $425 million. The P3 model would need to be approved by a majority of state lawmakers.

The new lanes would feature “congestion pricing” – the toll price would vary according to the number of cars in the managed lanes, as well as the rest of the expressway. Rauner said it’s possible that drivers with one or more passengers might be allowed to use the new lanes without paying a toll. The state hopes to finalize a design by this spring and start construction by late 2017.

The Metropolitan Planning Council pushed for several years in Springfield for legislation to enable this kind of public-private partnership, which passed in 2011. MPC executive vice president Peter Skosey said his organization applauds Rauner’s proposal, adding that adding capacity to I-55 is listed as a priority in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 regional plan.

“Experience shows that simply adding another regular lane will not ease congestion in the long term: once that capacity is there, it will just fill up,” Skosey said. “Putting a variable-priced toll on that lane lets you manage demand and keep it free-flowing. If you’re really in a time crunch, you have the choice to take that lane.”

Skosey argued that the new lane would also make taking the bus a more attractive choice. “[Pace’s] current Bus-on-Shoulder service has been incredibly successful, but it isn’t able to use the shoulder for the whole corridor and it’s limited to 35 mph. This lane would give it a continuous path and let it go as fast as 55 mph, improving reliability and opening the door to more frequent service.”

Steve Schlickmann, the former head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center, agreed that the governor’s plan makes sense. “The combination of high congestion in regular travel lanes and insufficient growth in federal and state funding to maintain Illinois roads and transit, makes I-55 managed toll lanes a reasonable approach to address congestion and to help pay for I-55’s on-going maintenance needs,” he said.

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South Side Groups: Make the Metra Electric Run Like the CTA ‘L’

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The Metra Electric line stations in Kenwood, Hyde Park, and South Shore supports their walkable neighborhoods. Photo: Eric Rogers

A dozen neighborhood organizations, along with the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, are calling for the Metra Electric line, with its three branches that run through several South Side communities, to operate like a CTA ‘L’ line.

The fourteen organizations signed a letter to the editor of the Chicago Maroon, the independent student newspaper of the University of Chicago, stating that if Metra Electric trains were operated more like the Blue and Red Lines, “[it] could unlock the enormous development potential of the South Side and South Suburbs.” They described the neighborhoods and places the trains already reach:

The Metra Electric serves many key destinations on the South Side, such as the University of Chicago, the Pullman district, Chicago State University, the Museum of Science and Industry, Governor’s State University, McCormick Place, the South Shore Cultural Center, and the proposed Lakeside Development. The communities surrounding its stations are densely populated and walkable, ideal areas for rapid transit development.

The groups are absolutely right that the areas around the stations would be ideal for rapid transit service. They specifically ask transit agency heads and elected officials to make the following happen:

  • integrate fares and schedules with CTA and Pace operations, because the Metra Electric “is hampered by a fare structure more appropriate for suburban lines”
  • allow for discounted transfers among Metra and CTA and Pace
  • increase frequencies to 10-15 minutes

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Some Bus Service Will Be Better In 2016, But Better Funding Needed

Ashland Bus

The CTA has had to make tradeoffs to add more and faster bus service on Ashland Avenue. Photo: Daniel Rangel

2016 just might be the year of the Chicago bus. The Chicago Transit Authority is restoring express service and speeding up local service on Ashland and Western avenues, running six bus routes on dedicated bus lanes downtown with the new “Loop Link” corridor, and piloting restored service on the #11-Lincoln and #31-31st Street bus routes. Pace will also be gearing up to launch the Pulse “Arterial Bus Rapid Transit” service on Milwaukee Avenue in 2017.

The CTA discontinued express routes on Ashland, Western, and other streets in 2010. The 31st Street route was cut in the late 1990s, and the Lincoln route was truncated in 2012. Red-painted bus-lanes were installed on Loop streets in the 2000s, but the lanes weren’t enforced, and they were allowed to fade.

What accounts for the new focus on bus service? For starters, the Chicago Department of Transportation is currently implementing projects that Gabe Klein initiated when he was commissioner between 2011 and 2013. CDOT completed the east-west portion of Loop Link this month, and has begun constructing the Union Station transit center for people to transfer between buses and trains.

In addition to Loop Link, the restored Ashland and Western bus service, which includes the addition of transit-priority stoplights, can be viewed as laying the groundwork for a possible bus rapid transit line on Ashland. The city did outreach and planning for the system in the early years of the Emanuel administration, but it’s currently on the back burner.

The restoration of the #11 and #31 lines can be credited to tireless advocacy by local aldermen and a dedicated group of transit riders and businesses called the Crosstown Bus Coalition Last but not least, Dorval Carter took over as CTA president this year, and he said he wanted to pay more attention to improving bus service.

Service changes come with caveats

However, these bus service changes, past and present, have involved tradeoffs. When the CTA cut the #11 route in 2012, it was done as part of the agency’s so-called “decrowding plan,” which added service to ‘L’ lines, including the Brown Line, which roughly parallels Lincoln. The current Ashland and Western improvements are possible in part because the CTA is eliminating 100 management positions, including some some layoffs. Read more…