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Seven Ways to Stop The Illiana Boondoggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Illiana Forced Into CMAP Regional Plan By Springfield, Suburban Reps

CMAP's MPO Policy committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elliott Hartstein, CMAP board member, speaks agains the Illiana Tollway

Elliott Hartstein, CMAP board vice chairman, says the Illiana is fiscally irresponsible. Photo: Steven Vance

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s board again passed on the Illiana Tollway, keeping the project in limbo until another meeting tomorrow morning. The board overwhelmingly voted, 10-4, to strip the Illiana from a broader package of updates to the GO TO 2040 regional plan, and then to veto those updates entirely. However, CMAP board votes require a 12-3 supermajority vote to pass, so both motions still failed. The plan updates, and the Illiana, remain outside GO TO 2040.

The Illiana is still in play, and would be regardless of the board’s actions. Confusingly, it isn’t the board but rather CMAP’s MPO Policy committee that has final say, and that committee will vote tomorrow on whether to approve the GO TO 2040 plan update. They may make their own motion to exclude the Illiana Tollway from the plan before voting, or approve the plan update as-is.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center is even suing CMAP and IDOT to force CMAP to recognize the board’s greater authority. Board chair Gerald Bennett, mayor of south suburban Palos Hills, said today that CMAP’s bylaws require that the board and policy committee meet together, “to find consensus, to be on the same page.” However, acting IDOT secretary Erica Borggren went ahead and split the proposed joint meeting.

The four voting in favor of the Illiana represent Will, Kane, DuPage, and south Cook County (one of five Cook seats). One member, representing Chicago, was absent.

27 people spoke to the board imploring them to keep the Illiana out of the plan. Most of their comments focused on the burden to taxpayers resulting from the so-called “public-private partnership” that will build the road. IDOT has said that taxpayers would pony up a minimum of $500 million, with the first half going to buy land and relocate utilities.

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No Surprise: International Report Says Region’s Transit Not Up to Par

20110805 08 CTA and Metra, Oak Park, Illinois

Oak Park is one of only two stations in the region where people can transfer between CTA and Metra trains.

Last month, a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development validated what Chicago researchers, a task force convened by the governor, and millions of customers have all said for years: Transit in Chicagoland is fragmented, inefficient, and far from adequate to serve the region’s transportation needs. The OECD, a “club of rich countries” that counts the United States among its 34 members, collects data and publishes research that countries and local organizations can use to understand their economies.

The report evaluated the transit network against the regional policy goals set forth in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan, particularly its goal to double transit ridership. OECD policy analyst Olaf Merk based the report on prior research by CMAP and the Metropolitan Planning Council. He also interviewed Chicago transportation experts Joseph Schwieterman, at DePaul University, and Steven Schlickman, at UIC. So, while it may be easy to dismiss the report as a naive European’s idealistic view, the report does rest upon adopted regional policies and local observers’ views.

The report dug deep into the many problems facing Chicagoland’s transit operations. A complex web of governments have conflicting authority over many different matters, and the overlap often results in contradictory policies. For example, the Regional Transportation Authority’s policies govern most transit planning in the region, and they support GO TO 2040′s goals. However, myriad policies outside of the RTA’s influence “stimulate car use,” including “generous parking policies” at the municipal level that require copious car parking at new buildings and “low gas taxes” that haven’t been raised in over 20 years.

Even the most basic level of coordination is lacking between the region’s transit systems: The services don’t even serve the same places. None of Metra’s busy downtown terminals are adjacent to CTA rail stations, and on many streets like Austin Avenue and Irving Park Road, CTA and Pace bus routes both end at the city line rather than more logical destinations. Transit service, the report said, “follows an administrative jurisdictional logic, instead of a logic motivated by traffic flows.”

Transit services haven’t adapted to changing housing and job locations, and instead continues to focus on downtown employment. “Approximately 36 percent of Chicago’s population works outside the city of Chicago,” the report explained, “and 46 percent of workers in the city of Chicago live in the suburbs.” The downtown-focused system makes it difficult to travel from city to the suburb, or between suburbs. Despite the region’s poor record at facilitating inter-agency transfers, a few junctions are being improved, like the new 95th Street Red Line station’s expanded CTA and Pace bus transfer facility, the Union Station intermodal improvements underway as part of the Central Loop BRT, and the new intermodal transfer center at Metra’s LaSalle Street station.

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Revolt Against Illiana Undeterred By IDOT’s Latest Scare Tactic

Will County board member Regan Freitag

Board member Regan Freitag of Will County, telling the CMAP policy committee last year that the Illiana Tollway would destroy prime farmland in Will County and disrupt local access by slicing across many existing roads.

Local advocates are scoffing at the suggestion, made by an Illinois Department of Transportation representative last week, that striking the Illiana Tollway from the Chicago region’s long-term regional plan would jeopardize transportation spending across the entire region. Instead, advocates insist that deleting the costly, sprawl-inducing road would cause at most a brief procedural delay in other projects, and ultimately free up millions of dollars for more urgent priorities.

Bruce Carmichael from IDOT made this claim at a CMAP transportation committee meeting last week. He said that, if the CMAP board votes to delete the Illiana from the GO TO 2040 regional plan on October 8, the revised plan would need a fresh review. The entire plan would be temporarily invalidated while that “conformity analysis” and public comment period is underway. While Carmichael is correct on that point, the analysis would cause at most a brief delay that would not necessarily disrupt any projects in progress.

Carmichael said that, while the revised plan is being reviewed, the federal government would stop sending checks that pay for already-approved projects. For example, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Transit Authority would be unable to be reimbursed for building new bike lanes and buying new train cars.

Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey confirmed with the committee’s Federal Highway Administration representative that the review would not, in fact, interfere with FHWA’s payments. The FHWA is scheduled to send its next round of checks just before the joint meeting on October 8, and “those dollars will continue to come to us,” Skosey told me.

Randy Neufeld, also a member of the transportation committee, said that the conformity analysis would take all of one day to ensure that the altered GO TO 2040 complies with federal air quality regulations. CMAP would then launch a 30-day public comment period. Skosey said that CMAP could complete the entire review in less than two months, and adopt the final plan in November — well before the next FHWA payment period.

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CMAP Board Members Will Try to Boot Illiana Boondoggle From Regional Plan

illiana traffic projections

Driving in northeastern Illinois is dropping 0.49 percent annually in recent years and increased at an annual rate of just 0.42 percent in the decade prior, but IDOT projects that driving will increase 0.92 percent annually. Chart: U.S. PIRG

After appointees loyal to Governor Pat Quinn muscled the Illiana tollway onto the project list for Chicagoland’s regional plan, it looked like nothing could stop this risky highway boondoggle from getting funded and built. The Illiana may still happen, but not without a fight.

Last week, the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning discussed how to kick the Illiana Tollway out of the regional plan. The CMAP Board and the CMAP MPO Policy committee will hold a joint meeting on October 8 to approve the update to the GO TO 2040 plan that includes the Illiana. CMAP must list any big transportation on the plan before any agency can build it.

Board chair Gerald Bennett, mayor of Palos Hills, asked whether board members could make a motion to excise the Illiana from the plan update before it’s approved. CMAP Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn assured them they can do so.

Erica Dodt of the Sierra Club told Streetsblog that Bennett plans to ask for this motion next month. There are many good reasons CMAP should leave the Illiana perpetually on the drawing board.

According to a CMAP staff analysis released last year, the Illiana Tollway will need an enormous, $250 million startup subsidy from taxpayers. Agency staff also said the project is contrary to GO TO 2040′s focus of making infrastructure investments in already developed areas.

Yet the same flaws in CMAP governance that let the Illiana corrupt the regional plan in the first place could crop up again. CMAP’s MPO Policy committee voted to include the Illiana last year, in a 11-8 vote where Pace and Metra representatives cast decisive votes, going against the interests of their own riders. Right now there’s a lawsuit challenging this decision, alleging that the policy committee didn’t follow state law. According to the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the policy committee cannot vote on what the CMAP board has not approved.

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Preckwinkle, Environmental Groups Want CMAP to Drop Illiana

Virginia Hamman brings 4,000 petitions against proposed farmland-destroying tollway

Virginia Hamman, a property owner who would be affected by the Illiana Tollway, asked the policy committee to vote against the project last year.

The Sierra Club and other organizations intend to petition the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to remove the Illiana Tollway from its regional plan, effectively disallowing the state from building the new highway. The deletion is possible because CMAP, the federally-designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for this region, is finalizing a mandatory update of its GO TO 2040 Plan.

The CMAP Board will meet on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. to discuss the proposed GO TO 2040 update [PDF]. The award-winning plan lists all major capital projects proposed for the region. All projects, both highway expansion and new transit lines, must be listed on the plan in order to receive federal funding. Governor Pat Quinn earlier persuaded Metra and Pace to vote in favor of adding the Illiana Tollway to GO TO 2040, thereby shrinking their own available funding. Both CMAP’s Board and MPO Policy Committee will vote on whether to adopt the plan update at a joint meeting in October.

The plan update is an opportunity for the Sierra Club, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Openlands, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center to make their case that the Illiana Tollway should be struck from the GO TO 2040 regional plan. The Active Transportation Alliance also wants the plan to drop Illiana: executive director Ron Burke told me, “Yes, take it out. We opposed its inclusion in the first place.” He added that what Active Trans said a year ago – a vote for Illiana is a vote against transit – holds true today.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle also submitted a comment to CMAP head Randy Blankenhorn, reiterating her earlier opposition to the project. She criticized the Illiana Tollway because it would require $250 million in taxpayer dollars at a minimum (but honestly up to $1 billion) to jumpstart the project, and that beyond that the state of Illinois would be responsible for any financial shortcomings. Preckwinkle stated, “it would be irresponsible of me to support a project like this that will compromise other, more fully vetted transportation improvements with greater benefits for Cook County, metro Chicago and Illinois.”

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Quinn, Rauner Should Get On Board With Region’s Performance Measures

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s lauded GO TO 2040 regional plan prioritizes transportation investments based on performance measures, rather than through arbitrary formulas or aggressive politicking. This ensures that the hundreds of millions of federal dollars that CMAP handles are spent on projects selected on need and merit, rather than just because someone important likes the idea – which, sadly, has typically been the case in metropolitan Chicago. Yet the two major parties’ candidates for Illinois governor showed only a passing familiarity with the concept when asked about it at a recent event.

Governor Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner demonstrated their misunderstanding of performance measures at the Metropolitan Planning Council’s  annual luncheon last Thursday. This unfamiliarity was particularly surprising, since both campaigns had met with MPC to review the questions beforehand.

GO TO 2040, authored by CMAP and adopted by over 200 Chicagoland municipalities, establishes performance measures that evaluate major projects’ potential to increase transit use, reduce driving, and eliminate harmful smoke and soot. Currently, however, most of the state’s transportation funding for roads and bridges bypasses this system and is allocated by a formula: 45 percent of funds go to Chicagoland, even though this area has 65 percent of the state’s population and 70 percent of economic activity.

Moderator Craig Dellimore of WBBM asked each candidate, “To get more ‘bang for the buck,’ do you support using performance measures to select Illinois’ transportation investments – for instance, prioritizing new road or transit projects that measurably improve access to jobs, reduce air pollution and spark adjacent economic development?”

Even putting aside the candidates’ usual attempts to steer every question towards their own talking points, both candidates’ answers showed an incomplete understanding of what performance measures are.

MPC 2014 Annual Luncheon

Rauner says he supports performance measures. Photo: Tricia Scully/MPC

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Man Killed Sunday Was 4th Person Fatally Struck on North Avenue This Year


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The 2700 Block of West North Avenue.

A man killed by an allegedly drunk driver Sunday is the latest in a series of people fatally struck on speeding-plagued North Avenue, in 2014.

Around 8:25 p.m. Sunday, a 55-year-old man was crossing northbound on the 2700 block of North Avenue near Cermak Produce, according to Officer Janel Sedovic from Police News Affairs. The man’s identity has not yet been released, pending notification of his next of kin, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Sean Riley, 33, of the 1400 block of North Bell, was driving eastbound when he struck the victim. He stayed on the scene following the crash. The victim was transported to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

Riley was found to have a blood alcohol content level above the legal limit of .08 percent, according to Sedovic. He has been charged with felony aggravated DUI resulting in an a death, operating a vehicle without insurance, and fail to exercise due care to avoid a collision with a pedestrian in the roadway. A bond hearing is scheduled for today.

The victim was the fourth person fatally struck by a driver on North this year. On April 21, Kim Kyeyul, 72, rear-ended a semi truck with his car on North just east of the Kennedy Expressway. After he exited his car to talk to the other driver, a second trucker killed him.

On April 24, Jennie Davis was crossing in the 5500 block of North Avenue in Austin when a speeding motorist fatally struck her – a similar scenario to this latest crash. And On Sunday, June 1, an out-of-control SUV driver fatally struck Charles Jones, 73, who was reportedly standing in the street just west of the Kennedy.

Most of these cases involved a too-fast driver and/or a difficult pedestrian crossing. In general, North is a five lane street with two travel lanes in each direction, a turn lane, and parking lanes. By Cermak Produce, the street is 76 feet wide, and that excess width encourages speeding and creates a long crossing distance for pedestrians.

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The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride: Pedaling to Every Metra Line Endpoint

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Taking a pit stop in Elburn, the western terminus of the UP West line. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also appeared as a cover story in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

I confess that I’m obsessed with pedaling the perimeters of things. For years, I led the Chicago Perimeter Ride, a hundred-mile bicycle tour of the rim of the city, stopping to admire goofy commercial architecture landmarks, from the Eyecare Indian in Westlawn, to the giant fiberglass wieners of Superdawg in Norwood Park. I’ve cycled the circumference of Lake Michigan and the state of Illinois, and I’ve got a Land of Lincoln tattoo on my left shoulder as proof of the latter. I’ve biked three sides of the continental U.S., and some day I hope to complete the circuit by cycling from Key West, Florida, to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Since my journalistic wheelhouse is local transportation issues, it recently occurred to me that I should pedal the perimeter of Chicagoland, as a way to wrap my head around our vast region, and meditate on the urban planning challenges we face. But how best to define the Chicago metro area? There are a number of different definitions of the region, with one of the broadest being the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area, originally designated by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1950. Along with Cook and the collar counties, it includes swaths of southeast Wisconsin and northwest Indiana, for a total population of 9,522,434, making this the third-largest MSA by population in the nation.

Somewhat arbitrarily, I opted to define the perimeter of the region as being a route connecting the endpoints of the Metra commuter rail system’s eleven lines. This would allow me to skip the nastier industrial sections of the Hoosier State, since Metra doesn’t serve Indiana, while justifying an excursion across the Cheddar Curtain to quirky Kenosha, Wisconsin, one of my favorite nearby cities.

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The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride route. Image: Google Maps

Bicycling between train stops would also make it easy for friends to parachute in and keep me company on sections of the four-day trek, and then catch a lift home at the end of the day from a different Metra line. Decision made, I planned out my route, dubbed The Metra-Politan Perimeter Ride, using Google Maps’ bike directions. You can view a Google Map of my itinerary here.

The last twelve months have been rough on Metra. In June of 2013, then-CEO Alex Clifford resigned and was given a jaw-dropping $871,000 severance package, which included a non-disclosure agreement. When local politicians questioned the massive payoff, a memo surfaced, indicating that Clifford was forced out of his job by Metra board members after he refused to bow to demands for patronage hiring and promotions. Some of the pressure apparently came from uber-powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Five board members resigned in the wake of the scandal and, last summer, Governor Pat Quinn responded by creating the Northeast Illinois Public Transit Task Force, to brainstorm ways to fight corruption and ensure the regional transit system is properly funded. In March, the blue-ribbon panel recommended abolishing the four boards of Metra, the CTA, Pace and the Regional Transit Authority, in favor of a new superagency to oversee the three transit agencies, similar to how things work in the New York City region.

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