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Posts from the State Policy Category

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Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric Wants More Service, Fare Integration

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The Coalition for a Modern Metra Election, including Walt Kindred (3rd from left), Andrea Reed (4th from left), and Linda Thisted (center) in front of the Metra offices at 547 West Jackson. Photo: John Greenfield

Transportation advocacy organizations and community groups have joined forces as the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric, pushing for improvements to the commuter rail line that could lead to better job access and more economic development on the South Side. They want to see rapid transit-style train frequency, fare and schedule integration with the CTA and Pace, and – eventually – the extension of the line all the way to O’Hare.

Right now Metra generally runs trains only once an hour on the Metra Electric District line, which goes about 30 miles from Millennium Station to south suburban University Park, with a few more trains running during the morning and evening rush hours. As such, it’s not nearly as useful as an ‘L’ line for general travel, and it’s not a great option for non-standard work commutes.

However, it wasn’t always that way. The MED started its life as a rapid transit line with dedicated tracks and closed stations. The Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric wants to go back to the future, so to speak, by bringing back frequent service, with trains every 10-15 minutes, all day long.

Nowadays, if you need to ride downtown from the south suburbs or Southeast Side via the Metra Electric and continue on to a workplace on another side of the city, you need to pay the Metra fare, which is higher than the $2.25 charge for an ‘L’ ride, and then pay full fare for another train ride. Unlike riding on the CTA with a Ventra card, you don’t get a free transfer. As a result, some South Side residents choose to take a CTA bus to an ‘L’ line for their commute because it’s cheaper, even if the MED would be quicker.

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Using a tap-on/tap off system on the MED would allow for fare integration on the CTA and Pace, which would save riders money. Image: CMME

The coalition wants to fix that problem by piloting tap-on and tap-off use of Ventra on the MED. This would allow customers to tap their Ventra card on a sensor before and after their ride, with the appropriate fare deducted according to the distance traveled. It would make it possible to provide a transfer discount for customers switch to the CTA or Pace.

In the long run, the coalition wants to see the MED connected to O’Hare Airport using Metra right-of-way, with stops at McCormick Place and Union Station, a scenario the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has proposed as part of its CrossRail plan to build a regional network of fast trains.

Mayor Emanuel wants to establish an express train between O’Hare and the Loop, so the MED solution would be a way to do this while creating better transportation access for residents of low-to-moderate-income communities on the South Side. That way the O’Hare Express wouldn’t just be a train for elites, and there would be the added benefit of direct access from the airport to conventions at McCormick Place for business travelers.

The idea of rapid transit on the Metra Electric has been around for decades. In the Nineties, rail advocate Mike Payne proposed having the CTA take over the MED, a scheme he called the Gray Line. In the 2000s, residents proposed a similar idea dubbed the Gold Line to provide frequent transit service to the Southeast Side as part of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

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It’s a Lobby-palooza! Join MPC’s 43 Minutes for $43 Billion Infrastructure Push

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MPC says Investing $43 billion over the next years could help get the CTA system, and other Illinois infrastructure, in good working order. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Are you ready for (almost three-quarters of) an hour of power?

That’s what the Metropolitan Planning Council has planned for Wednesday, May 18, at 11 a.m., when they’ll hold the 43 Minutes for $43 Billion transportation infrastructure lobbying jam session. They’re asking Chicagoland residents to call their legislators and contact leaders in Springfield to ask them to commit to investing $43 billion over the next ten years to fund repairs and improvements to transit, bridges, and roads. They’re also asking citizens to tweet about the fact that we’re sick and tired of the shoddy state of Illinois’ transportation network.

The action is timed to coincide with Infrastructure Week, which Washington, D.C. infrastructure advocates have organized over the last few years, as well as the May 31 adjournment date for the Illinois state legislature. According to MPC executive vice president Peter Skosey, there appears to be plenty of interest on both sides of the aisle for a new transportation funding bill, but the general consensus is that the initiative won’t move forward until the state budget, which has been mired in partisan deadlock, moves forward.

“It’s problematic that we don’t already have a transportation bill,” Skosey said. “In [MPC’s] opinion, it needs to be done immediately, but it also needs to be done adequately.” He noted that if, say, lawmakers agreed to budget $1 billion a year for infrastructure, many Illinoisans would think that’s a big expenditure. “But that wouldn’t be sufficient,” he said. “A billion a year would only make us fall behind farther. It has to be $4.3 billion to get us up to par.”

While MPC hopes a bill can be passed before legislators adjourn at the end of the month, Skosey said there are other windows of opportunity for getting it approved. It could also happen during the November vetoe session (when the governor signs or vetoes legislation the general assembly has passed), or else it could take place during the lame duck session following the November elections, when Illinoisans will vote on every House seat and some Senate seats.

However, it would be much more difficult to pass a bill after May 31 because a two-thirds majority of the assembly would be needed. After January 1, only a simple majority of 51 percent would be required.

At any rate, it makes sense to get the word out to leaders sooner than later that we’re fed up with slow, unreliable train and bus service, potholed roads, and increasingly unsafe bridges. Skosey said MPC came up with the idea for 43 Minutes for $43 Billion as an alternative to organizing a lobbying day in which representatives from the 43 local companies and nonprofits who’ve endorsed the Accelerate Illinois infrastructure funding campaign would have to schlep down to Springfield. “We figured that calls, emails, and social media would be a fast, effective way to send a message,” Skosey said. Here’s how you can get involved.

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Amtrak’s Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee Is Launching Roll-On Bike Service

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Biking into Milwaukee on the scenic Oak Leaf Trail is fun, but it will be great to have the option of easily taking a bike on Amtrak. Photo: John Greenfield

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

It just keeps getting easier to combine bike and train trips in Chicago. Last month, after years of lobbying by advocates (including Streetsblog’s Steven Vance) the South Shore Line, which runs between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, finally launched a bikes-on-board pilot.

Now Amtrak, which already allows unboxed bikes on all routes within Illinois (reservations required, $10 surcharge), is introducing roll-on service on its Hiawatha Servicee between Chicago and Milwaukee with a mere $5 charge. The service starts this Wednesday.

The Hiawatha Service is the busiest Amtrak corridor in the Midwest, with about 800,000 passengers in 2015. It offers seven round-trips a day Monday through Saturday, with six on Sundays. This relatively frequent service is partly funded by the Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation.

The news is a welcome surprise, and the resolution of a longtime pet peeve of mine. Boxing a bike for the short Amtrak trip to Cream City has always seemed like an unnecessary hassle. Not only did you have to drag a bike box to Union Station or purchase one at from the ticket agent, you had to take an elevator to the basement, dissemble your bike, box it, and check it as baggage, reversing the steps in Milwaukee.

I’m reminded of a particularly aggravating bike-and-transit experience I had after I pedaled across the Cheddar Curtain with New Belgium Brewing Company staffers after they staged the Tour de Fat in Chicago’s Palmer Square. After we caught a show at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, it was too late for me to catch the Hiawatha back to Chicago, so I tried to buy a bike box from an Amtrak agent in order to take a midnight Megabus run. He refused to sell me a box to use for a competing transit service.

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Indiana Will Fund Rewriting Faulty Illiana Environmental Impact Statement

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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 billion 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

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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

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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

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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”

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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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