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Active Trans Marks 30 Years With 5 Big Goals, New Sister Organization

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One of the five goals is to create biking/walking education programs in all IL elementary schools. Photo: Active Trans

Streetsblog Chicago is on vacation from July 13-17 and will resume publication of Today’s Headlines and daily articles on Monday, July 20. We’ll keep in touch this week via social media and occasional posts.

The scrappy little advocacy group that was founded in 1985 as the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation is now the Active Transportation Alliance, a venerable institution with a major influence on local transportation policy.

As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, Active Trans recently announced five major goals for promoting safe, efficient streets, and started a fundraising campaign to help pay for these initiatives. They also heralded the birth of a new sister nonprofit called Walk Bike Go, which will take over the organization’s paid consulting work.

“Our main theme this year is ‘We still have a long way to go,’” said Active Trans executive director Ron Burke. “With recent developments like protected bike lanes and the Divvy bike-share system, we’ve made progress to the point where rapid change is possible.”

The five objectives of the so-called 2020 TransFormation Campaign are all projects that the group has already been working on to some degree, but now they plan to shift their activities into a higher gear. The goals are:

  1. Region-wide low-stress bike network: A dense, connected network of low-stress bike routes across Chicago and the suburbs.
  2. Transit Future: Funding for the “Transit Future” plan to build multiple new rapid transit projects.
  3. Biking/walking education in elementary schools: All public elementary schools in the state begin teaching biking and walking safety and encouragement.
  4. Mobility education in high schools: High school driver’s education becoming “mobility education” with bike, walk and transit training in addition to driving.
  5. Vision Zero: The state, the city of Chicago and suburbs adopt and implement comprehensive Vision Zero plans that focus on eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

In order to pursue these objectives, Active Trans is launching a new fundraising drive, with the goal of raising an additional $250,000 per year for the next five years, in addition to its current annual operating budget of about $3 million. “We want to be able to expand and take on these projects, but we don’t really have the capacity right now,” Burke said. The additional revenue would mostly be used for new staff, including a full-time director of government relations, and new community organizers.

Political lobbying will be key for achieving most of the five objectives. Burke cited the example of mobility education. “The way we can win this particular goal is in Springfield, by getting legislation passed, or getting the state board of education to change their curriculum for driver’s ed or phys ed.

Right now, Active Trans and the Center for Neighborhood Technology are trying to persuade Cook County commissioners to create a dedicated funding stream for Transit Future in conjunction with a proposed sales tax hike to address the pension crisis.

The organization also announced that the new Walk Bike Go nonprofit will be taking over its fee-for-service work. I myself am a former Active Trans consultant – during my stint at the Chicago Department of Transportation bicycle program in the early 2000s, I was actually an employee of the nonprofit, which was paid by the city to provide bike program staff. A few Active Trans employees are currently stationed at CDOT.

The advocacy group is also helping to run the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Play Streets block party program. They’re also developing active transportation plans and complete streets policies in several low-income Cook County municipalities as part of a contract with the county’s health department. Active Trans has also done consulting work for many other suburbs over the years, helping to create pedestrian and bike plans, as well as mobility education programs.

There has long been a perception that Active Trans’ consulting work conflicts with its advocacy work, especially when it comes to the organization’s relationship with the city of Chicago. Many peer organizations, such as New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, don’t do consulting work for their city governments.

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CNT, Active Trans to County: If You’re Going to Raise Sales Tax, Fund Transit

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Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle and CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw/Photo: CNT

Streetsblog Chicago is on vacation from July 13-17 and will resume publication of Today’s Headlines and daily articles on Monday, July 20. We’ll keep in touch this week via social media and occasional posts. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from this week’s Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column, which appears in print in Newcity Magazine.  

Back in 2010, when Toni Preckwinkle was running against incumbent Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, she successfully used Stroger’s one-cent sales tax hike as a campaign issue, going as far as to make an ad with a Benjamin Franklin impersonator. “I used to teach my history students about Ben Franklin,” said Preckwinkle, a former high school teacher, in the spot. “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

After she was elected, Preckwinkle rolled back the sales tax to the current 9.25-percent rate. As president, she’s generally been credited with improving the efficiency of the county government and cutting costs, avoiding the allegations of patronage and incompetence that hounded Stroger.

However, to address pension obligations, Preckwinkle is now calling for a return to the higher county sales tax. In response, a Crain’s magazine cartoonist recently portrayed her as a mad scientist crying, “It’s alive!” as the 10.25-percent tax rises from the operating table like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a saying in politics, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Accordingly, The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance are using this moment when the Cook County commissioners may vote for a tax hike to promote their Transit Future funding campaign. They’re asking the commissioners to simultaneously create a dedicated revenue stream for public transportation infrastructure in the county. CNT vice president of policy Jacky Grimshaw explained the reasoning behind this new push.

John Greenfield: Why is Preckwinkle talking about raising the sales tax? That seems like political Kryptonite, considering that Stroger lost the election to her over that issue.

Jacky Grimshaw: Well, she has spent about four-and-a-half years cleaning up county government, creating opportunities to be more efficient, eliminating positions that were not crucial to the operations of government and bringing the budget within the means of the county. At this point in time, it’s become crucial that there’s action taken to fund the pensions. As she said, it’s costing about $30 million a month the longer there is a delay in putting in new provisions for pension reform.

Greenfield: So Active Trans and CNT support this tax hike?

Grimshaw: Yes. The reason why we support the tax is because, when we talked to the president about backing Transit Future, she said she was supportive but had to take care of pensions before she could deal with any kind of transit expansion. So her taking action to deal with the pensions is the first step toward us getting the support we want for public transportation.

Read the rest of the interview on the Newcity website.

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No Explanation Yet for Why CTA Bus Driver Ran Stoplight, Killing a Pedestrian

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Aerial photo of the crash site. Image: Chicago Tribune.

The CTA says it doesn’t yet have a clear picture on why one of its bus drivers stopped at a red light on Michigan Avenue, then ran the light, fatally striking a 51-year-old woman.

On Tuesday evening around 5:50 pm, Donald Barnes, 48, was driving the empty, articulated bus east on Lake Street and stopped at the red on Michigan, then proceeded through the light, according to Officer Janel Sedovic from News Affairs. Barnes struck several vehicles and then jumped the curb onto the crowded north sidewalk of Lake Street, striking two pedestrians, Sedovic said.

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Aimee Coath

One of the pedestrians, Flossmoor resident Aimee Coath was transported to Northwestern Hospital, where she was pronounced dead, Sedovic said. Coath, who worked at a downtown clothing store, had been in the process of planning her daughter’s wedding, the Sun-Times reported.

The other pedestrian and seven motorists, including Barnes, were taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Barnes was charged with failure to stop for a red light and failure to exercise due care for a pedestrian in the roadway, Sedovic said. Major Accidents is investigating.

Authorities are still trying to piece together why the crash occurred. Barnes, a part-time driver who has been working for the CTA since September, was making the first stop of his route when the crash occurred, the Chicago Tribune reported. “We don’t know the full circumstances yet,” CTA spokesman Brian Steele told the Tribune. He said the agency has not yet made a decision about disciplinary action towards the bus driver.

Barnes caused one other crash during his nine-month tenure at the CTA. Last November, he backed a bus into a taxi, causing minor damage to its fender, but there were no injuries and he was not cited, the Tribune reported.

Steele told the Tribune that it doesn’t look like fatigue from overscheduling was a factor in Tuesday’s crash. While Barnes had started working at 6:30 that morning, he had only logged four hours of driving that day and had taken a long break before starting his afternoon routes at 2:30 p.m., Steele said. He added that police and CTA officials are studying video footage from cameras inside the bus.

Fatality Tracker: 2015 Chicago pedestrian and bicyclist deaths
Pedestrian: 15 (5 were hit-and-run crashes)
Bicyclist: 2 (both were hit-and-run crashes)

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Don’t Deride the Delay: More Ventra App Testing Will Ensure Better Quality

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The CTA is involving CUTGroup, an organization for testing civic apps in Chicago. Here, Fenger high school students test an app called Expunge.io that advises people on how to expunge juvenile records. Photo: Dan X. O’Neil

Earlier this month, the CTA, Metra, and Pace announced that they are delaying the launch of the Ventra mobile app from this spring until this fall, and that an independent civic app testing group will help vet it. Contrary to what Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch wrote, that’s not a sign that there are “undisclosed issues” with the technology. Rather, it shows that the transit agencies are being careful to thoroughly test the app before releasing it to the public. Given the rocky launch of the Ventra card two years ago, that’s a wise strategy.

The Ventra app, which I favorably reviewed in April, will let Metra riders skip lines at ticket counters and vending machines by paying their fares on trains, without being penalized by onboard surcharges. It will also allow Metra, CTA, and Pace customers to quickly recharge their Ventra account balances before boarding trains and buses.

The agencies’ news release stated that they will collaborate on testing the app with Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit that works to bridge the digital divide. The organization’s Civic User Testing Group will engage citizens in a formal process where they will test the app with their personal Ventra accounts.

Hilkevitch wrote a short piece in response to the news, in which he jumped to conclusions about the reason for the delay. The article quotes CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase as saying, “The user experience, we don’t think, is there yet.” Hilkevitch assumed this meant the transit agencies are partnering with the CUTGroup because they need to “iron out undisclosed issues” with the app.

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Man Dies After CTA Bus-Pedestrian Crash in Canaryville

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The crash site. Image: Google Street View

A 62-year-old man has died after being fatally struck by a CTA bus driver in the Canaryville neighborhood.

On Monday evening at 9:06 p.m., the man “tripped and fell into the intersection” at 43rd and Halsted streets, according to Officer Stacey Cooper from Police News Affairs. He was then struck by the driver of a northbound CTA bus, Cooper said.

The victim was transported to Stroger Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, Cooper said. The Cook County medical examiner’s office identified the man as Erroll Ellison, from the 4200 block of South Princeton Avenue.

Fatality Tracker: 2015 Chicago pedestrian and bicyclist deaths
Pedestrian: 13 (4 were hit-and-run crashes)
Bicyclist: 2 (both were hit-and-run crashes)

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Here’s How New CTA Technology Helps Reduce Bus Bunching

Demonstrating CTA's new bus bunching-fighting technology

Mike Haynes demonstrates sending an instructional message to a CTA bus driver using the new Bus Transit Management System.

If you ride Chicago Transit Authority buses, you’ve probably had the infuriating experience of waiting an eternity at a stop, only to have two or more buses show up at the same time. This phenomenon, known as bus bunching, is the bane of most big-city transit systems in the U.S.

To address this issue, the CTA is rolling out a new two-way bus communication system, and it’s already helping to reduce bunching on a handful of routes that have received the technology. The Bus Transit Management System, created by Clever Devices, the company that makes the CTA’s Bus Tracker system, pairs an on-board device with new software at the transit agency’s control center.

The software gives supervisors a heads-up when two buses are closer or further apart than they should be, and provides more information to help determine the best way to close the gap. If the supervisor wants more info from the bus driver – why they’re behind schedule, for example – at the next stop, he or she can send a series of text messages that require “yes” or “no” responses from the driver. The text messages appear on a device installed at the top left corner of the bus’ windshield.

Without the system, supervisors would continue having to drive around in their SUVs to see what’s happening and then intervene by catching up to a bus driver and giving them instructions.

At a demonstration of the system on Monday at the agency’s headquarters, CTA president Forrest Claypool said the technology is already making a difference in Chicago. Nine of the busiest South Side bus routes, based out of the 77th and 103rd Street garages, have seen a 40 percent reduction in “big gaps” between January and March. The agency defines big gaps as larger-than-scheduled periods of time between buses.

The new system gives supervisors several options for improving bus timing from the control center, according to CTA spokeswoman, Tammy Chase. The supervisor can order a driver to:

  • Hold the bus back by waiting at a stop
  • Run the bus express for a few stops
  • Leapfrog a leading bus
  • Temporarily follow a new route

“In some cases, an extra bus can be put into service to fill a big gap,” Chase said. “The software allows us to identify small issues before they become big ones.”

However, there’s a limit to how effective this technology can be for fighting delays on typical CTA routes that lack dedicated bus lanes and have stops every eighth of a mile. “As traffic rises, even small, random events like a double-parked car can cause buses to lose time,” DePaul transportation researcher Joseph Schwieterman told the Tribune. “That makes fixing the problem more difficult and it will test the limits of the technology.”

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New Type of TIF District Would Increase Funding for Transit Projects

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Transit TIFs in Chicago would send a majority of revenue to specific transit improvement projects. Photo: CTA

A new bill that passed the Illinois Senate last week would create a new class of tax increment financing district that could only be created around Chicago transit stations and lines to capture the property value that being near transit generates. Most of the revenue generated by these TIFs would be earmarked to pay for construction of rapid transit lines, stations, and other transit-related facilities.

In case you’re not a follower of Ben Joravsky’s TIF-centric column in the Chicago Reader, a Chicago TIF district is a designated area in which the amount of property tax revenue that goes to taxing bodies like Cook County, the Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Park District is capped when the district is created. Any additional tax revenue from rising property values can only be spent in that area. Chicago TIF money is currently often used to provide a local match to win federal grants for transportation projects.

The new state law, which would only apply to Chicago, would allow City Council to create transit TIFs district that would include the area within a half-mile of the following projects:

The Chicago region spends less money on building and running transit than its U.S. peer cities, and gas tax revenue has been a declining source of funding for transit infrastructure. The Illinois gas tax has been stuck at 19 cents per gallon since 1990 so, due to inflation, the buying power of the revenue it generates has dropped in recent decades. This revenue source is also impacted as cars become more fuel-efficient and driving rates fluctuate.

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Welcome Back Carter: New Transit Chief Has CTA, USDOT Experience

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Carter at yesterday’s press event at the 74th Street bus garage. Photo: John Greenfield

Several of the last few Chicago Transit Authority presidents have had little or no background running a public transportation agency. However, Mayor Emanuel’s new pick to run the agency, Dorval R. Carter, Jr. has over 30 years of experience in transit at the city and federal levels.

In 2009, he spent a few months as an acting CTA president, and recently, he has served as an assistant to progressive U.S. Department of Transportation heads Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx. He’ll start the job on May 18, and will be the first African-American CTA president in the agency’s 68-year history.

Carter, who has a law degree from Howard University, started working at the CTA in 1984 as a staff attorney. Next, he worked as a lawyer for the Federal Transportation Administrations’ Midwestern regional office. After that, he worked in Washington, D.C. as the FTA’s Assistant Chief Council for Legislation and Regulation.

Carter returned to the CTA in 2000, eventually becoming Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, managing the $1 billion operating budget and five-year capital improvement program. After then-CTA president Ron Huberman stepped down in January 2009 to lead the Chicago Public Schools, Carter served as acting president for four months.

When President Obama appointed LaHood to lead the USDOT that year, LaHood brought Carter back to Washington. Most recently, Carter served as Acting Chief of Staff to current USDOT secretary Foxx, who endorsed him for the new CTA job. “He possesses the experience and passion for transit that will make him highly effective,” Foxx said in a statement. “Mayor Emanuel has made an excellent choice.”

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Claypool’s Tenure at the CTA Has Been Action-Packed

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Claypool speaks at the reopening of the South Red Line in October 2013. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago Transit Authority President Forrest Claypool has worn many hats in local government. He twice served as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff. He was superintendent of the Chicago Park District. And he’s been a Cook County commissioner. But, arguably, he’s made his biggest mark as head of the transit agency during the last four project-filled years.

Last Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he’s pulling Claypool from the CTA to serve a third stint as the mayor’s chief of staff, replacing Lisa Schrader. It appears Emanuel feels Claypool, a longtime ally with records of balancing budgets at the park district and the transit agency, will be helpful for tackling the city’s $20 billion pension crisis. Emanuel cited Claypool’s successful overhaul of the South Red Line as a reason for his decision.

The mayor has not yet named the next CTA boss. Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, who previously served as director of planning for the transit agency, seems like a possibility. On the other hand, Claypool and the previous few CTA presidents have been expert managers, rather than transportation specialists, and moving Scheinfeld back to the CTA would require Emanuel to find a new CDOT chief. While we wait for the mayor to announce his choice, let’s take a look back at some of the highs, and a few lows, of Claypool’s tenure since he started the transit job in spring of 2011.

The Claypool era has been marked by a host of infrastructure improvements, including a number of shiny, new ‘L’ stops and station reconstruction projects that were completed or launched under his watch. In April 2012, the roughly $20 million Oakton-Skokie Yellow Line stop opened. This was followed in May by the attractive, $38 million Morgan/Lake station, which serves the Green and Pink Lines, a project spearheaded by CDOT. That fall, the agency held community meetings for the $240 million overhaul of the Red Line’s 95th/Dan Ryan stop, which began construction in fall of 2014 and is slated for completion in 2017.

The first major controversy of Claypool’s CTA career was the agency’s $16 million “de-crowding plan,” implemented in December of 2012. This added service to 48 bus routes and added 17 rail trips to weekday service on several ‘L’ lines, but also shut down 12 low-ridership bus routes and reduced service on four other routes in order to help pay for the service increases. Advocates are currently lobbying to restore bus service on 31st Street and Lincoln Avenue, and they hope the changing of the guard at the CTA may facilitate this. 

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Rauner’s IDOT Listening Tour Only Includes a Sprinkling of Cook County Stops

Bruce Rauner at the MPC 2014 annual luncheton

Rauner at a Metropolitan Planning Council event last year. Photo: MPC

Cook County represents 41 percent of Illinois’ population yet only three of the 30 scheduled stops on the Illinois Department of Transportation’s upcoming listening tour regarding Governor Rauner’s proposed state budget will take place in the county: two in suburban Cook County and a single meeting in Chicago.

Rauner has proposed a budget that slashes funding for transit service across the state, which would impact everything from the CTA ‘L’ and Pace suburban buses to the transit systems of downstate cities. Meanwhile, the Republican governor wants to actually increase spending to build new roads.

The proposed fiscal year 2016 budget has reduced operating assistance for the Regional Transportation Authority and its three operators – the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace – by $100 million, and funding for downstate transit providers by $93 million. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has calculated that the $100 million that would be cut from the RTA is equivalent to the total operations costs for the Orange, Brown, and Red Lines.

IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell said the department is working on scheduling an additional Chicago stop. That’s good because the only meeting scheduled in the city is part of a Metropolitan Planning Council Infrastructure Week event, which has a $75 admission charge. “These aren’t intended to be formal public hearings, but rather sessions that allow us to participate in variety of venues throughout Illinois to discuss infrastructure challenges our state faces,” Tridgell said.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke said the priority isn’t expanding the low number of Cook County sessions. “There are many ways in which IDOT and the state have historically short-changed metro Chicago, but let’s not read too much into how IDOT distributes their listening tour.”

Burke added that the region needs IDOT and the governor to do more, not less, to meet the Chicago region’s transportation needs.” His list of essentials includes:

  • A capital bill for transportation funding with a large share for transit
  • IDOT truly embracing the state’s complete streets law with policies that support walking and biking
  • Safety overhauls for the state arterial roads where a large percentage of Chicagoland traffic injuries and fatalities take place
  • Multi-modal transportation solutions for projects like the redesigns of North Lake Shore Drive and I-290

For those who cannot attend one of the 30 listening events, IDOT is accepting public input via a short online survey.

Meetings

May 13, 8 a.m. at an Infrastructure Week event ($75)
Union League Club of Chicago
65 W. Jackson Blvd.

May 13, 11 a.m. hosted by the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
TBA

May 13, 2 p.m. at the Chicago Urban League
4510 S. Michigan Ave., 1st floor conference room

Updated April 29 to include details of the newly and already scheduled Chicago meetings.