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No Bike or Walking Goals in Rahm’s New Transition Plan, But TOD Is a Priority

3:39 PM CDT on August 17, 2015

Construction has started on a new TOD project at the former site of the "Punkin' Donuts" at Belmont and Clark. Photo: John Greenfield

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago 2011 Transition Plan set several bold goals for sustainable transportation, many of which have already been achieved. Emanuel’s first transition team included a number of heavy-hitters from the local transportation advocacy scene, including representatives of the Active Transportation Alliance, the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and the SRAM Cycling Fund. Their influence was evident in the document’s big plans for transit, walking, and biking.

As promised in the 2011 transition plan, the CTA overhauled the South Red Line within Emanuel’s first term. The agency launched the Jeffery Jump express bus service, began the Loop Link downtown bus rapid transit project, and started the planning process for BRT on Ashland Avenue. The Chicago Department of Transportation published the city’s first pedestrian plan and introduced a number of pedestrian safety initiatives. And, as outlined in the transition plan, CDOT launched the Divvy bike-share system, built the Bloomingdale Trail, and came close to achieving the goal of installing 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within four years.

In contrast, when Emanuel appointed his second-term transition team last April, it didn’t include any transportation experts, except for then-CTA president Forrest Claypool. The mayor asked the team to focus on ideas for strengthening City Hall’s public engagement process, driving economic growth in the neighborhoods, and expanding early-childhood education. As a result, the committee’s report on priority policy recommendations, released this morning, has relatively little transportation content.

The main transportation-related initiative in the new document is a call for expanding transit-oriented development as a way to foster economic growth in the neighborhoods. The 2011 transition plan called for supporting “development near transit stations, including zoning changes to enable transit-oriented development.”

In 2013, those changes became a reality, when City Council passed Chicago’s first TOD ordinance. In general, it halved the parking requirements for residential developments within 600 feet of rapid transit stations, 1,200 feet on designated Pedestrian Streets, as well as providing density bonuses for some developments.

Last month, Emanuel introduced a reform ordinance that would eliminate the parking requirement altogether within the TOD districts, which would be expanded to within a quarter-mile of stations, and a half-mile on P-Streets. The new report lists Emanuel’s first-term public transportation accomplishments and argues that promoting more TOD is a way to capitalize on these:

To maximize the economic value created by this investment, the City should promote greater density and development near transit locations. Transit-Oriented Development reduces costly car congestion by promoting walkable streets and commuting by public transit. It also promotes healthy commercial corridors that offer the amenities needed to keep families in Chicago.

The report claims that the 2013 ordinance spurred the development of eight projects worth over $132 million, which have created almost 1,000 construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs. “Promoting TOD will drive additional economic development to neighborhoods,” it states.

The document calls for introducing a reform ordinance within the first 90 days of Emanuel’s second term (which, of course, has already been done) and ultimately passing the new legislation. City Council may vote on the ordinance as early as September 24.

The committee also recommends leveraging “all economic development tools to provide incentives for investment in these [TOD] areas. Last month, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy released the “Grow Chicago” TOD report, and a TOD benefit calculator. It recommends prioritizing existing public funding streams towards areas near transit, and encouraging financial institutions to focus their lending in these districts.

One other transportation policy item in the “economic growth” section of the new transition plan is a reference to proposed state legislation that would allow the creation of tax-increment financing districts around transit stations. These TIFs would capture the increase in property tax revenue generated by four specified public transportation investments, and earmark that cash to help pay for the transit improvements.

"The Administration should also assess the costs and benefits of transit TIF proposals currently under review in Springfield,” recommends the transition report. “While establishing dedicated transit TIF districts could accelerate important modernization work, the City should ensure that this approach would not divert resources from other important priorities."

It’s a little disappointing that the new transition plan doesn’t include the same kind of ambitious goals for transit, walking, and biking as the first one. However, the emphasis on TOD as an economic engine, as well as the interest in the promising transit TIF legislation, is right on track.

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