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Scheinfeld Laments State, Federal Funding Problems, Asks for Help With Vision Zero

CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld at the City Club of Chicago.

At a talk earlier this afternoon for the City Club of Chicago, transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld blasted Donald Trump’s efforts to abolish federal funding for transit, as well as Governor Rauner’s withholding of state funds for Chicago projects. She also called on the local business community to help the city achieve its Vision Zero goal of reaching zero serious and fatal crashes by 2026.

Scheinfeld started her talk with a rundown of recent and upcoming Chicago Department of Transportation infrastructure initiatives, noting that several bike-pedestrian bridges, as well as road bridges, are slated for construction or renovation on the south lakefront. The new CTA Washington-Wabash station will be opening later this year, and the stretch of Wabash under the ‘L’ stop, which has been closed for many months, will reopen by the end of the week. The commissioner called the station “a game-changer for the East Loop.”

Construction on the brand-new Damen station on the Green Line is expected to start next year, Scheinfeld said. It will be the third totally new train stop to be built under Mayor Emanuel, and will fill in a 1.5-mile gap between the Ashland and California stations and serve the United Center, the Kinzie Industrial Corridor, and “Near West Side residents who have for too long been passed up for the economic benefits of transit access,” according to the commissioner.

Scheinfeld noted that transit signal prioritization was recently implemented on nine miles of South Ashland, extending green lights so that CTA buses can clear the intersection, and the feature will soon be added on Western from Howard to 79th.

The commissioner mentioned that the Wells-Wentworth Connector, a new road that will link Chinatown to soon-to-be-developed riverfront land south of the Loop is well underway, with a section between 17th and 19th, near Ping Tom Park, substantially completed. The second phase of the project, straightening the skewed, dangerous Cermak/Wentworth intersection, will take place this year, and the demolition of a building at the northwest corner to make room for relocating Wentworth is largely completed. Tragically, last Saturday pedestrian Augustin Arroyo, 56, was fatally struck at the intersection.

CDOT is currently planning a redesign of Milwaukee from Belmont to Logan Boulevard, including the hazardous traffic circle around the eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument, another badly-needed safety overhaul.

Next, Scheinfeld addressed the transportation funding challenges at the federal and state levels. “We are very concerned about the changing landscape” in Washington D.C., she said, noting that while Trump has promised to invest $1 trillion in new infrastructure nationwide, “there’s been lots of talk, but no action.” The commissioner repeated Mayor Emanuel’s recent argument that any infrastructure plan that doesn’t include a dedicated funding source is mere “fairy dust.”

Worse, the commissioner noted, The Donald’s proposed federal budget calls for abolishing the Core Capacity, New Starts, and TIGER grant programs, which have been crucial for funding transit infrastructure. Doing so would “cut jobs, make commutes longer, and decrease service,” Scheinfeld said.

Gridlock at the state level is also starting to cause major problems for Chicago transportation initiatives since, under Rauner, the Illinois Department of Transportation has begun withholding Chicago funding, according to the CDOT commissioner. Affected projects, which she called “hostages in a political fight,” include 41 miles of planned street repaving, several bridges (including such bike-ped facilties as the Navy Pier Flyover, the Riverview Bridge, and the 43rd Street Bridge), and the Harrison viaduct by the old main post office. A federally funded Walk to Transit safety program is also jeopardized by the withholding of state matching funds, she said..

Moreover, added Scheinfeld, the lack of cooperation from Springfield will make it harder to leverage future federal funding for projects like the overhaul of Union Station, CDOT’s CREATE program to unsnarl local freight congestion, a continuous Chicago River trail, and the reconstruction of North Lake Shore Drive. Scheinfeld urged the local leaders present to “use your voices to push for sensible solutions” to the state funding issues.

Memorial to Daniel Solis at 37th and Ashland. Photo: Jean Khut
Memorial to Daniel Solis at 37th and Ashland. Photo: Jean Khut
Memorial to Daniel Solis at 37th and Ashland. Photo: Jean Khut

The commissioner concluded by discussing the city’s Vision Zero efforts. The multi-departmental Vision Zero action plan was supposed to be released last fall, but she promised it would be coming out very soon.

“No one should die on our roads,” Scheinfeld said. “They are for getting to work, to school, to family, and friends, not for dying.” She noted that every three days someone is killed in a traffic crash in Chicago, and every day five people are seriously injured in traffic crashes.

Scheinfeld added that last Wednesday five-year-old Daniel Solis was fatally struck in McKinley Park while crossing in a crosswalk with a walk signal by a turning driver who failed to yield. “These severe crashes are not ‘accidents,’ and I encourage you to change your lingo,” she said.

The commissioner asked the assembled business people and civic leaders to contribute to the effort to eliminate crashes. Businesses that employ drivers should encourage their workers to behave more responsibly on the roads and should consider adding safety gear on their fleets, such as convex mirrors and sideguards for trucks to protect pedestrians and bicyclists fatalities. Tech companies can help come up with data-driven safety solutions. And social service providers should share info on how traffic violence affects their clients to help the city fine-tune its Vision Zero approach.

“By working together we can make real change and save lives,” Scheinfeld said.

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