Where Do Lightfoot and Preckwinkle Stand on Transportation Issues?

Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle
Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle

Yesterday’s Chicago mayoral election was a win for social justice, since the April 2 runoff will include former Chicago Police Board president and attorney Lori Lightfoot, and current Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle. That makes the runoff a contest between two candidates who are running as progressives, and guarantees that the next person to lead Chicago will be a woman of color, a first for our city. (Lightfoot would also be Chicago’s first openly LGBT mayor.)

The election outcome was also a victory for sustainable transportation. Bill Daley, whom most pundits (myself included) predicted would make it to the runoff, was just about the only candidate who had anything positive to say about Elon Musk’s Jetsons-esque scheme to build an O’Hare Express transit system using “electric sleds. Although current mayor Rahm Emanuel has championed the proposal, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have both spoken disparagingly of it, which makes it much less likely this boondoggle will be moving forward in the future.

Moreover, judging from what they’ve said at candidates forums and on questionnaires (although, unfortunately, neither one responded to Streetsblog’s survey) both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle appear to be generally on the right page when it comes to sustainable transportation and traffic safety issues. But let’s take a deeper dive into exactly where each of the mayoral hopefuls stands on some of the issues.

O’Hare Express

Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have thrown shade on Elon Musk’s proposal in the past. Lightfoot previously told the Chicago Tribune that Musk’s and the Emanuel administration’s claim that taxpayers won’t wind up subsidizing the system is “a fiction.”

At the Transit4All forum last month, Preckwinkle said the express “is definitely something I would put on pause. If we’re going to make investments in transit, I think they should be investments in the CTA and in Metra.”

Bike lanes

Both candidates have endorsed the Active Transportation Alliance’s call for 100 miles of new bike lanes over the four years, including 50 miles of protected lanes. “We must drastically expand the quality and quantity of bike lanes in our city,” Lightfoot said in her response to the Active Trans questionnaire.

“I fully understand and appreciate the importance of multimodal transportation, specifically with dedicated and protected bike lanes,” Preckwinkle said in her response to the Active Trans survey. “As Mayor, I will work to find the revenue to establish these projects.”

Bike/walk fund

The Active Trans questionnaire asked if candidates would commit to earmarking $20 million a year for pedestrian and bike safety infrastructure, with a focus on reducing collisions in high-crash areas in underserved communities. Lightfoot said yes. “Chicago’s Vision Zero [plan] has the ambitious goal to eliminate death and serious injuries resulting from traffic crashes, but clearly more must be done to make this goal a reality,” she responded. “My administration will reallocate $20 million from existing Chicago Department of Transportation funding to establish a new annual budget line item dedicated to building safe streets.”

Preckwinkle declined to commit to that number. “While I will continue to invest in funds for biking and walking projects, my immediate priority will continue to be towards transit and other transportation alternatives,” she said. “I am hesitant to pre-determine dollar amounts in budgets. I am committed to bike/walk transportation, but I am also committed to smart budgeting. Therefore… I may dedicate the $20 million suggested or could be more.”

Speeding up buses

Both women have voiced support for strategies to improve bus travel times and reliability and reverse falling ridership. The Active Trans Questionnaire asked if the candidates are in favor of creating 50 miles of transit-priority streets with car-free bus lanes and bus-friendly traffic signals. Lightfoot said she supports this goal and would install bus lanes on some streets and full-fledged bus rapid transit, including prepaid boarding and raised platforms, on others. She mentioned Chicago Avenue, Cottage Grove, Puslaski, and Halsted as potential routes, as well as bringing back the Emanuel administration’s shelved plan for the Ashland BRT “with community support.”

Preckwinkle also signed on to the 50-mile goal, although she gave fewer specifics, simply stating, “I will develop and implement a plan that identifies priority corridors based on community input to identify where the maximum impact and benefit can be achieved.”

Reduced or free CTA fares

Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have both said they’re in favor of some kind of break on transit fares for low-income people, youth, and/or seniors. The Tribune reported that, at a West Side forum in January, both candidates said they’d support free rides for kids and the elderly. However, a few days later Preckwinkle cautioned against more free rides at a panel discussion in Pilsen. Not long after that, Preckwinkle said at the Transit4All forum, “The population that needs reduced fares [is] students.” So that’s a little confusing.

But here’s what the women put in writing in response to Active Trans question about whether they’d support establishing a 50 percent discounted CTA, Metra and Pace fare for residents at or below the federal poverty line. “I support reduced fares for vulnerable populations and will seek to restore the 50 percent cut in the state subsidy CTA receives for providing free and reduced rides to students and other groups,” Lightfoot state. She added that she would work with the Chicago Public Schools to provide free transit rides to low-income students, and that she’d seek to expand the time and days CPS students can use free or reduced fare cards.

Preckwinkle responded, “I fully support such an initiative on grounds of inclusivity. We need to be looking at every option to improve and increase ridership. This initiative will require new, unprecedented levels of inter-agency collaboration and infrastructure.”

Regulating and taxing Uber and Lyft

The candidates agree that we need to reign in ride-share to improve safety and keep it from causing more congestion and transit ridership losses. The Active Trans survey asked the hopefuls if they supported having “Uber/Lyft pay a higher city fee when driving in congested areas during rush hour with no or only one passenger.” Lightfoot said she would “help write and introduce an ordinance to increase fees for ride-hail trips that begin in the Loop. In the future, my administration will explore expanding this fee to rides originating in areas of the city with reliable 24-hour public transportation.” She said this revenue would be earmarked for the construction of bus lanes and increasing bus and ‘L’ service.

“We need to tax ride-share and car-sharing,” Preckwinkle said at the Transit4All forum. “Ride-sharing and car-sharing have a place, but they’re not as well-regulated as the taxi industry.” She also brought up the idea of further taxing ride-share to fund transit at the discussion in Pilsen. In response to the Active Trans question, she said, “I want people to use transit, and I want to build a world class transit system. We need to look at ways to reduce congestion.”

In a nutshell, both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have fairly progressive transportation platforms. Lightfoot tended to mention more specific ideas in her responses to the Active Trans questionnaire. But Preckwinkle showed up for the transit forums, and she’s racked up some credibility with initiatives like Cook County’s first long-range transportation plan in the modern era. So no matter who wins in April, we’re not going to get stuck with a motorhead for mayor.

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  • Brianbobcat

    It’s pretty comical that John calls the O’Hare Express a “boondoggle” even though he has no evidence for that position. There’s naysayers to everything, and here’s hoping the new mayor doesn’t get in the way of private investment like its sounding like both candidates will.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Don’t just take my word for it — read what local transit authorities have to say about the project. https://chi.streetsblog.org/2019/02/27/chicago-infrastructure-trust-transit-experts-discuss-the-doomed-ohare-express/

  • what_eva

    Do you really think that contract wasn’t going to have a public backstop? If so, I gotta bridge for you.

  • Private investment has had a really long run of getting in the way of public investment. Turnabout is fair play. Actually seeing as how private investment aka failed neo-liberal austerity capitalism has brought us planetary global climate change …

    In my humble opinion.

    It’s actually possible that there could be an explosion of small and medium sized business private investment under either Toni or Lori. The problems come from monopoly sized corporate and mega project levels of private investment that can be the most problematic. Especially the ones that create boring car centric sub-urban style development that then create dead end bland non-neighborhoods.

  • Brianbobcat

    I have read it. Here are the summaries from the experts you interviewed:

    • Joe Schwieterman: There is no downside to this project.

    • Dr. P.S. Sriraj: “skeptical” and then calls for reduction in Highway capacity by 33%. There is nothing more stereotypical than stating to “simply” remove a travel lane on the Kennedy Expressway.

    • Anonymous: Has nothing positive to say, but then won’t share his/her name or credentials so anyone can fact check that they know what they’re talking about.

    • Fritz Plous: completely against it because the company he works for can’t make any money off an entirely privately-funded project.

    As for the Block 37 destination, I’ve flown out of O’Hre twice in two weeks, and both times I came from the loop. Many people at my office fly out straight from the office, or arrive directly from the airport.

    The comment about “When they disembark under Block 37 they’ll still need a cab or an Uber — so they’ll probably just catch one at O’Hare instead.” is again absurd. A taxi from O’Hare to the loop at 9:30pm with no traffic cost me almost $50. During rush hour, that would be significantly more. A cab or Lyft from block 37 to a couple blocks away would be under $10. So simple math says:
    $10+$25 O’Hare Express fare=$35
    $50+ cab fare

    O’Hare Express would be cheaper and faster.

    Lastly, Dr. Seiraj cites one example that hasn’t failed, but is requiring some tweaking. Examples of successful airport express trains are:
    • Heathrow Express (costs £22.00 ($29 USD), goes directly to Paddington Station in downtown London, with ridership of 17,000 PER DAY) https://www.heathrowexpress.com/about-heathrow-express/facts-figures
    • Arlanda Express (costs 295 SEK ($31 USD), goes directly to Stockholm Central Station, 3.3 million passengers in 2012 http://arlandaexpress.com

    I welcome debate, but outright dismissal is ridiculous, and John, you do that a lot to any issue that does not strictly benefit biking or walking.