Note from the author: This post discusses supporting views of the proposed Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and is a follow-up to a recent Mechanics post highlighting critical opinions of the BRT project.
The Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project proposed by city transportation officials is decidedly a contentious issue. And while there has been vocal opposition to the project, there is also a plenty vocal segment of Chicagoans who support the Ashland BRT project.
Supporters say the bus modernization project would enhance transit and pedestrian conditions, connect city neighborhoods and increase economic opportunities for businesses along the Ashland corridor. The BRT is an important and necessary addition to Chicago's transit grid that would improve travel times, reliability and safety for Ashland transit riders, supporters say.
Today is the last day Chicago Transit Authority will be collecting public input and formal comments on the Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, as part of their Environmental Assessment, before moving on to the next phase of design.
City transportation officials say the BRT is a necessary modernization project that would meet a high demand by providing faster, more efficient and more reliable service than current Ashland bus lines.
On Thursday night, Dec. 5, WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" did a special episode focusing on the CTA's troubled Ventra payment system. Among the panelists discussing the issues was Gapers Block's own Jason Prechtel, who wrote extensively about the troubles Cubic Transportation Systems, the company that designed and runs Ventra, has had with transit projects around the world, as well as on the RTA's responsibility for the switch to the new payment system.
I met with skepticism the Tribune's report that Mayor Emanuel responded to CTA riders' consternation over hikes to the cost of daily, weekly and monthly passes by suggesting they can choose to either drive or use public transit:
The mayor suggested commuters who don't like the new fare structure are free to get behind the wheel, setting aside the fact many Chicagoans who rely on the CTA to get to and from work don't have cars. "Now you, as a commuter, will pick. You can either drive to work or you can take public transportation, and the standard fare will stay the same," Emanuel said.
This is a stupendously politically tone-deaf thing to say. But forget about the politics of it; it's wrong on the supposed policy justifications as well.
Actually, let's go back to the politics of it. Mayor Emanuel has faced a persistent perception that he's more friendly to big business interests than to working class Chicagoans. Two reports -- one from the Reader and one from the Trib -- have focused on the mayor's meeting agendas, full as they with millionaires and lacking in community voices. The first teachers' strike in a generation aided in this perception, particularly given articles like this one from Reuters pointing out how out-of-town wealthy donors were bankrolling his fight against teachers. Early in his Mayoralty he faced outrage over the closure of mental health clinics for poor Chicagoans.
Whatever the reality of his concern for working-class Chicagoans, the perception isn't great.
In approving with no modifications Mayor Emanuel's infrastructure trust plan today, the City Council took another step towards ensuring their own irrelevance and wholly privatizing the operations of Chicago. It also took another step towards building up the Mayor's 30-second campaign commercial for whatever higher office he's envisioning (so far, he's got "won the longest school day in the country" and "made the tough decisions to balance the budget"; of course, "took on the special interests (workers)" is a given). They can't be wholly blamed, though. There's little room for them, or any local (and even state) legislatures to maneuver. The corporate tactics of capital strikes and threats of flight have proven their worth. Cities and states have been starved for well over a decade, and now we're reduced to auctioning off what we own to meet our obligations.
In a piece on the Infrastructure Trust last week, I said that it wasn't an inherently terrible idea, in part because there's really no other feasible way to raise the money. Issuing general obligation bonds wouldn't be terrible different, the federal government doesn't spend money on infrastructure any more (at least not in a direct way not routed through private pockets) and the city's wealthiest institutions and individuals are unwilling to pay higher taxes--in fact, are unwilling to pay any taxes that aren't offset by massive welfare entitlements, as the ongoing tax increment financing boondoggle demonstrates.
Taking a step back and considering the broad view, this is an astounding progression of events. Over the last 25 years, Chicago's corporate and political leadership has drained the city of revenue through creation of TIFs as a condition to invest capital in neighborhoods--the whole point of a TIF is that available capital is being withheld until the public provides better incentives for its investment. The billions of dollars diverted into these funds contribute to not only to budget shortfalls but, amazingly, increase taxes on middle class taxpayers, as the school district and other bodies have to raise their tax levy to meet their obligations.
At the same time, the city's corporate powerhouses not only withhold investing capital without generous givebacks, but also threaten to leave if their taxes (euphemistically called the "business climate") are not satisfactory.
The result is a public sector starved of revenue which must then turn to selling off (or "long-term leasing-off") its assets. This in turn, by the way, reduces a city's credit-worthiness even more, making it more difficult to issue bonds in the future and narrowing the city's tax base.
This isn't just random dot connecting; it's actually how investors view Infrastructure Trust vehicles. Consider this bit of finance news from last year:
Earlier this month AMP Capital Investors was appointed by Irish Life Investment Managers to advise on its $1.5bn Irish Infrastructure Trust. The fund is expected to acquire key assets such as airports when the Irish government begins selling down assets to meet its obligations.
[The Irish trust] will provide crucial liquidity to a sector which has, and will continue to be, squeezed of capital. At the same time valuations for infrastructure assets should be low, given the weak macroeconomic outlook, with BMI anticipating a double dip recession to hit in 2012.
Investors in infrastructure trusts are not interested in helping communities (we, a community, are leasing the assets) getting to a place of healthy revenue capable of meeting obligations and investing in long-term projects. To the contrary; the more a community is starved of revenue, the more it'll have to auction off assets. The more it has to auction off assets, the fewer options it has to raise revenue. And on and on.
This morning a coalition of organizations opposed to Mayor Emanuel's proposed Infrastructure Trust Fund urged City Council Finance Committee members to vote on the proposal, calling it "the Great Chicago Sell-Off."
The idea of an infrastructure trust is to avoid funding needed and desirous infrastructure projects--such as public transit upkeep and expansion, building modernization, etc.--with debt. So instead of issuing general obligation bonds, attractive to borrowers because they're backed by property and other taxes the city has unlimited power to raise, the city would get private capital from wealth funds, banks, and other institutions, on the idea that the project would be administered by and in part controlled by that institutions, which would earn a return on its investment over the term of the interest.
So as a hypothetical example, the City wants to build a bus rapid transit line up and down Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than issue bonds that put the city further in debt, members of the Infrastructure Trust like, Macquarie and JP Morgan, put up $500 million to widen Milwaukee Avenue, put in the appropriate curbs, compensate the parking meter consortium for the lost spaces, buy the buses, and put in street signs and benches. In return, Trust members would be given a property interest in the BRT for a period of say 50 years, with the revenue generated either being divvied or going directly to them, either in full for the period of the agreement or up to a pre-defined ceiling that allows a nice return.
In the abstract, there's no real problem with this. We as a city don't have a lot of options. Illinois is broke beyond fixing and the federal government lost its appetite for funding major urban infrastructure projects generations ago. The general atmosphere of anti-tax hysteria makes general obligations a safe investment in theory but risky in practice. If these private institutions are willing to put up the money to develop the city's infrastructure for a similar or even slightly higher rate of return that the city would pay to bond holders, then there is no real loss to the city.
The abstract privatization isn't the problem, of course. It's the reality of it. Consider the hypothetical. In that hypothetical, the Infrastructure Trust would need to reimburse another privatizer, the consortium that bought the parking meter concession, for loss of spaces. This is a considerable cost over the life of a project. The city's agreement with that consortium tied our hands when it comes to planning our own city.
Consider in turn this story about the privatized downtown parking garages. In that agreement, the City promised not to permit competing parking garages to open up nearby. From the investor's point of view, this makes sense; they want a safe investment. From the public's point of view, it's an outrage. First of all, it's hard to see how such a promise serves the public interest, since it reduces competition for parking and thus protects a high-priced monopoly. But also, it seems like an outrageous delegation of the city's general legislative powers.
Privatization is supposed to make things more "efficient" by introducing "market-signals." In reality, however, privatization of public assets usually means binding the city's legislature--meaning us, the people--to long-term agreements that bind our ability to plan and design our city as we please, and keep us indebted to private interests, many of them with no real interest in making Chicago a better place.
A similar problem popped up with the parking meter concessionaire, too as a result of disability parking and its supposed deleterious effect on their bottom line. These agreements also tend to include arbitration agreements that are costly and keep "the City" (i.e., you and I) from going to Court over disagreements in an adversarial system that lets sunlight into operations.
Concessionaires are looking for safe, long-term investments. The more city assets they de facto control, the safer their investment, because the density of privately-controlled city infrastructure cuts into revenue generating opportunities for the city (which in turn makes it more expensive to issue bonds).
The safest investment are those that are most amenable to making a profit--more "monetizable" if you will. This inverts the rationale of infrastructure building. It's why Chicago has such a maddeningly redundant train system. The original lines were privately built, operating under charters granted by the City Council. The train operators knew the best and quickest way to make their money back was to have their train line touch the central business district, thus the creation of the Loop. But the whole point of infrastructure is not to maximize existing revenue opportunities, but to build up and out--to create new ones, even where there is risk, serving the underserved, and experimenting with new forms of infrastructure.
From a planning perspective, the concern with an Infrastructure Trust is that it privatizes our infrastructure decision-making. Rather than building and developing for the common good and to serve the underserved, we will be building and developing only where it is safe to do so, for the smallest cost for maximum return. And where such a decision may conflict with grander, more expensive, and potentially less lucrative plans, the binding, long-term agreements wins out.
As the story on the Monroe Garages indicates, these agreements are also often counter-productive. They lock the city into protecting non-competitive behavior for extremely long terms, with penalties that make forcing change or cancelling agreements costly enough to inhibit public innovation. It makes no sense for the city to agree not to permit competing parking garages, just as it made no sense for the city to guarantee the existence of parking spaces--and think how this inherently impacts the city's ability to move towards a more transit-friendly, bike-friendly planning posture. Consistent privatizing of assets creates a hodge-podge of potentially conflicting property interests owned by outside parties that keeps the city--us--from planning for a future that could, and should, look quite different from today.
From a democracy perspective, the Trust presents the twin problems accountability and transparency. Aldermen had to fight to get the Mayor to include a legislator on the body that makes decision--presumably an alderman he appoints--which does not augur well for the accountability and responsiveness of this body. It creates another appointed body immune to public pressure that further concentrates power in the person of the Mayor.
If we want a legislature that is independent of the Mayor, it'd be nice if it had some power distinct from his. With such limitless control over the Board of Education, the CTA, the CHA, and all the city's planning bodies, much of the reason the City Council can't cultivate any independence is that it has very little operational authority.
Asset privatization will create some jobs, it will modernize or improve some public assets, but it will not do so in a way that is publicly-driven, held well to account or even necessarily money-saving in a long-term sense. It isn't an inherently bad idea, particularly given the absence of lots of other options.
The problem in other words isn't privatization per se, it's privatization per quod.
Meetings were held in Chicago and Evanston this week to update the public on the process of renovating a portion of the Red and Purple train lines. This process has been titled the RPM project - Red and Purple Modernization.
This would only affect the section of trains between Belmont and Linden.
There are four proposals being discussed. One plan is to simply rehabilitate the train traces and stops. Another plan is to modernize the system and consolidate some of the stops, bringing the total count of stops on this stretch from 21 to 17. Stations that would be consolidated into others are Jarvis, Thorndale and Lawrence on the Red Line; Foster and South Boulevard on the Purple Line.
Outside of the persistent problem of slack capital spending, Chicago rapid transit currently suffers from two major physical problems. The El leaves a large portion of the city underserved or wholly unserved. Also, the El is too "loop-centric", making travel between different non-loop areas slow and time consuming. This is in part a legacy of the system's origins. Privately owned and operated until 1947, rail operators insisted that their charters include service to the central business district to ensure profitability. Neighborhood-to-neighborhood service on its own was not profitable enough for the securities holders who regularly flexed their political power to protect their charters.
Our proposal here seeks to address redundancy and coverage issues by creating three new train lines in the city and reorganizing the current system.
These new lines will consist of:
a) a train along Kedzie Avenue, from Evergreen Plaza to Lincolnwood Town Center ("K Train" or "Black Line"),
b) an Outer Loop train, running downtown to 49th Street, along the viaduct at 49th, north on Kedzie, along the Bloomingdale viaduct, and back downtown ("White Line"), and
c) the incorporation of the Metra Electric South Shore line into a fully integrated CTA line ("Gold Line").
A smart reorganization of intermodal and intersystem operations would improve efficiency and close gaps in the current system. These will be discussed later, along with some reasonable but ballparky cost and economic estimates.
North - South Travel
North-south travel away from the Lake is tedious. With no train service, outside of long and inefficient trips all the way downtown and then a transfer back out, the back bone of service is slow moving buses on crowded city streets. The Black Line Kedzie Train, or K Train, would change all of this. The K train would start at Evergreen Plaza, and run from 95th Street and Kedzie Avenue as a subway north to Lincolnwood Town Center, on Touhy (possibly emerging here at ground level). The K train would run for approximately 21 miles, with 25 stops. An access tunnel around Kedzie and Eastwood would link the Black Line CTA rail yard at Kimball.
Connections with the existing train lines would provide much needed flexibility to the transit system and added benefits to Chicagoans. The K train would connect to:
Eddie Davis waits in his dapper suit for customers to arrive at Bass Furniture, but buyers and even browsers are few and far between these days for the Roseland landmark at South Michigan and 115th Street.
Business has been down for years, while Davis continues to pay the mortgage on his store and warehouses, which have sold new furniture on the Far South Side for generations.
"As much as I would like to stay in the 9th Ward, if I had the resources, I would move," Davis said.
The days when far South Michigan Avenue was a thriving commercial corridor with competing department stores are long gone, but Davis said business was much better even 10 years ago when a strip mall sat cater-corner to his store.
The mall was bulldozed for redevelopment in 2004, and the neighborhood has been waiting ever since for a grocery store to anchor the neighborhood on 115th. Roseland is completely without a supermarket, making it one of the city's largest "food deserts."
"It has impacted our business tremendously," Davis said. "We need foot traffic. We need people."
An Aldi store may yet anchor that location within the next year, but Bass Furniture could some day benefit from another development: a new El station a few hundred yards to the south, part of the proposed Red Line
"We've been here 70 years," Davis said. "If it takes 10 years for the train, we hope to be here in 10 years."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on an overhaul of the Red Line as his highest transportation priority, and within his first 100 days in office, the CTA has showed the beginnings of that process: the agency won $8.4 million in federal dollars to conduct environmental studies for Red Line improvements.
The environmental studies will take two years, and push out the finish line of a Red Line extension until at least 2017, but Joe Iacobucci, a strategic planner at the CTA, said any delay is hardly the biggest obstacle the project faces.
"The two main barriers are finding capital funds and operations costs," Iacobucci said. "We're still a ways to go, but we're still pushing this through as fast as we can."
When Richard M. Daley was mayor, the Red Line extension had to share CTA planning time with extensions to the Yellow and Orange lines as well as a new inner-city connector route called the Circle Line. Under the new mayor, those projects appear shelved, and only the Red Line extension remains active. But now the extension is sharing funds with improvements to the existing Red Line on the North Side.
In the spring, the CTA initiated its "Your Red" campaign, which, reflecting Emanuel's Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, takes a three-pronged approach to the Red Line: overhaul the dilapidated north branch of the Red Line and the suburban Purple Line for $2.4 to $4 billion; replace the rails, ties and ballasts of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line for $700 million; and extend the Red Line to 130th Street, through the Roseland neighborhood to Altgeld Gardens, for $1.2 billion.
Walk further to the El? Or risk waiting forever to a bus?
Few either/ors are more prevalent, or more frustrating, in urban living. The first thing you want with transit is speed; and when you may end up waiting for a bus to take you to that train, you'll sometimes just walk. But when the walk to the train is too long (or it is too damn cold) you'll just give up the ghost and take the car, if you have one, despite the parking headache. Or waste money on a cab.
The question is, how far will people walk before they give up? Transit experts say 400 meters, or a quarter mile (or in local parlance, "two blocks"). This of course isn't a hard-and-fast cut off, but a point on the slope:
In an interesting post on the issue, Human Transit looks at different approaches to working this fact into transit planning. The post mentions the fact that people will "walk further to rail" (really, just walk further to faster transit), which makes the city's pilot program in Bus Rapid Transit [PDF] more compelling. In our fourth-street-main-street grid system, where we have sub-community areas about every half-mile to mile, one BRT route on every eighth block would help stretch the willing-to-walk radius a bit, but given its speed not prohibitively.
In any case, our transit system is rickety and worse, has done little to innovate. Air quality, quality of life, public health, and economic development would all be served by a more mobile and active citizenship.
When you're making the choice -- how far are you willing to walk?
An impressive crowd of about 75 turned out a few nights ago at Gill Park
to hear the two runoff candidates for alderman in Chicago's 46th Ward, Molly Phelan and James Cappleman, weigh in on transportation issues at a forum hosted by Walk Bike Transit (WBT)
, a newcomer to the political scene who may end up having an important impact. The non-partisan WBT says its mission is "to mobilize voters throughout Chicagoland [on] biking, pedestrian, and transit issues." The event was the first in a week of near-nightly matchups between the two would-be successors to Helen Shiller, and, while billed as a forum rather than a debate, it nonetheless offered insight into the contrasts between the candidates as well as showcasing the interest in issues affecting those who use their own footpower, or public transportation, to get around.
The Mayor-Elect wants to hear from the public on the public transportation and accessibility. You guys are smart and, since you read political blogs, probably opinionated. Why don't you head on over and share some specific proposals. Actually some good ideas popping up in the comments already.
Recently, the CTA announced that its long-awaited Train Tracker app will be launching this month. Utilizing a system similar to its popular Bus Tracker app, CTA riders will now be able to get real time information on when the next train is due to arrive at the platform. Ideally, this story would be part of a narrative that the CTA, despite these lean times, continues to produce the best possible product it can for its ridership, and is dedicated to taking whatever steps necessary to ensure its service continues unabated.
Unfortunately though, the Train Tracker seems to be one of the only
projects that is realistically slated to get off the ground this year for the CTA. In an inventory carried out by the sweeping transportation blog The Transport Politic, a study outlining all of the major planned transit projects across the country is now available for review. Light rail in Denver, Dallas, and Pittsburgh? Construction already underway. Streetcars in Atlanta, D.C., Portland and Seattle? Making progress. Busways in Hartford, CT, and Los Angeles, and commuter rail in New York, Boston, and San Francisco? All are in various stages of construction or completion. Chicago? Not even on the map.
For a city with such historical precedent of great public works, and relatively recent cachet to preen about large-scale infrastructure projects such as Millennium Park or innovative greening initiatives, it's startling not to see it listed anywhere. In Chicago's defense, it's not as if it's starting from zero in terms of transit infrastructure. For that matter though, New York, D.C., and the majority of other cities on the list aren't either. With the completed Brown Line renovation, the CTA has been incrementally fixing what it can. And though they've still yet to move out of the review phase, there are plans to move the system forward with BRT lines, and the forever-in-review Red, Yellow, and Orange Line extensions .
Potential mayoral candidates take note: in a city where politics are often viewed through a prism of black, white, or brown, a broad-based coalition will be demanding that a green hue merit equal consideration. The Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center (EPLC), one of the midwest's foremost think-tanks and advocacy centers, is spearheading a drive to bring issues of sustainability and environmental quality to the forefront in the Chicago municipal elections, which will rear their head the moment the dust settles on the Nov. 2 general election. ELPC already has a survey in progress to show that voters care.
As the coffers of all forms of public agencies continue to bleed, there's a growing movement of adopting common sense strategies towards maintaining transit infrastructure. Philip Langdon over at The New Urban Network has looked into a growing chorus of concern in D.C. that calls to change the way maintenance is scheduled and delivered across D.C.'s Metrorail and Metrobus service. Echoing the Obama administration's call for preventive health care, Greater Greater Washington blogger Ken Archer suggests a more pro-active approach to upkeep by utilizing a "maintenance-as-you-go" system. By outfitting trains and buses with diagnostic sensors, such a program would work to identify when vehicles are in actual need of care, and not simply, to quote Langdon quoting Archer himself "either too late and a breakdown has already occurred, or it is way too early and thus wasteful."
In rural communities across the Dakotas, Michigan, and other states as well, some cash-strapped counties and state DOTs are doing way with repaving roads and replacing them with gravel. The cost of asphalt and constant maintenance is simply something small, cash-strapped highway departments are not equipped to handle at present. While it would seem almost counter-intuitive to allow roads to go "back to nature," for communities such as the 78-population strong Spiritwood, N.D., it is actually a corrective in providing infrastructure that is appropriate for a town of its stature. It's more evidence of structural changes happening everywhere in forcing Americans to address the notion that one-size-fits-all approaches to growth are not, and never were, the answer to the myriad needs of the diverse makeup of the nation's communities.
A burgeoning highlight of the Great Recession is slowly starting to reveal itself, in that we are recognizing growth, in expansionist terms, will not be the way out of our current morass. Rather, the new growth will be a right-sizing approach of doing what's rightful for our individual communities, thereby strengthening their assets, and not implementing mismatched and long-term destructive plans.
Chicago's Aaron Renn, who writes an influential blog under the moniker The Urbanophile, is one of the region's- if not nation's- leading thinkers in providing innovative solutions to urban issues. Last year, his series "Chicago Transit at a Crossroads" won the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce's Transit Innovation Award, and his work regularly is quoted and/or appears in the New York Times, Forbes, and New Geography, amongst many others. Needless to say, when Renn digs into an issue or picks up a cause, it is pretty much assured worth a read.
This past week, Renn made his case in a lengthy post about Metra's plan to use earmarked transit capital dollars to raise the grade of clearance bridges in order to accommodate more truck traffic on the roads below, and to remove a currently unused third right of way track that runs alongside the Union Pacific North Line. As is usually the case, Renn clearly illustrates his point, lucidly cutting to the heart of the matter by asking: why is Metra using any amount of their minuscule funds available for transit in order to enact what is essentially a roads improvement project? He further questions the wisdom of permanently removing the currently underutilized third right of way track in light of all indications pointing to increased ridership in the years to come, making it seem foolhardy of Metra to remove an essential bit of infrastructure that could very well be needed in the future. In his post, Renn encourages his readers to email the Metra Board and at the very least, appoint a third party to review their intentions before moving any further with the plan.
This bit of advocacy actually worked in prompting a response from Metra to Renn, presenting their side of the story and an explanation of some of their plans. (You can read their response by downloading the following: Urbanresponse.doc) While the factual matters concerning this debate would seem to fall in Renn's favor, one of the more interesting aspects of this exchange is the response elicited by the petitioning body and the speed in which the governing faction- in this case, Metra- responded. Saul Alinsky and neighborhood community groups aside, direct democracy and advocacy are not traditional strongholds in Chicagoland. Given the paucity of funds floating around during these critical times, and the utter incompetence of, sadly, most everyone involved in making funding decisions, there seems to be a slight shift afoot in how people interact with the powers and services that be. If, on a larger scale, Machine Lite may be in its waning days, could Renn and his readers represent an emerging kind of informed and eager class of citizen demanding direct interaction and response from their public utilities and government? If so, Paddy Bauler might be needing a new quote.
This vision of tomorrow's future today is intriguing to say the least, although there are tremendous practical concerns to address, especially in regards to how such an imposing structure would encourage TOD-development if it was simply tacked on top of existing car-oriented thoroughfares. But nonetheless, it is exciting to imagine these new systems coming into play. Initial questions to ponder: where would such a system work best in Chicago? Can Marty McFly use his hoverboard to access docking stations? All things worth further inquiry.
The MTA in New York recently announced that beginning this week they would be cutting two subway lines and 37 bus lines from service. With other reductions set to take place system-wide, New York's transit agency aims to shave $93 million from its operating costs. In July, when the MTA unveils its new budget, many expect the already rumored 7 precent fare hike actually to be much higher than anticipated. While the cuts in New York will indeed cause consternation and confusion amongst many, and fuel the fire of the MTA's naysaying watchdogs, it is interesting to note here the difference in tone from these drastic reductions in service in New York to the incessant "doomsday" chatter that hangs like an ever-present cloud over the CTA in Chicago. The MTA seems to have taken these operational measures without engaging in the process of alienating and villainizing the majority of the patrons who utilize their trains and buses. Leading up to the last series of service cuts experienced here in Chicago over the past winter, the CTA made a spectacle of itself by often throwing up its hands in the face of the City, Springfield and most importantly, its riders, by essentially saying "Look, there's no way. What do you want us to do? You deal with it."
Advocates of publicly-owned transit were over the moon with the announcement by the Obama administration that there would be serious investment in high-speed rail as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Communities likely to be served by the high speed rail had tentatively begun community information efforts. Transit advocates like the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) have begun undertaking serious study of the benefits of the program as planned.
Following the much-ballyhooed $8 billion that the government allotted to states as part of the stimulus bill, it doesn't look like there's much more federal money after that. In 2010, Congress authorized $2.5 billion for HSR projects -- and for 2011, it's a mere $1 billion. And given the shambles condition of most states' budgets, it's highly unlikely that state governments will be able to write big checks to HSR projects in the next 2 to 5 years.
"The Parking Meters" will not mean just "the parking meters" in Chicago for at least another generation. The popular outrage over privatization of the city's parking meters was one of the largest expression of popular discontent of the Daley era, and caused a crack, albeit a fine one, to appear in the Mayor's monolithic governing coalition. Given as we are to think of government and politics as a collection of personalities, the Daley administration's ham-handed negotiation and rolling out of the parking meter privatization have taken center stage. The concession agreement has been treated as a political disaster, with reports that the entire lease was undervalued adding to rage over an opaque process.
But are the projected sharp increases in parking costs and the potential coming of variable or market rate pricing projected over the coming years really a blessing in disguise?
Indeed, urban planners have been arguing for more realistic parking costs in cities for years, and market pricing is increasingly looked at as a critical component to make cities more "sustainable" -- that is, more efficient, less dependent on exhaustible sources of energy, more carbon-neutral, and more conducive to healthy lifestyles. These (largely academic) planners looked at the abundance of cheap parking and deduced that the prevalence of cheap parking stimulated demand, and that the abundance was a result of direct and indirect government intervention. This is primarily in the form of mandated creation of parking in the zoning code. As a result, non-drivers end up subsidizing drivers, since developers build the cost of parking construction and maintenance into their business models. What's more, in outlying areas mandatory parking lots create expanses that incrementally push commercial and residential districts further and further apart, making alternatives to driving -- particularly walking and biking -- less feasible.
A two for one solution appears: make parking sensitive to demand (i.e., increase the rates) and reinvest the revenue in foot and bike friendly urban design and public transportation. Result: efficiency and diversity of transportation options.
Man. It is just not going well for cars. Cars are quickly becoming the cigarettes of this generation. More so, admittedly, in cosmopolitan places--big cities--but, hey, most humans live in cities. Just as economies like China and India seemed to be picking up the slack for Western nations that are beginning to see car ownership and the attendant dependence on foreign energy and the infrastructure costs as a nuisance, the World Health Organization has to increasingly talk about cars as a public health crisis. An interesting infographic of WHO data shows how traffic collisions will soon kill more than one million people worldwide, half of them cyclists and pedestrians. (Unlike the mafia, apparently, drivers don't just kill one another).
The American car companies took it on the chin and now Toyota, which had painstakingly built a reputation for reliability, won't stop accelerating.
Cities are increasingly looking for ways to discourage car ownership (or, more accurately, car trips), with New Urbanist planning and zoning laws basically designed to eliminate the need for a car in even modestly densely populated areas. Comparatively high oil prices (much cheaper here than Europe) are making people more aware of the cost of driving, and the absence of convenient, affordable alternatives is making those more aware people angry, which is usually a bad situation for politicians.
Maybe cars are getting a bad rap, though. First of all, cars are fun. Second, what about what cars save? Ambulances are cars. Cars are useful for big families. Also they deliver us things. Is the automobile industry doing anything doing anything to push back against this trend of car-less urban design? Where's the fighting spirit that funded think tanks to downplay acid rain?
If its the beginning of the decline of cars as the primary mode of transportation in the industrialized world, let's remember the good times.
It looks as though there's little hope left for those who got laid off as a result of the CTA service cuts on Feb 7. As service cuts head into their third week, laid off CTA workers see little hope in coming to a solution between management and unions. There were approximately 250 CTA bus workers, both employed and laid off, who attended a rally Saturday at Operation PUSH. The Reverend Jesse Jackson said he was reaching out to state and federal officials to bring more money to public transit.
"Why would you build a new rail system from Chicago to St. Louis without fixing service to 63rd Street?" Jackson asked, referring to a recent $1.1 billion federal grant for higher speed rail in Illinois.
Asked about the impasse at a North Side event Saturday, Mayor Richard M. Daley noted both sides have been discussing the budget problems for three months, but that union members have said "no" to taking unpaid time off and "you have to respect that."
Jackson and the unions hope to meet again on Tuesday but as of yet, no improvements have been made and believes too much is being asked of CTA workers.
if they gave up a 3.5 percent pay hike and agreed to 10 furlough days, that alone would only bring back 200 of 1,057 laid off workers. The civil rights leader noted workers are also being asked to pay increased health costs and give up holiday pay and paid lunch time.
In order to make up a $95.6 million budget deficit, the CTA cut bus service by 18 percent and rail service by 9 percent as well as laid off workers on February 7. This was in result to the lower sales and property transfer tax revenues due to the ailing economy.
As Sofia Resnick notes in her great post, getting around via public transportation in Chicago just got a lot harder this week as commuters must struggle with eliminated bus routes and less frequent trains. According to the CTA's Web site, the following express routes, many running through the South and West sides of the city, have been eliminated:
#X3 King Drive Express
#X4 Cottage Grove Express
#X9 Ashland Express
#X20 Washington/Madison Express
#X49 Western Express
#53AL South Pulaski Limited
#X54 Cicero Express
#X55 Garfield Express
#X80 Irving Park Express
There have been cutbacks on suburban Pace bus routes and El service as well. According to a CTA statement, "service is operating less frequently on 119 bus routes and seven of CTA's eight rail lines. In addition, 41 bus routes have reduced hours of service - routes either are starting service later, ending service earlier at night or both. Nine weekday express bus routes that have corresponding local service have also been eliminated."
Editor's note: This article was written by Sofia Resnick. Multimedia slideshow by Chris Neary.
Starting this week, getting around on city buses and trains will be challenging to those who value efficient and reliable public transportation. If they're to believe the Chicago Transit Authority's promise for 18 percent less service on buses and 9 percent less service on trains, riders can expect to wait longer for even more crowded buses and trains. Who knows how many riders will abandon public transit for the warmth and comfort of their cars, the speed of their bicycles or the self-reliance of their own feet.
Not every commuter in Chicago has the luxury of choice when it comes to transportation.
People with disabilities who depend on an alternative door-to-door service — what's known as paratransit — can't alternate their plans when service plummets or fares climb, as they did at the end of 2009. Pace, the transportation agency most people associate with suburban buses, runs Chicago paratransit. As with the CTA, a troubled economy has driven Pace's budget so far into the red, riders have become accustomed to almost yearly declines in efficient, affordable service.
One paratransit rider, Dr. Ayo Maat, has a plan to bring affordable, reliable and eco-friendly transportation to Chicago's disabled community. Maat is proposing an alternative to the current paratransit system that would bring independence to riders with disabilities, by having them run their own service.
President Obama awarded $8 billion in high-speed rail grants to 31 states last week -- and the Midwest was not forgotten. The region was awarded $2.6 billion in total to build four major corridors: Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City, Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago, Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati, and Detroit-Chicago. In a fairly major victory, Illinois received $1.13 billion to look at the Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City corridor (pdf). The money will look at phase one of the plan to improve tracks, signal systems, and existing stations on the current Amtrak line.
Two local articles -- one from the Chicago Tribune and one from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- highlight some important issues that legislators need to consider to ensure high-speed transit in the Midwest is successful.
In a nice analysis piece, the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin argues that stations and architecture need to be thoroughly thought out and planned in order for high-speed transit to have any impact on the average person's commute:
This isn't just fixing crumbling roads and bridges. It could revolutionize the way we move and live. But if a new order is to replace the old one, much more needs to be done than speeding up the trains. The entire passenger experience has to be thought through, from curb side to the train shed. If you doubt that, take a look at the mess in Union Station, the likely hub of Midwest high-speed rail.
Members of Citizens Taking Action and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) will be protesting planned CTA reductions Wednesday morning. According to an e-mail sent out today by organizers, planned service reductions will affect communities that need and rely on mass transit the most. Organizers argue these reductions will result in:
Twice the wait time on 119 routes
Elimination of express routes
Overcrowded buses and trains
Stranded riders as a result of shortened hours of operation for 41 routes
Elimination of 1,000+ transit personnel, resulting in 40,000 less manpower hours each week
Closing of a major bus facility on the southwest side
At least 275 buses taken out of service
The rally is scheduled from 10 am to 12 pm at the CTA Headquarters, 567 W. Lake St. It comes just two days after activists gathered outside of City Hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to protest service cuts and biased funding.
In case you missed it, freelance writer Jessica Pupovac penned an interesting piece in this month's Mindful Metropolis. In the article, Pupovac looks at how $8 billion in federal stimulus money could finally bring high-speed rail to the Midwest. If successful, Americans might finally break their dependence on the automobile, and the money could help America catch up with other high-speed rail hubs like France and Japan (whose notorious bullet train is pictured above).
According to the article, a high-speed line between Chicago and St. Louis could be running very soon since it could rely on existing Amtrak tracks. Pupovac also notes in her article:
Many in Illinois are hoping Illinois is a lead contender among the more than 34 states that submitted applications totaling more than $57 billion. Illinois is asking for $4 billion, or half of the totally kitty, to build out a second, high-speed track from Chicago to St. Louis. The funds would purchase or upgrade the actual tracks, purchase new trains, install new signaling mechanisms and make a host of related improvements necessary to safely and efficiently run a train capable of traveling up to 110 miles an hour between the two cities.
But not everyone sees a future in high-speed rail. Pupovac also quotes Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Conservative think tank Cato Institute. O'Toole, who wrote the study "Taking Illinoisans for a Ride: The False Promises of High-Speed Rail," argues that the hefty cost of high-speed rail far outweighs any environmental benefit.
A class action lawsuit filed yesterday against the State of Illinois, IDOT, RTA and Metra argues that Chicago's method for funding mass transit discriminates against Latino and African American passengers.
According to the lawsuit, the city's mass transit scheme, adopted in 1983 and re-enacted in 2008, overfunds the Metra, which serves predominately white residents who live the suburbs. As a result of this overfunding, the CTA has "continually tottered on financial ruin -- having to increase fares and having to cut back on services, both of which have had substantial impacts on African American and Hispanic residents in the CTA service area."
The lawsuit points to some key moments in Chicago history, including the formation of the RTA, which was established in 1974 by the Illinois General Assembly to save cash-strapped bus and rail lines, and the Council Wars of 1983, which blocked many of Mayor Harold Washington's appointments to several boards and commissions, including the CTA. The lawsuit notes that soon after Washington won the Democratic Primary in February 1983, politicians began discussing changes to the RTA at a transit summit. During that time, "the predominantly white suburban commuters felt that they had been overpaying for their train service and that they needed to get a much larger share of RTA funding."
In November of the same year, the Illinois Senate adopted new RTA legislation that has lead to the CTA's financial disrepair, and has disproportionately hurt Latinos and African Americans, according to the lawsuit. Prior to the 1983 legislation, the CTA had received 70 percent of suburban Cook County tax revenues while Metra received 30 percent. But under the new legislation, the CTA receives 30 percent of the sales taxes collected in suburban Cook County while Metra/Pace receives 70 percent.
The lawsuit goes on to mention that as a result of this funding method, from 1985 to 2005, CTA riders faced four times more fare increases than Metra riders. During that same time, the CTA increased its fare charges by 122 percent while Metra increased its fares by 30 percent.
Some updates on union contract negotiations around town:
[CTA Tattler]: CTA bus drivers union weighs strike to protest layoffs
The union president, Darrell Jefferson, goes on to insist the CTA's budget deficit is actually $500 million, not the $300 million cited by the CTA. But the union will continue to resist any givebacks, including furlough days.
[Chicago Tribune]: Hotel workers authorize strike at downtown Starwood hotels
Chicago hotel workers voted Wednesday evening to authorize a strike at five downtown Starwood hotels.
A union spokesman said if contract negotiations drag on, similar votes could occur at downtown Hyatt and Hilton hotels. Union contracts covering 6,000 workers at 31 hotels in downtown Chicago expired Aug. 31, and the union has said a settlement is far from sight.
With a federal mediator in place at the end of the table, the Union and Management traded barbs as the contract stalemate continues. AFSCME continues to demand that management provide us with an updated wages proposal, which the county will not as the tax issue continues to drag on before the county board.
This is another example of the trouble the labor movement has. The private sector has carved out a legal regime that makes it easy and painless to bust unions and squash workers' rights to organize in the workplace. Because we don't allow our government to violate a worker's right to organize, it is much easier to organize in the public sector. As a result, we end up with high unionization rates in the public sector and low union density in the private sector. Since public employees get paid by all of us, it is easy to stir up resentment against public sector workers--why should they have it so good? Why should they get defined benefit pensions?
Rather than try to pull everybody up to the decent living standards that public sector workers get, conservatives advocate for dragging everybody else down to the lower living standards. Private sector jobs not covered by collective bargaining agreements, the argument goes, have their value determined "rationally" by the market, whereas union contracts "artificially" inflate wages and benefits. This is of course absurd; collective bargaining agreements are entered into voluntarily, just like any contract, and if using your size and bargaining strength to improve the deal you get is "artificial" then a certain big blue discount super retailer from Bentonville, Arkansas should be the archenemy of conservatives and libertarians everywhere.
Don't be surprised if CTA employees' refusal to give up what they've earned over years--decades--of work ends up being blamed for the fare hikes or service cuts. These workers are very convenient scapegoats. Easier to beat up on people earning the median income than force the powerful to pay their fair share, or make tough decisions.
I had the pleasure yesterday, in between e-mail and a client meeting, to take in the 7th Annual lunchtime media briefing by Chicago Metropolis 2020. CM2020 is a non-profit organization originally established by the Commercial Club of Chicago "to promote long-term planning, better regional cooperation, and smart investments in the Chicago region and its people." The briefing, attended by a number of notables on the Chicago journalism scene, promised presentations on criminal justice reform; campaign finance limits; housing policy, early childhood education, and the Burnham Plan Centennial.
Adele Simmons, VP of the Burnham Plan Centennial, combined a general welcome with an overview of the mission of the Centennial, which is to carry on the legacy of legendary planner Daniel Burnham by focusing on innovative regional solutions for the Chicago metro area, saying, "The choices we make today will shape the future." While that statement might seem tautological at first, the emphasis was on bringing to the forefront of our decisionmaking the long-range, rather than short-term drivers.
I find this bit in a story in today's Chicago Sun-Times on the Cash for Clunkers program surprising:
Illinois ranks sixth among states in the number of cash-for-clunker dollars going to buyers: $2.44 million. It follows No. 1 Michigan ($3.4 million), Ohio ($2.93 million), California ($2.64 million), Minnesota ($2.62 million) and Texas ($2.5 million).
That puts us ahead of states like Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington --places where I'd assume there'd not only be enthusiasm for environmentalism and/or fuel efficiency but also a lack of conservative skepticism toward the program. Personally I can't think of any really good explanation for any of the states I mention except maybe Oregon which is basically bicycle central. But for the rest, what's the deal? Why is Illinois, whose biggest city has a fair (but far from perfect) public transport system doing more trading than these other ones? Do that many people have more SUVs to trade in?
USA Today reports that a group of governors from around the Midwest met in Chicago today to create a group that will lobby for a unified high speed rail system across the region.
The group's participants, the governors from Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio (6 Democrats and 2 Republicans - but hey, who's counting?) are all from states hit hard by the shuttering of the once-massive US manufacturing sector. The Rust Belt, as some suggest, could benefit from encouraged mobility and possible job growth. (Is it just me, or does every single project announced in the Midwest these days seem to include the words "job growth"? I'll believe it when I see it.)
Of course, conservatives are criticizing the cost. The article quotes John Tillman from the Illinois Policy Institute, who says, "They don't want the price tag out there when everyone's talking fiscal restraint." Yeah, fiscal restraint. How come I don't hear all these libertarians calling to cut back on highway spending? According to IDOT's own 2007 Fiscal Year report, Illinois spent over $5.3 billion on Blago's "Congestion-Relief Program" - also known as Open Road Tolling.
And yet every time someone suggests that we fund transit at an operational level, like the CTA, we hear no end to the demagoguery. Or when an opportunity develops to invest in fast, modern, environmentally-friendly travel options for our region - we hear the same, tired arguments over and over.
Hopefully, our willfully incapable two party system will actually do something the Midwest desperately needs - lead. After all, Chicago may be the biggest city on the "third coast", but as Detroit's meltdown shows, it's not the only dog in the neighborhood. We should encourage more cross-pollination of ideas, resources, and economies with surrounding communities to foster a more robust industrial heartland once again.
An article in the San Francicso Chronicledetails a plan to relieve parking congestion by allowing neighborhoods to decide how much to charge for parking, and adding "perks" that would come along with the privilege:
They suggest replacing the 1970s-era lettered parking sticker program with "parking benefit districts," a boutique approach to parking in which residents decide how much to charge for parking in their neighborhoods, the boundaries for paid parking and what perks should come to those who pay premiums to park.
The idea is to raise money for the city, make it easier for people to park in front of their house, and also reduce pollution by encouraging transit use, said San Francisco County Transit Authority planner Jesse Koehler, who presented his three-year report Tuesday to the authority's plans and programs committee.
At first glance, applying this to Chicago, this just struck me as a terrible idea that would further segregate the city. But...
Parking is scarce in part because residential parking permits are so cheap, Koehler said. For $76 a year - pennies a day - people can park all day on their streets, in some cases using their garages for workshops or storage.
Good point. Seems the problem starts at the level of demand--we need to discourage car ownership by making transportation not only in Chicago but in the region swift and simple. Will fees discourage car ownership without matching it to better public transport?
Why do conservatives hate trains? Not sure; but there's no doubt they do. Maybe they just love atomizing transportation, as they love atomizing everything else. But there's no doubt that high speed rail has been a solution to many of our infrastructure, congestion, and environmental problems, and that a lack of political courage has been the major stumbling block to its coming to fruition. There was a time when businessmen used to take the train everywhere; then the defunding of Amtrak in the 1970s essentially destroyed our country's rail infrastructure.
Trains traveling at 110 m.p.h. on Illinois' first high-speed corridor would make the 284-mile trip between Chicago and St. Louis in about four hours -- shaving 1 ½ hours off current travel times by Amtrak trains now running up to 79 m.p.h., according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.
By going 220 m.p.h., however, those improved trip times would be cut roughly in half, to 1 hour and 52 minutes, according to the association. The estimate includes making intermediary stops in Champaign and Springfield, while providing customers with downtown-to-downtown service and beating the door-to-door trip times of airline travel.
The trip between Champaign and Chicago would take 45 minutes; and 90 minutes between Springfield and Chicago, the study said. The study estimated the cost of building the 220-m.p.h. Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor at $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars. It does not include the cost of new trains, maintenance facilities and other expenses.
Five local transit and planning advocates held a media briefing via conference call on June 25 to elevate the attention level of House Transportation Committee chairman James Oberstar (D.-MN)'s $500 billion surface transportation stimulus/funding bill, as well as to call for improvements in the bill. The consensus of the panel was that the bill provides much needed funding but still lacks some key elements, most prominently performance measures and a heavier mass transit emphasis, to effect meaningful change in national transportation policy.
Oberstar and Rep. John Mica (R.-FL) released the full draft text of the 775-page Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 ("STAA") on Monday, June 22. A shorter 17-page summary was made available the week before. Fuller account below.
The CTA unveiled last night its preliminary concept for a significant extension of the Yellow Line, a/k/a the Skokie Swift, from its current terminus at Dempster Street in Skokie, to Old Orchard Road, just east of the Edens Expressway. The authority rolled out its presentation at a public meeting at Niles North High School, near where the extension would end. Approximately 50 members of the public were in attendance, along with what seemed to be at least a dozen CTA staffers and consultants. Public officials were notably absent, except for Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen, a longtime booster of more rapid transit to the inland North Shore burb, and an aide of State Rep. Lou Lang.
Here's the story: Governor Quinn originally promised to use some stimulus funds both on roads around Illinois and on city transit mainly in Chicago. Both could use some funding. A little while ago, Governor Quinn went back on his original promise saying that funding public transit wasn't quite possible and then committed the majority of the money to the roads instead.
Quinn's office is arguing that there are financial constraints from putting the money to fixing the CTA (does that make any sense to you because it's not supposed to). Greg Hinz has the details:
Mr. Quinn's spokeswoman says road work can begin right away because the state's road fund has existing revenue sources that can support $640 million appropriated for road projects. Mr. Quinn "believed it was critical to pass the Jump Start Capital Plan to get shovel-ready roads projects going in May so we can start putting people to work," she says.
But the transit work is different, according to the governor's office. It requires the Legislature to pass "revenue enhancements" to pay off the bonds, and that has not yet occurred, the spokeswoman says. The transit agencies can use the time to get their projects shovel ready, she says.
Notice the last part which I bolded and underlined. I did that because in actuality the transit agencies DO have shovel ready projects. Now, I accept that there are some things that I, a humble college student miles away from his Hyde Park, Chicago home, does not know that the Illinois Governor very well might. But Michael Madigan says Quinn is wrong too (quote from Hinz's story):
As the media caught on Quinn's office backtracked and said, basically, that the Governor has every intention of eventually putting much needed money into rails. I'm going to go out on a limb here and by bet that every intention means never.
Adam Doster at Progress Illinois points out that this is yet another example of how state governments are set up in a way that transit funding gets to city transit agencies the long way. It's not at all unusual. New York is having a very similar problem right now. What would make more sense would be if public transit funding went to the areas of a state where the public transit is used most (cities).
The best argument against the bill seems to be that accepting credit cards would that Metra would have pay a processing fee. According to Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet, "Coming up with the funding for several million dollars when we're already $50 million in the hole is difficult." I guess I understand that but I'm also inclined to think that when word got out that the Metra allowed plastic, there would be a rise in ridership that might balance out the processing fees --given the economy and the undependable price of gas these days.
Greg Hinz reports that Chicago Aviation Commissioner Richard Rodriguez could succeed Ron Huberman at the CTA. Rodriguez is a much better match for the CTA than Huberman is for the the Chicago Public Schools. Rodriguez has also served as the Commissioner of the Department of Buildings and held earlier posts in the Chicago Housing Authority and the Real Estate and Planning Department within the Department of Aviation.
Well, aviation isn't the same as transportation, but it's a hell of a lot closer than education so this could be a better fit. This is probably a fairly wise pick -- since Daley wants to get the 2016 Olympics, he's likely to choose someone competent enough to bring the CTA up to snuff to make the city worthy of hosting the Olympics.
In shifting Mr. Huberman, Mayor Daley candidly admitted he believes that educating kids is more important than getting people to jobs.
"The most imporant aspect of life is a quality education," he replied when I asked him if having both good schools and good transit wasn't important. "Education is the answer to all the ills."
I don't know if you can interpret that as Daley prizes education above transportation. Transportation is crucial for a city to function, and a fool our mayor is not. He's on the money earlier in the same piece:
At the CTA, Mr. Huberman wasn't perfect but he was a breath of fresh air.
Unlike his immediate predecessors, he recognized that the CTA is in a consumer business, a business in which good service is required. Thanks to him, those slow zones on miles and miles of el lines are gone. Articulated buses get fixed fast, rather than breaking down every day. The amount of service has increased. And, while fares went up, the system's basic finances are in the best shape in decades.
Even bigger were his dreams for the future, dreams of clean, high-tech service like other cities have on existing and new lines. At least some of those dreams were starting to come into focus with the prospect of billions of dollars in federal aid under President Barack Obama.
Is it too much to ask to keep the somewhat competent people in the places where they actually are competent? I'm going to channel Daley right now and say "yes."
The tone seems to be pretty benign about Ron Huberman's appointment to lead the Chicago Public Schools, but really, is this anything but Daley-style machine politics?
Come on now, how exactly is education related to transportation? And beyond that, despite some serious improvements (slow zones, an ambitious digital tracking system), there's much work to be done. It's not the time for a leader to move on to something new and different.
It's worth asking why riders need to switch to Ventra to begin with. Halfway across the country, D.C.-area transit riders will soon get a Ventra-style open fare payment system...but will still be using a card based on a version of the Chicago Card technology. More...