More from Marge: Alderman Laurino talks trails, bike sharing


Margaret Laurino with constituent and Grid Chicago commenter Bob Kastigar.

Since Checkerboard City, my weekly column that runs in print in Newcity magazine, is limited to about 1,000 words, some good material from my recent interview with bike-friendly 39th Ward Alderman Margaret Laurino wound up on the cutting room floor. She had interesting things to say about bringing bike sharing to her district, as well as plans for extending the North Branch trail 4.2 miles south south to Foster Avenue. The latter will make it possible to bike roughly 25 miles from Belmont and the Chicago River in Lakeview to the Chicago Botanic Gardens in north suburban Glencoe on an almost entirely car-free route. We’ll get you more details on that exciting project in the near future.

Are there any transit improvement projects going on in your ward?

I think that any improvements that have happened have actually already happened. One of them that I happen to be interested in because of the current ward re-map – you know we’re picking up new areas that we hadn’t had before. The one that I’m going to focus on is that Forest Glenn Metra stop where once again I want it to be a little bit more bike-friendly. I want people to once again be able to bring their bicycles to that stop and then hop on the train and go downtown. I don’t know how many people in my community are actually hopping on a bike, getting on Elston Avenue and actually going all the way downtown. I don’t think that’s happening too much. But getting to the train station on your bicycle… what do we call it, the last mile?

Exactly, yeah.

The last mile, that’s something that I want to really concentrate on. So I’m going to hopefully do that with Metra in cooperation with the city of Chicago there. And then I’d very much like to see a bike share [rental kiosks] at our universities in our ward. The one that I’m really going to push is going to be at Northeastern Illinois University because it’s a commuter college. I’d like to see a bike share [kiosk] on, say, Bryn Mawr. Then they can just rent their bikes, hop on Kimball, which isn’t a bad street for biking and get to the Brown Line at Lawrence and Kimball.

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Charging by the mile, a gas tax alternative, sees serious movement


The Illinois Department of Transportation is ready to build many more lanes and flyovers at the Circle Interchange, shown here in a postcard from 1963. Posted by Brandon Bartoszek. 

Because of vehicles with higher fuel efficiency, slightly less driving, and the gas tax not being changed since 1993, the motor vehicle fuel tax, or “gas tax”, has failed to pay for everything that Congress has legislated that it should pay for. The Highway Trust Fund, which includes the Mass Transit Account, has received several infusions of money from the “general revenue fund” – to the tune of over $60 billion.

But a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the congressional think tank focused on financing, past, present, and future, has made the country take a giant step forward in considering a switch to a fee that more accurately charges usage. The report, like all GAO studies, was commissioned by the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee*.

The gas tax charges drivers based on their use of petroleum, different vehicles can go different distances on the same amount of petroleum: essentially, some pay less than others for the same use of the road. Addiitionally, the counts of how much people drive has decreased (called vehicle miles traveled, or VMT), yet our demand for funds to maintain and build new infrastructure outpaces the incoming revenues from the gas tax. Lastly, the federal gas tax hasn’t changed at all, sticking to a cool 18.4 cents per gallon (for non-diesel drivers) since 1993. “While the gas tax was equal to 17 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas when it was set at its current level in 1993, it is now only 5 percent” (Streetsblog).

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First CTA fare hike in four years begins today


A Blue Line train towards O’Hare approaches the UIC-Halsted station. CTA has added more runs to the O’Hare branch, in its “plan to reduce crowding” (more commonly called “decrowding plan”), which are short-turned at UIC-Halsted station. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

The 55% of Chicago Transit Authority passengers who use passes will see an increase in their per-trip fare when they buy new passes or reload a Chicago Card Plus today. This is the first fare increase since January 2009. (See the full schedule of fares on CTA’s website.)

My friend Ryan Lakes, an architect, bike polo player, and West Town Bikes volunteer in Humboldt Park, strongly recommended I watch “Taken For A Ride“, a documentary about the systematic dismantling of rail transit in tens of cities nationwide, and the conversion of those routes to diesel buses manufactured by General Motors. I strongly recommend it, too. It was released in 1996, but watching it today shows me how transit history repeats itself.

Continue reading First CTA fare hike in four years begins today

What is regional transit? RTA undertaking its own strategic plan update process


It’s rare to see CTA and Metra signs in the same place. The LaSalle Intermodal Transfer Center at LaSalle Street and Congress Parkway is a great step in making transit work “regionally”: it connects Rock Island District trains and multiple bus routes. It provides weak signage directing riders to the Jackson Blue Line station one block away. Photo by Anne Alt. 

“The Regional Transportation Authority values input of how to better the regional transit system. The RTA is conducting a survey to help gather ideas to inform the strategic planning process.” This quote is from its website promoting the process.

In August we published an article from two guest contributors about Metra and its own strategic plan update process. One critique was that Metra was doing this independently of the other “service boards” (Chicago Transit Authority and Pace) and its parent organization, RTA. You can provide your input on their strategic planning process with an online survey through January 25, 2013.

I reached out to RTA to understand why, again, there is an organization doing this planning process alone.

In a nutshell, there are separate (coordinated, not independent) strategic planning processes that are undertaken by the individual agencies because transit aims to strike a balance between addressing long-term, regional concerns and more near-term, local needs.

The scope of Service Board strategic planning initiatives usually encompasses operating and service provision issues—issues for which the service boards are experts. For example, this might include developing or revising service planning standards—at what level of demand should we increase service or build an infill station? Does the agency have enough reliable vehicles in its fleet to provide the desired levels of service envisioned for the next 2-3 years? These are the nature of issues for which the service boards have the most experience and local knowledge by which to develop plans and policies.

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Cool New York City transportation stuff I’d love to see in Chicago


One-way protected bike lane leading downtown to pedestrianized Times Square. While NYC has some terrific bicycle facilities, it also has its fair share of bike salmon and bike ninjas.

View more photos from John’s Manhattan bike ride here.

Last week I wrote, “[Chicago is] now the national leader in providing enhanced on-street bikeways.” It’s probably true that we have the highest total number of miles of protected and buffered bike lanes, 12.5 and 14.5 miles, respectively, for a total of 27 miles. (The Chicago Department of Transportation recently started counting both types as “protected,” but I’m sticking with the standard definition of protected lanes as ones with a physical barrier, such as parked cars, between cyclists and motorized traffic.)

But on a visit to New York City a few days later, I found out we still haven’t beat the Big Apple in terms of physically separated protected lanes; there are currently about twenty miles of them in the five boros, according to Streetsblog editor-in-chief Ben Fried. (I’m still trying to track down the number of buffered lane miles.) New York has been building protected lanes since 2007 but Chicago, which only started last year, is currently installing the lanes at a much faster rate, so it’s very possible we’ll overtake them in the near future.

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Transit benefit reaches parity with parking benefit, plus other new laws


Transit users whose employers provide pre-tax benefit programs stand to pay less taxes in 2012 and 2013. Photo by Erin Nekervis. 

January 1st always comes with new laws. This January 1st was a little different than most in that the United States was closing in on the “fiscal cliff”. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 is expected to be signed into law by President Obama and includes provisions that raise taxes on a majority of Americans, and prolongs extended unemployment benefits, among other changes to the tax code. A major change, fought over for years by sustainable transportation advocates, is the coming yearlong parity of the transit commuter benefit with the parking benefit. These two programs deduct the cost of a monthly transit or parking pass before calculating taxes owed (“pre-tax benefit”).

The American Public Transportation Association released a statement:

For 2013, there is no longer a financial bias in the federal tax code against public transit use. This has always been an issue of fairness, and public transit advocates are pleased that the federal tax code will again provide transit riders with the same tax benefits according to those who drive to work.

The change will be retroactive to January 1, 2012, so workers whose employers implement this program will be able to receive tax benefits for any passes they purchased through the program last year. Unfortunately, the benefit expires December 31, 2013. This isn’t the first time that the transit commuter benefit will expire while the parking benefit remains. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA 2009, also known as the “stimulus”) raised the transit commuter benefit from $120 to $230 per month, but that expired on December 31, 2011. The parking benefit remained at $230 per month.

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