CN August 21, 2014


Has Rahm Emanuel distinguished himself as the Transportation Mayor? Has he shown he knows how to shake money out of the Washington money trees?

“He has,” says Tribune Getting Around transportation reporter Jon Hikevitch, “But he’s been fortunate, too. He has his obvious connections to the Obama administration, particularly his very close friend Ray LaHood (who was until recently U.S. Transportation Secretary.) And, almost equally important, Emanuel has benefitted greatly from Governor Quinn’s Illinois Jobs Now capital improvement program. That was a $31 billion program over six years.”

The problem is that all this transportation money may not flow much longer. That State program is over for now, and as for the feds – “It doesn’t look real good for the near term. The federal transportation bill expires at the end of September and it’s very unlikely it’ll be reauthorized as a multi-year bill.”

And the need is overwhelming. The CTA’s unmet capital needs total more than ten billion, and Metra needs billions more.  One project alone – the reconstruction of the tracks and stations north of Belmont along the Red and Purple lines – will cost 4.7 billion alone.

But the mayor was able to announce a start to the project recently.

“Yea, he’s got $35 million dollars from the feds for that 4.7 billion project, so it’s for planning, it’s for engineering,” Hilkevitch explains. “But the City was smart in being able to work with Senator Durbin to define that pot of money.  It was perviously reserved for what are called new-start projects. That’s like building new light-rail projects in he sun-belt. And Durbin was able to create his core-capacity program to help old, urban areas – and this money was dedicated to the Red and Purple modernization. It’s the only project so far that has received money  from that pot.”

So planning is underway, but the City still has to find about 4.67 billion of that 4.7 billion if it’s going to build a new Red-Purple all the way to Linden.

There’s also the extension of the Red Line to 130th Street, which has moved  beyond concept stage and into design now that routes have been more or less settled. But, again, beyond planning, there’s no hard money identified for the project. That could become an issue during Mayor Emanuel’s re-election campaign.

“He said during the campaign that he would have it started within a couple of years of his election. That wasn’t a realistic promise and he certainly hasn’t been able to keep it.”

Mayor Emanuel also campaigned heavily on the idea of building bus-rapid transit in Chicago. He moved quickly to introduce a conceptual plan for Ashland Avenue, but the reviews were, at best, mixed.

“The City is going for what’s considered the gold standard in bus rapid transit on Ashland,” Hilkevitch tells us. “It’s a 160 million dollar project. You’d have bus stations in the median of Ashland. You’d take away one traffic lane in each direction and the idea is you’d have these buses operating almost like rapid transit…it reduces traffic capacity by 50%. The City’s argument is that this is such an attractive mode of transit that people would get out of their cars and onto these BRT buses. I’m not so sure that’s the case. In other cities we’ve seen cars where there are BRT lines skating through residential streets to try to avoid the reduced lanes and it’s causing safety issues.”

Like the Red Line north project, three’s one major glitch. “The City doesn’t have any money for this project, so it’s on the slow track,” he says. “It’s not dead. I expect to see some modifications to it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the City goes ahead, both on Ashland and on Western.”

Bike lanes are always in the news. But there was a minor revolt recently in Jefferson Park after the City revealed its plan for a reconstructed section of Milwaukee Avenue that proposed converting one traffic lane in each direction into a protected bike commuter lane.

“Commuters and merchants don’t want it. They say bikers share the road now, it seems to work,” Hilkevitch tells us. “The City says not quite true. We have almost an accident a day on Milwaukee, over a thousand injuries over the last five years including one fatality, so they see it as a safety issue.”

So the Milwaukee plans are back on the drawing board.

But not all the transit issues are City-related. In fact, there’s a growing need for transit far away from downtown. The Center for Neighborhood Technology recently looked at transportation in the entire metro area, and in their report they found lots of “transit deserts” all over suburbia (and some in the City, too).

“Four out of the five major suburban job corridors – just clusters of thousands and thousands of jobs – there’s no transit out there,” says Hilkevitch. “So you have people who are doing two, three-hour one way trips just to get to low-paying jobs using transit or they’re buying cars they can’t afford and spending an inordinate amount of their income on gas and parking.”

So, after one term, how does Rahm Emanuel stack up as a transportation mayor? Better or worse than Kennelley, Daley, Bilandic, Byrne, Washington Sawyer or Daley?

“I think it’s about the same,” says Hilkevitch. “Certainly this mayor is all about sound bites and publicity. And some of these projects are Emanuel’s, they are new. Others are things that he inherited that were in the pipeline for many years.”

“The message is that we can’t rely on Washington. And whether it’s doing smarter public-private partnerships or increasing local revenue, we really have to do it on our own. Other states – California, Virginia, whether tolling, raising gas taxes, they’re doing it. Los Angeles approved a referendum for forty billion dollars in transit improvements.”



About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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