What a long, strange trip it’s been | On Transportation | Chicago Reader

What a long, strange trip it’s been 

The year in review in federal—and local—transportation news.

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John Greenfield

Things in Washington, D.C., are nuttier than ever in the wake of the multiple Trump-related felony convictions earlier this month, but at least some reason prevailed this year in regards to federal transit policy.

Early on, the Trump administration announced its intention to eliminate federal funding for public transportation, and as of this summer the Federal Transit Administration was hoarding $1.4 billion that Congress had appropriated for new transit projects. The stonewalling jeopardized 17 initiatives around the country, including plans to double-track the South Shore commuter line to create express service between Chicago and Michigan City, Indiana.

Thankfully it looks like Trump's war on transit is ending, since on November 28 the FTA announced it was releasing $281 million to pay for five projects. More funding announcements are expected in January, when the Democrats gain control of the House.

With all the chaos in Washington, it's nice to live in a city where rational transportation policy has become more or less a given in recent years, and 2018 was no exception—plenty of good stuff happened for biking, walking, and transit this year.

That's not to say that there weren't some low points. Drivers had fatally struck six people on bikes on Chicago streets as of mid- December. In August cyclists were particularly shaken by the death of Angela Park, 39, a spin instructor and triathlon coach who was run over by a truck driver in Greektown during the morning rush.

Fortunately, the city made significant progress on creating safer bike routes this year. The Chicago Department of Transportation installed 30 miles of new and upgraded bikeways, including 7.2 miles of "neighborhood greenway" side-street routes, 11 miles of buffered lanes and four miles of new or upgraded protected bike lanes. The bike-lane renovations included adding concrete curbs to protect riders on the popular Dearborn, Milwaukee, and Elston lanes.

Dockless bike-share debuted on the far south side in 2018, with most of the trips taking place in or near Beverly. The pilot ended in November, but locals gave it a thumbs-up, so hopefully dockless cycles will soon be deployed in a larger service area, perhaps the entire city.

Meanwhile, Car2go point-to-point car-sharing launched here in July, albeit in a limited area due to Not In My Back Yard resistance from some private car owners and aldermen. And dockless electric scooter companies jockeyed to set up shop here, lobbying in Springfield and doing demos at street fests.

The Divvy system weathered an existential crisis this summer, when many folks figured out how to steal bikes from stations. City emails the Reader obtained showed that the problem was due to a foolish decision to remove security hardware from the docks, but after our report came out, Divvy sped up the reinstallation of the parts, finishing in November, and the problem seems to be under control now. On the bright side, the system turned its highest-ever profit for the city this year, $3.7 million.

Transportation-related equity concerns continued to be a major issue this year. This summer the Chicago Police Department admitted that officers have written exponentially more tickets for bike infractions in some communities of color compared to majority-white neighborhoods as a strategy to conduct searches for contraband.

And, in the wake of skyrocketing housing prices along the Bloomingdale Trail corridor, gentrification fueled by new parks and recreation amenities is a growing concern. Earlier this month, in advance of the construction of the Paseo trail in Little Village and Pilsen, City Council passed an ordinance doubling the amount of on-site affordable units required in new developments in the area. But some housing advocates say the law doesn't go far enough to prevent displacement.

There was progress on several transit station projects in 2018, including the completion of the $203 million Wilson stop rehab, and major work on the $280 million 95th Street Red Line station reconstruction, which is slated to wrap up by New Year's. Renovations of the Garfield Green and Jefferson Park stops are also moving along, and in April the city broke ground on the new Damen Green Line station near the United Center.

On a smaller scale, I'm a fan of the colorful new canopy, freeform seating fixtures, planters, and mural that were recently installed at the Paulina Brown Line station as part of the Lakeview Low-Line project. This "placemaking" initiative will eventually create a half-mile walkway under the tracks to the Southport stop.

But things aren't looking completely rosy for local transportation options. Due to the growing popularity of Uber and Lyft, Chicago-area public transportation ridership continued to slump this year—the Regional Transit Authority projected a 2.6 percent drop by the end of 2018 compared to 2017. The 31st Street bus narrowly escaped cancellation due to low ridership.

Meanwhile, the $41 million Loop Link express bus corridor has resulted in only modest speed gains. The Active Transportation Alliance also put out bus service report cards for all 50 wards, and found that most parts of the city got mediocre or failing grades for speed and reliability. Clearly if we're going to stop the ridership bleeding, we need to implement robust time-saving features like camera-enforced bus lanes and prepaid boarding.

Several developments in recent weeks suggest next year is going to be a big one for transportation, especially as the mayoral race heats up and a more transit-friendly Democratic administration takes over in Springfield. In early December City Council moved to take over an abandoned rail line to create a transit route from the future Lincoln Yards development to the Loop.

Also this month, the CTA board approved contracts for construction of the $2.1 billion Red and Purple Modernization project on the north side, and preliminary engineering for the $2.3 billion Red Line extension on the south side. And, no longer seeking reelection, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently called for taking the unpopular, but necessary, step of raising the state gas tax to fix Illinois' crumbling infrastructure and properly fund transit.

So buckle your seatbelts or strap on your bike helmets, folks. It looks like 2019 is going to be a wild ride.   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

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