CMAP plan makes case for hiking gas tax, adding a per-mile road-usage fee

The Chicago region’s transportation system needs $24 billion over the next three decades just to keep our highways, buses and trains operating in their current condition, but that money is nowhere in sight, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

That’s the dire outlook contained in the agency’s newly approved comprehensive plan, “On to 2050,” which guides transportation investments and outlines regional priorities on development, the environment, the economy, and other issues affecting quality of life.

The new plan, three years in the making, was rolled out Wednesday at an event at Millennium Park attended by an array of public officials, civic leaders and concerned citizens. But unless legislators in Springfield, among others, pay attention to the document’s reasons and recommendations and take action, the status quo won’t change. 

On to 2050 covers much ground, which the Chicago Transportation Journal will start to approach these topics with a look at one of its recommendations: increasing the gas tax and replacing it with a “road-usage charge.”

“Systemic shifts are leading to declining revenues, and structural problems make current revenue sources inadequate for maintaining and operating the system,” the plan notes.

For example, revenues generated from the federal and state motor fuel taxes (MFTs) have lost significant purchasing power due to inflation. Meanwhile, average vehicle fuel economy has been rising and vehicle travel has been stagnant, resulting in less fuel consumption.

“These trends will…

Chicago area rail safety advocates gain national support for campaign

Railroad safety advocates in Chicago have gained a “champion” in Washington, D.C.

With his words and a handshake, Federal Railroad Administration chief Ronald Batory agreed to work toward reducing trespassing and suicide deaths by 50 percent by 2026.

“I am totally committed to it,” Batory said, then shook hands in agreement with Dr. Lanny Wilson, chairman of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council. Prior to the conference, Wilson said enlisting Batory’s support on a national level was one of the council’s goals.

Batory was keynote speaker Thursday at the council’s biennial conference, held at the Drake Hotel in Oak Brook. More than 100 safety advocates, public officials, railroad representatives and others were on hand for the daylong session.

The organization launched the campaign in 2016, hoping to replicate the success of the federal Highway-Rail Crossing Safety Action Plan in reaching the goal of reducing crossing incidents and fatalities by 50 percent.

Reducing grade crossing deaths was the original goal of the council, which Wilson, a Hinsdale physician, formed after the death of his daughter, Lauren, in a 1994 crossing incident. Batory  also lived in Hinsdale at the time, and his daughter was a high school classmate of Lauren.

Wilson noted that while highway-rail crossing statistics have steadily improved in recent years, trespasser and suicide statistics have worsened.

Thursday’s conference was intended to continue the discussion about prevention strategies, mental health awareness, and law-enforcement…

Rail safety advocates hope feds will boost campaign to cut track deaths

Chicago area railroad safety advocates are hoping their campaign to reduce trespass and suicide deaths will go national with the help of the Federal Railroad Administration.

FRA chief Ronald Batory will keynote the 2018 meeting of the DuPage Railroad Safety Council as the organization hosts its 12th biennial safety summit on Thursday.

The focus of this year’s conference, entitled Prevent Tragedy on the Tracks, will be to continue the organization’s goal of cutting trespass and suicide deaths 50 percent by 2026, according to  council chairman Dr. Lanny Wilson.

The council is hoping that Batory “will be our champion and take this goal nationwide,” Wilson said.

The council was founded in 1994 to examine ways to heighten awareness and improve safety at highway/railroad crossings and to work with civic, law enforcement and railroad leaders to eliminate deaths and injuries along railways. In 2016, the council expanded its efforts to include reducing trespass and suicide deaths.

Three sessions will be conducted Thursday: The first on research on rail trespass and suicide prevention strategies; the second on mental health initiatives; and the third on law enforcement efforts.

Among the panelists are: Scott Gabree, engineering research psychologist with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass.; Patrick Sherry, executive director of the National Center for Intermodal Transportation at the University of Denver; and James Buckley-Waterman of Network Rail Consulting.

Representatives from Highland Park Police, the DuPage County…

For Union Station, a modest ‘penthouse’ is proposed

Advocates for preserving Chicago’s historic Union Station appear to have won a significant battle against developers with a more modern perspective.

A revised plan for the redevelopment of the neoclassic building calls for adding only a single-story “penthouse,” which officials promise would not be visible from street level.

This comes instead of a modern seven-story glass and steel addition that developers — hired by Amtrak, the building’s owner — had proposed in June. That 404-apartment addition was scrapped after a torrent of opposition from preservationists, railroad fans and architecture critics.

At a meeting in the station’s restored Burlington Room Tuesday evening, developers unveiled the latest plans for the building, along with a proposal for a 715-foot, 1.5 million-square-foot office building with an attached parking structure and a 1.5-acre park, to be located on the block south of the station.

The penthouse would be atop two separate hotels totaling 400 rooms. These hotels would be built within the existing fifth and sixth floors of the building.

The penthouse will not be visible from the street, insisted officials with Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties. They backed up this promise with a sight-line diagram showing how the penthouse would be set back and screened from view.

Riverside CEO John O’Donnell called the plan the “revitalization of a Chicago landmark.”

The penthouse would encircle but not block the station’s iconic 219-foot barrel-vaulted skylight that soars above…

Metra: No fare hike this time, but cuts are ahead without state funding

In a somewhat unusual and unexpected move, Metra’s board of directors on Wednesday voted to not raise fares in 2019.

It wasn’t a vote to reject a fare hike. There was never even an official motion to do so, although the agency’s staff had suggested that the board consider three options: raising fares 25 cents per ride, 50 cents per ride, or doing nothing.

Metra has raised fares four times in the last four years, and some observers had expected to hear the same reasons for doing so as the agency’s proposed 2019 budget was unveiled Wednesday.

Not this time, Metra Chairman Norm Carlson said.

Instead, Metra will spend the next year highlighting the need for more state funding while sounding the alarm about the system’s deterioration and possible “drastic changes in service levels” if that funding does not materialize, officials said.

In late 2014 Metra unveiled a $2.4 billion plan to modernize its rolling stock and install the federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. Metra had counted on the legislature to approve a $1.1 billion state bond program, along with fare increases, to generate capital, as well as an additional $1.3 billion contribution from the state.

The promised $1.1 billion was cut to $865 million, and the $1.3 billion “never materialized,” Carlson said.

Other than 2018, Metra’s fare increases were devoted to raising money for capital, that is, locomotives, cars, tracks…

Union Station remake: Let’s keep it classic

Yet another proposal to remake historic Chicago Union Station is expected to be unveiled this week. Will this plan be any better than the others?

Here’s a suggestion: Go back to the original idea for the station. Let’s keep it classic, or at least, classy.

The most recent plan — topping the station off with a modern glass-and-steel structure — was recently scrapped. Critics described it as “an abomination” and often likened it to Soldier Field after the iconic, columned structure became the landing site for something from Star Wars.

That seven-story vertical addition was “deemed unacceptable by the community and the Alderman due to architectural and traffic concerns,” according to an announcement from the office of Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward encompasses the station. 

“As a result, the development team decided to completely revise their vision for the project,” the announcement stated.

Good idea.

Amtrak, which owns Union Station, selected Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties in May 2017 to redevelop the station and surrounding properties at a cost of $1 billion. Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB) are the architects.

Their plan called for plopping a modern addition atop the neoclassical Headhouse. This was immediately lambasted in newspaper pages, on blogs, and on social media.

The two designs were clearly incongruous. Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, said the addition has “none of the grandeur of Union…

BNSF Railway exec promises to fix Metra commuters’ woes

The BNSF Railway’s top passenger rail official promised Metra’s board of directors Wednesday that the railroad would eliminate the causes of overheated and overcrowded coach cars that had commuters boiling mad this summer.

The executive from the Fort Worth, Tex.-based railroad appeared to placate three Metra directors who were harshly critical of BNSF a month ago, and who were not buying the excuses put forth then by another BNSF official. BNSF operates the line under contract to Metra.

D.J. Mitchell, assistant vice president for BNSF passenger operations, said he and and a BNSF vice president for mechanical operations would soon meet with Metra officials and seek to prevent a recurrence of the “hot cars” with failed air conditioning on Metra’s BNSF line. 

“We’re going to sit down with the Metra folks and see why this happened,” Mitchell said. “We owe everyone, first and foremost our riders, to make sure we don’t have this happen next year.”

At one point this summer, there were 64 cars with chronic AC problems on the Metra line to Aurora.  Currently, Mitchell said, there were two hot cars in service and two in the shop being repaired.

“That is a significant improvement over a month ago,” Mitchell said.

The BNSF line is the busiest of Metra’s 11 lines, with 94 trains carrying 64,000 riders a day between Union Station and Aurora.

In addition, Mitchell said trains were now operating…

GO TO 2050 takes hard look at future of transportation in Chicago

Are you concerned about how you will get to work tomorrow? Or next week? Maybe not. But how about how you will get around in five or 10 years? According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), rapidly evolving technologies are making for an uncertain, albeit promising, future.

After all, not many people thought 10 years ago that ride-sharing via Uber and Lyft would be as prevalent, convenient, and competitive, price-wise, as taking a CTA bus, train or Metra.

Meanwhile, the transit agencies themselves — CTA, Metra, Pace, and the umbrella Regional Transportation Authority — say billions of dollars in public money is needed over the next 10 years just to keep existing equipment in good operating condition.

And what about our expressways and tollways? The Illinois Department of Transportation doesn’t get anywhere near the state and federal dollars it once did. Meanwhile, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is the only game in town when it comes to building new highways because it is awash in toll cash. 

CMAP has developed a new comprehensive regional plan for Northeastern Illinois called ON TO 2050. The plan is divided into five chapters, which are further divided into goals and recommendations. ON TO 2050’s three principles of Inclusive Growth, Resilience, and Prioritized Investment run through all of its recommendations. The plan puts forth goals for community, prosperity, environment, governance, and mobility.

The chapter on mobility is subtitled Achieving…

‘Hot cars’ have Metra riders boiling mad

Metra riders always seem to have something to complain about. “Hot cars” — where the air conditioning has failed — is the latest passenger peeve.

The problem has been especially acute on the BNSF line, Metra’s busiest, with 94 trains carrying 64,000 riders a day between Aurora and Union Station.

That’s the line where complaints of overcrowded trains erupted in June after a new schedule was introduced.

Tempers boil quickly in standing-room-only cars with 90-degree temperatures.

Riders have lit up Twitter with gripes. Here’s a typical one from Friday morning: “@metraBNSF what the hell BSNF Metra? Nearly every other section of this train has a hot car. It feels like a sauna. When is this being fixed?”

Metra’s been getting the message. On Wednesday, Metra’s board of directors summoned the BNSF to explain the cause of the distress. The Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway operates the line under contract to Metra.

Sherwin Hudson, the head of the BNSF line’s mechanical department, apologized for the problems. He attempted to explain that there were several reasons for the “hot cars,” including  a lack of repair shop time availability, a personnel shortage, and clogged condensers on the AC units.

“They clog very easily,” Hudson said. “It is our leading cause.”

On any day, Hudson said, 12 to 14 of the 211 coaches in the BNSF line’s fleet are experiencing problems with air conditioning, with many cars having…

Martin Oberman named to U.S. rail oversight board

President Donald Trump has nominated former Chicago alderman and Metra chairman Martin Oberman to a Democratic seat on the U.S. Surface Transportation board, the independent regulatory agency that resolves railroad rate and service disputes and reviews proposed railroad mergers.

The likelihood of the nomination was first tipped locally June 27 by the Chicago Transportation Journal.  The nomination was officially posted Thursday on the White House website.

If approved by the Senate, Oberman will fill the remainder of a five-year term expiring Dec. 31, 2023. The open Democratic seat was voluntarily vacated in 2017 by former Chairman Dan Elliott.

Oberman  emerged from a group of at least eight Democrats who were being considered for the last vacancy on the five-member regulatory board, which is the successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The agency also has oversight of certain trucking, intercity passenger bus and pipeline matters.

Oberman’s nomination got a strong push last month from the Rail Customer Coalition, an association of trade groups representing major freight rail users.

Oberman, 73, an attorney who built a reputation as a reformer while an alderman on Chicago’s City Council, was named to Metra’s board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September 2013. He was elected chairman in 2014, serving until last October, when Norm Carlson took the post.

Oberman also also serves on the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).  Previously, he served as general counsel to the Illinois Racing Board.  Oberman graduated from Yale University and earned his J.D. with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the…