About Michael Podgers

Urbanelijk is a forum to encourage more conversations about issues relating to urban planning and design, architecture, sustainable development and living at a local, regional, national and international level. I believe in the importance of learning from others' opinions and building a strong knowledge base through peer-to-peer engagement. I always try my best to consider the 'triple bottom line' of sustainability (environmental, social and economic) and I think that looking at such issues from different perspectives is important. I'm currently completing my bachelors degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a major in history and German. My liberal arts background has been an important in informing how I look at the world. In addition to three full academic years at UW-Madison I was also a student at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität (Uni Freiburg) in Freiburg, Germany. This was a great opportunity to experience European models of planning and transportation. I was lucky enough to spend time in the experimental neighborhood Vauban, which was planned to lower the carbon footprint of all its households and encourage sustainable living. I'm originally from Chicago, and I plan on going into urban planning. I speak German and I'm also learning French (four years) and Dutch (one year). I enjoy languages, fashion, LGBTQ studies and much more.

Petitioners Make A Strong Case for 63rd Street ‘L’

Just over two weeks ago a petition was launched calling for the extension of the CTA Green Line from 63rd Street and Cottage Grove to Jackson Park. The petition rapidly reached its initial goal of gathering 500 signatures and is now being left open to gather more support. Talk of any new major investment in rapid transit is always exciting, but most of the time it is just that: talk. This petition makes a strong case for extending the Green Line east, however, and it may be a case worth giving serious attention.

I spoke with the three men behind the petition—Reuben Lillie, its author, and Mike Medina and Gabriel Piemonte, two Woodlawn residents who helped him craft the wording and background knowledge. (Streetsblog Chicago published an edited version of the story, and a complete version is available on Urbanelijk.) It’s easy enough to identify a good idea and propose a rapid transit extension, but does the plan Lillie, Medina, and Peimonte propose have teeth? Looking at it in details indicates it does.

The petitioners make a strong case that the project can be funded in part with private-public partnerships. It is unlikely this extension would do be a huge financial windfall for investors, but it is important to note the two potential investors for this project are non-profit institutions that would nonetheless benefit directly from solid transit services to their area.

The extension of the Green Line is a high-impact, low cost project for the CTA. Based on cost estimates for its other major projects, it doesn’t appear this project would cost most than $500 million and certainly it wouldn’t cost $1 billion, which is was CMAP’s estimates. The Red and Purple Modernization, for example, is expected to cost less than $220 million per mile to build and will include new elevated structures and stations. And more contributors can share this lower cost.

While the lack of a consistent local funding stream for major capital projects for Chicago transit is often a road block two new options may help proposals like a Green Line Extension more forward. A new type of TIF specifically for transit projects is being experimented with on the North Side for the Red and Purple Modernization. Second, the Transit Future campaign suggests a penny on the dollar sales tax for Cook County to specifically fund transit projects. Both ideas are realistic and could make the difference between not expansion and major growth.

The Obama Foundation is directly identified as a possible funding partner and it is implied that the University of Chicago would be another. At the moment, neither is served directly by the ‘L’ and both would benefit from the access provided by a Green Line extension. Students, visitors, and employees would be a short walk from the ‘L’ if the Green Line gets extended. To sweeten the pie, funding could be rewarded with naming rights. One point made during the interview was how powerful it to call a new terminus at Jackson Park “Obama Center”. A new station between Woodlawn and University could reasonably be named University of Chicago.

Furthermore, the petitioners call for new stations or expanded services at two to three locations, which would increase the use of this branch, bringing in more revenue through fares, which is vital for the extension’s long-term sustainability. And speaking of sustainable solutions, the petition reveals that a substantial segment of the route’s elevated infrastructure already exists in storage. While this would not save on construction costs it would save on materials procurements. Although it’s only a few blocks worth of structure, this is significant for a project that is only one mile long.

Finally, the costs of some of the more expensive elements of the project, including a bridge across the Metra Electric tracks, could be split between multiple parties. While the petitioners avoided making demands on Metra and the South Shore Line to avoid distracting from the main goal, a new bridge could (and should) be integrated into a transfer station connecting the three rail services. A new transfer station could replicate the model of Jamaica Center in New York City and in turn increase ridership resulting from improved transfers. This would be a vital link between the three South Side transit services.

Demographically, the area is also well suited to support rapid transit services. In addition to strong institutional draws the population density of the census tracts surrounding the route of the proposed extension range from 16,000 persons per mile square to over 20,000, which puts these tracts among the most densely populated in the area. The densities are already high enough to support rapid transit services. There is ample developable land in the area, too, which means population growth could be further supported.

The residents of this area would also benefit from transit access. Woodlawn residents experience a higher rate of unemployment, poverty, and transit dependence than residents in Chicago as a whole or in neighboring Hyde Park. Improved rapid transit access would increase the speed with which residents could access jobs and educational opportunities elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, the construction of the extension would produce numerous jobs in the neighborhood at least temporarily. Finally, it would decrease the burden of transit dependent residents who currently have to rely on buses or the more expensive but less reliable Metra services.

In total, a one-mile extension of the ‘L’ to the former terminus at Jackson Park would bring new ‘L’ services to upwards of 100,000 residents, multiple major institutions, and the lakefront within a one-to-two mile radius of the new line.

The proposed extension is likely one of the most reasonable transit expansion proposals in the region. In some ways, it’s arguably a better use of money than the Red Line Extension. Considering the low cost, split between multiple public and private parties, the existing materials, and the potential social and economic impact there is very little that says this is a bad idea.

Petitioners Take On Challenge to Restore Jackson Park Green Line

An edited version of this story was published by Streetsblog Chicago on Tuesday, July 26. This is the original, extended text.

Twenty years ago, the Chicago Tribune reported Woodlawn residents waking to “the thunder of falling steel;” the noise was the controversial demolition of the Jackson Park branch of the Green Line east of Cottage Grove. The demolition has regained attention after Hyde Park resident, Reuben Lillie, launched a petition and website calling for its restoration. In addition to its call for expanded rapid transit service, the petition also reflects broader issues on the South Side: local anxiety over development in Jackson Park, questions of gentrification, and indignation towards the patronizing treatment of South Siders by City Hall.

The Jackson Park branch was part of the original ‘L’. Planned in 1880s with its initial terminus at 39th Street, the ‘L’ was immediately extended to Jackson Park when Chicago hosted the 1893 World’s Fair. For a century after trains used this structure until deferred maintenance and deteriorating infrastructure paved the way for demolition crews to move in during the fall 1997.

Still, the demolition of the ‘L’ branch is a curiosity. It destroyed one of the city’s most historically significant pieces of infrastructure and it provided the only direct rapid transit link between to the lakefront parks. Furthermore, the demolition came at time that would not suggest interest in shrinking the system: the Blue Line had been recently extended, the Orange Line was brand new, and a renovation of the entire Green Line was underway.

According to a contemporary report from the Chicago Reader, a number of parties are behind the elevated’s demolition. Inaction at City Hall and sort-sighted leadership at the CTA allowed the structure to fall into disrepair. Subsequently, the priorities of local organizations and influential individuals such as Bishop Arthur M. Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God and Rev. Leon Finney, Jr., chairman of the Woodlawn Organization, and proponents of demolition, helped bring down the ‘L’.

A native of Pennsylvania, Lillie moved to the South Side three years ago and has thrown himself into becoming a proud Chicagoan. A musician and theologian, he recognized the logic in having the “L” run all the way to Jackson Park following the announcement that the Obama Presidential Center would be built in the park. “I was kind of waiting in the wings hoping the sensible thing would be done,” Lillie says.

He became more “aggressive” in his activism (laughing at his own word choice) when it became clear no plans for the ‘L’ were in the works. This is when Mike Medina, a 12-year Woodlawn resident, noticed Lillie’s comments about the ‘L’ online and reached out about his interest in the Green Line extension. Medina was “struck by the optimism” and salience of his ideas. He then showed Lillie’s comments to Gabriel Piemonte, a seven-year Woodlawn resident who would also help.

The petition states there is no “viable infrastructure for welcoming people to the Jackson Park vicinity” and that ‘L’ service “encourages visitors to Jackson Park…but also enables our South Side neighbors to move more freely to, from, and within Woodlawn.“ Arguing there is no better time to address this, the petition calls for the restoration of service to Jackson Park.

Proposing the construction of a new piece of infrastructure is valiant albeit difficult. In particular, transit expansion is notoriously expensive and mired in politics. Kyle Whitehead, Government Relations Director at the Active Transportation Alliance, lays out some of the challenges to expand rapid transit. The first hurdle is creating a proposal for the extension and pursuing a public engagement process, all necessary steps. Money is the biggest challenge for moving forward, however.

“Funding is typically the biggest barrier to…building new [transit lines],” says Whitehead, adding that local funding is especially difficult. While federal grants can help municipalities fund transit projects they all require significant local matches. Currently, there is no dedicated source of revenue for transit to meet local match requirements. At the city and county level “we struggle to come up with those funds,” explains Whitehead.

Indeed, Chicago is full of examples of projects stuck at the drawing board although they have well developed plans. Nonetheless, implementation remains elusive. Moreover, the Green Line restoration to Jackson Park only entered the lexicon of official planning projects with its inclusion in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s list of regionally significant projects last year.

The men behind the petition show no naïveté and they are aware of the associated challenges. Nonetheless, they remain steadfast in the belief that this is an essential first step for Woodlawn. Indeed, when discussing the restoration of the Green Line they reveal an understanding of the dynamics of transit expansion in general, the potential impact on Woodlawn specifically, and the relationship to projects in Jackson Park.

More broadly, the petition is about bringing back local control to the planning process. “The nerve that [this idea] struck with us…was the idea of South Siders being a part of the conversation,” Piemonte says with Medina adding that it is in contrast to residents being “spoon feed [ideas] by private investors.” While such comments expose frustration with how City Hall conducts planning processes on the South Side it is being channeled into an effort to positively restore local participation and allow South Siders to be leaders in these processes.

“One of the questions that is coming from this is people now asking, ‘well, how should Woodlawn be developed,’ and that is very exciting,” Piemonte says. The focus remains on the ‘L’, and while some have rebuked the idea as a silver bullet solution to Woodlawn’s problems Lillie maintains the idea is an essential element to the neighborhood’s revival and health. “It’s not panacean,” Lillied says, “it’s just key.”

Medina and Piemonte, who are both involved in other community engagement efforts, see this is as a critical strain in conversations for how the south lakefront and Woodlawn will develop. The restoration of the ‘L’ has to include projects such as the Obama Presidential Center and vice versa. “How do you not notice the ‘L’ has been torn down,” Piemonte asks, stressing the hole its absence creates in Woodlawn.

The initial goal of 500 signatures was achieved so quickly that a discussion of next steps was forced. This includes getting the attention or support of three particular groups. First, it is measuring community support, which the petitioners feel exists. Second is the Obama Foundation, which also seems receptive to the idea; according to Lillie the director of planning and construction for the Obama Presidential Center, Roark Frankel, showed enthusiasm for the idea after speaking with Lillie at a ward meeting. The Obama Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

The third target is Mayor Emanuel and the CTA. A report on DNAinfo included a statement from CTA Spokesperson Irene Ferradaz, who said that while the extension is not being considered the CTA “always looks for opportunities to improve the system to meet ridership demand.” The important message for Lillie is that “they didn’t say ‘no’.” Remaining optimistic, he interprets this as an opening to begin pushing for the establishment of a committee to plan the project.

Now, the petition is being kept active longer with a new goal of 1,000 signatures. The date by which the petitioners want a response from the Mayor’s office, the CTA, and other parities is September 27, the 20th anniversary of the Jackson Park branch’s demolition. It also falls before the planning for the Obama center gets under way in earnest allowing them to include the ‘L’ in their plans.

The proposal for the ‘L’ is part of a visionary idea for the South Side that fits well with the vision the Obama’s have set out for the Presidential Center, according to the petitioners. Indeed, for them, it is a visionary idea for the whole city to acknowledge. “One of our [city’s] foundational concepts is forever open and free,” Piemonte says referencing the idea that the public should have complete access to the lakefront, “that these spaces are for everybody…and if people can’t get to it, it’s not fair.”

At this Lillie adds forthrightly, “anything that happens here without the ‘L’ in some manner is a Pyrrhic victory.” Access is synonymous with fairness and essential to the equity of plans for Jackson Park.

South Side residents share a sense that they have to be self-reliant, and it is up to them to arrange the resources and services they need and desire on their own, the petitioners maintain. And now they think it will be impossible for the city to ignore local demand to restore the ‘L’ with the new activity in Jackson Park. “They kind of started the poker game,” Piemonte says. “They say they’re doing this, because they care about the community”, Lillie remarks, and “we’re calling their bluff.”

For Lillie, the extension of the Green Line to its former terminus is a prodigious project. Not only does it correct years of neglect and false promises to the South Side, it fits into a more epic image of Chicago that speaks to its better qualities. The Obama Presidential Center’s location in Jackson Park references history with its link to the World’s Fair, which was Chicago’s coming out to the world. For some residents, the Obama center is viewed similarly. The ‘L’ is presented now as important as it was during the fair.

Bringing [the ‘L’] back is recapturing Daniel Burnham’s vision,” Lillie said “it was there to welcome the world to Chicago.”

 

We Have a Budget, Now, Reform!

The first hurdle has been cleared in Illinois’ arduous effort to write a budget. After two years of stalemate one has passed, albeit without the approval of Governor Bruce Rauner and by overriding vetoes in both the legislative houses (including defections by GOP representatives and Democrats). Threats by credit rating agencies to downgrade the state’s credit to junk status certainly put the fire beneath officials to end this stalemate. The threat to the state’s long-term fiscal health has not passed, however, and frankly much harder work is ahead for lawmakers as they try (or at least claim they are trying) to whip this state into shape.

Reform is needed–desperately! With the stalemates in Springfield, animosity high between the parties, and a increasingly weary public the idea of reform seems unrealistic and far off. Nevertheless, now is the time to talk reform, nay, demand it and make it happen. An obvious detriment to instituting reform is the absence of a clear coalition to lead discussions on government reform and identify policies for implementation in the short-, medium-, and long-term. (Why not add my two cents?) Fundamentally, the state needs to re-evaluate just about every aspect of how it runs, from taxes to education to local governance to voting and elections, to ensure it can actually transform into a livable place. None of this will be easy, but as citizens we must begin crafting ideas that we can present to lawmakers.

Residents should not be pessimistic about the potential of this state although lately the negative headlines reinforces a towering pessimism that has descended on this state. Yet, Illinois, in spite of its many problems, still has huge potential to succeed.

First, let’s remind ourselves that Illinois is actually quite a wealthy state. It’s fiscal problems do not lie in a lack of economy or human capital. Indeed, residents need to understand this state’s wealth and potential to know we can and must demand more of the government, which (reminder) we elect.

As of 2010, Illinois had the fifth largest state economy in the US and the 13th highest state GDP (excluding Washington, DC), and the latter is higher than the national average. To put this in perspective, Illinois’ economy is as large as Turkey, which ranks 17th in
the world according to the IMF. Illinois also produces a surplus in federal revenue from the states. In fact, it ranks fourth in the size of its surplus (the money sent to the federal government in taxes versus the amount of federal money spent in Illinois). This speaks to the state’s revenue potential.

Likewise, if Chicago was a county, its economy would be worth well over a half billion dollars, according the Brookings Institute. This would put it around Argentina or Saudi Arabia in economic size.

None of this speaks to the health of the state’s economy. The ongoing crisis in Springfield and Chicago’s City Hall will have a long-term impact on how well the state and city can perform. That said, Illinois has a really strong footing to build upon. Additionally, the state has shown itself to be open to progressive policies even if it is not a national leader. Then again, it has also kicked the can down the road consistently deepening a crisis that for years was growing more obvious. Reform is going to have to come in waves, but each should lead to and build off the other. It will not happen without the increasingly incessant voices of voters on these issues. Thus, I present a rough framework for reform.

Producing Reform

The fact of the matter is that a number of ideas for reform exist. I am not coming up with anything new or radical. What I am doing is trying to organize a set of ideas presented from multiple fronts in a way that is digestible and coordinates ideas from a number of fronts. Voters need to begin demanding and showing they expect law makers to follow through on changes. This has to be a packaged deal.

The Short Term

There is a short list of ideas that could reasonably pass in the next legislative session, or at least within a year. These should be made as an indication to residents that reform efforts are underway. They include:

  • Legalization of recreational marijuana use and its sale, which creates new business opportunities, produces millions in new revenue, and eliminates incarceration for a victimless crime.
  • Expand the franchise with automatic voter registration (currently underway).
  • Establishing a non-partisan, independent commission to draw voting districts to eliminate partisan districting (may be forced due to a decision by SCOTUS concerning a case out of Wisconsin).
  • Re-write the Illinois Election Code so that the election of all state legislative seats and the governor is done by a run-off system, wherein the two rounds of voting occur; the top two candidates in the first round run head-to-head in the second. This is similar to the French system and would open more space for independent and third party candidates.
  • Explore putting term-limits in place for the Governor and State Representatives leaving.*
  • Beginning in 2018 (and this is important for the later efforts) issue biannual budgets. This allows legislators more time to focus on the details of legislation and reform and spend less time every year bickering about budgets.

Frankly, it’s naïv to think all this could pass, but they’re reasonable first steps. (I lack confidence electoral reform would happen, for example). Now that a budget has passed voters need to turn their attention to discussing such immediate opportunities for reform with their legislators.

The Medium Term

The first round of reforms should achieve a few things: create a more equitable electoral system, produce new revenue through alternative sources, and regain the trust of voters. The second set of reforms, ones that may take longer, should begin addressing some of the structural problems in the state like tax equity.

  • Establish a graduated income tax on residents beginning with the 2018 budget. This should use the new 4.95% rate as the base (pegged to Illinois’ median income). Illinois has one of least progressive income tax rates in of US states.
  • Establish an additional 1% municipal income tax (on top of the state income tax regardless of income bracket, see above) that is split equally between the municipality where individuals have their residence and where they make their income. This ensures all municipalities have a dedicated revenue source beyond property taxes and ensure municipalities with large employment bases receive the revenue to fund services used by people employed there but not living there.
  • Reform of Illinois’ sales tax to ensure it’s also progressive. This includes removing taxes on general necessity goods such as basic clothing items (following Minnesota’s model) and food items. (Luxury clothing should not be exempt.) Additionally, as people consume more services and fewer products the tax code must be rewritten to emphasize taxing services (especially luxury services) which are generally exempt at the moment. A reasonable solution would be to pass legislation mandating increased taxes on services to overlap with current sales tax rates before those changes take effect. (This would, similarly to a plan by the Civic Federation, create a one-time boost in state revenues to help pay of backlogged bills.) Finally, sales tax surcharges should be permitted, indeed actively encouraged, for products that have negative impacts on individuals and/or societal costs or consumption of which is entirely voluntary and unnecessary for a person’s basic well-being (private cars and trucks, candy, cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, pop etc.).
  • Increase the gas tax. The low state and federal gas taxes are a scourge on transportation infrastructure maintenance and investment. An increase in the tax has to include a provision that the tax will also rise with inflation to ensure revenue stays adequate. Additionally, an increase must be married to a provision that shows a commitment to economically and environmentally sustainable investments, including a moratorium on new road projects until current infrastructure receives high grade marks again. This should exclude mass transit infrastructure.
The Long Term

This is the hard part: Illinois needs to begin instituting broad structural reforms to make sure that is a well-oiled, high efficient machine. This most palpably means tackling the problems of pensions (which I frankly, have no clue how to address), government waste, and education funding.

  • Reforming education funding and the structure of Illinois’ education system will go a long-way to funnel to money where its needed: the classroom. A good start is the education funding reform bill that passed the state legislature, but it is only a stop-gap measure, as it does not address the bane of Illinois’ school funding problems: too many administrative levels. Per a Metropolitan Planning Council report, decreasing the amount of administration (read: number of school districts) and associated costs would produce the millions the schools need without increased revenue.
  • Decrease the number of other governments. Illinois has over 7,000 units of government, which is almost three times the number of government units in California, a state that has over three times the population and is 2.5 times the size of Illinois. Absurdity is what you would call this. This should include combining and condensing school districts (per the point above), combining government units that perform similar tasks as other units, and encouraging annexation to lower the number of cities, towns, and villages in the state (especially in Chicagoland).

A series of difficult years and legislative sessions are ahead of Illinois as the state pulls itself away from the brink. Success requires due attention by residents and a strong body of voices advocating for a cohesive series of reforms to make the state more politically and economically equitable, sustainable, and efficient. There are many much larger issues than the state budget for the state to begin addressing in earnest (police violence, the wealth gap, global climate change etc.). The longer the state bogs itself down in budgetary challenges, the less time is spent on addressing real issues.


*I do not believe in total restriction on how long all members of government may serve, thus I exclude the Senate as a balance.