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Local business – and Wal-Mart

At OnEarth, a student/writer from New York bemoans the depressingly identical malls dotting America and finds one bright spot — Chicago!

“On my trip I felt that Chicago, above any other city, had a particular and noticeable pride in its neighborhoods. Chicago’s most hip areas are filled with stores that are locally owned that sell local products to local customers. But the fact that independent stores have survived there, where they have failed in other cities, is no coincidence. It is due, in large part, to the presence of an organization called Local First Chicago.”

With Wal-Mart recently telling Chicago “We’re BAAAACK!!” it might be time to look again at how the city’s development policies favor big box development over local business (Newstips 9-3-06), and how Illinois leads the nation in subsidies to low-wage Wal-Mart (Newstips 6-5-07).

Obama on sprawl, transit, rail

In Florida yesterday, President Obama spoke up for  mass transit and high-speed rail, noting Lincoln’s support for an intercontinental railroad even as the Civil War raged, reports Kaid Benfield, director of NRDC’s Smart Growth Project.

Obama: “The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, everybody recognizes that that’s not a smart way to build communities. So we should be using this money to help spur this kind of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation. That will make a big difference.”

Benfield has compiled statements by Obama on smart growth, transportation, cities, and regions.  It’s good stuff.

Let’s go green

Any auto bailout should require companies “to begin shifting from being just automakers to becoming ‘transportmakers,'” writes Hampshire College professor Robert Goodman.   Read the rest of this entry »

Jobs: spatial and racial mismatch

Chicago area job growth is concentrated in municipalities with the lowest African American populations and the least affordable housing, according to a new Chicago Reporter analysis.  The black unemployment rate in the Chicago area is five times the rate for whites.

“Distance from job opportunities hinders the employment prospects of African Americans by imposing commuting costs, and by hampering knowledge of employment opportunities,” according to researchers cited by the Reporter.

It’s worth recalling last year’s report from Good Jobs First-Illinois showing how state economic development subsidies favor affluent outlying suburbs which have low unemployment, contributing to sprawl and penalizing transit-dependent workers.

These analyses underline the importance of “smart growth” being promoted by local nonprofits.  The Center for Neighborhood Technology advocates for transit-oriented development, including affordable housing near transit, and Metropolitan Planning Council  works to facilitate employer-assisted housing near job sites.

Report: Sprawl and Global Warming

Urban development patterns — and public policies that contribute to sprawl — are fueling increases in automobile use that will offset any emissions reductions achieved with new “green” technologies, according to a new report.

In the Chicago region, annual miles traveled per driver grew by 34 percent between 1980 and 2005, in a pattern replicated across the nation, according to “Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change,” a new report from the Urban Land Institute and Smart Growth America.

Per capita vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs, are rising so fast — because sprawl forces people to drive whenever they want to go anywhere, and increases the distances that must be driven — they will more than offset any emissions reductions gained by more efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels, according to the report.

Even with the most stringent fuel-efficiency standards now under consideration, emissions would be 40 percent above 1990 levels in 2030 if development patterns keep VMTs rising at current rates.

The report’s focus on VMTs provides a crucial connection between global warming and “land use patterns that keep us committed to our cars,” said Michael Davidson, manager of the Chicago-area Campaign for Sensible Growth. He said development policies should aim at reducing the need to drive.

“We can implement policies that reduce vehicle miles traveled — and reduce congestion, and improve air quality and quality of life,” he said.

“People want more options for transportation and for housing,” including housing in compact, walkable communities that are accessible to transportation, jobs and services, he said.

“Growing Cooler” calls for changes in a range of government policies that now favor sprawling, auto-dependant development, and for including smart-growth strategies in forthcoming climate change legislation.

Davidson said long-term stable funding for the RTA is a “perfect example” of policies needed to reduce congestion and emissions. “If we don’t have a great transit system with dedicated funding, we’re going to have more people spending more and more time on our roads,” he said.

Good Jobs First, which also touted the new report, has criticized economic development programs in Illinois that subsidize sprawl instead of promoting investment in urban areas that are served by transit.

For more: Michael Davidson, Campaign for Sensible Growth, 312-863-6009

Jeff McCourt, Good Jobs First-Illinois, 312-332-1480

See also: Newstips 8-22-07: Reducing Chicago’s Carbon Footprint

Groups Push Parkway Alternative

With the state’s announcement this month that a route for the Prairie Parkway has been chosen, the planning phase for the proposed highway may be drawing to a close. But opponents hope the legislature will allocate design and construction funds to an alternative transportation plan instead.

A coalition of ten local and regional environmental and civic groups opposes the parkway, arguing that the costs to natural habitats and to agricultural areas would be too high and that investing in existing local roads to build a comprehensive grid would better serve residents.

Local groups in the coalition include Citizens Against the Sprawlway, Friends of Fox River, and Kendall Citizens for Farmland Protection, along with several Chicago-based environmental and public interest groups.

On June 1, after six years of study, the Illinois Department of Transportation announced a route for the “parkway”: a 37-mile four-lane freeway running south from I-88 near Kaneville, jogging east near Yorkville and connecting to I-80 near Minooka. Earlier this year IDOT included a five-mile section of the project, with an interchange near Yorkville, in its eight-year highway plan.

The project, estimated to cost $1 billion in total, has been spurred by a $207 million earmark inserted in the 2005 federal transportation bill by then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, including $50 million for an interchange near Hastert’s hometown of Yorkville.

But the earmark requires a 20 percent state match, and the project can’t move forward until the state ponies up its share of funds. Opponents say they are asking legislators to watch for a line item for the Prairie Parkway in upcoming state budgets (including a long-awaited capital budget) – and when it appears, to reallocate the funds to improve existing roads.

The federal earmark, which specified providing a north-south corridor linking the two interstates, could go to widening IL-47, they say.

They fear the billion-dollar throughway would divert funds from existing roads that badly need immediate repair and improvement, in an area where two-lane country roads are increasingly clogged with commuters. Mayors in the area have also called on Metra to extend its Chicago-Aurora line into Kendall County.

Access to jobs in DuPage and Will Counties to the east is a growing need in the area, but the proposed parkway would cut and close thirteen east-west roads. IDOT is holding public hearings on proposed road closings, among other issues, in Yorkville on July 11 and 12.

“Prairie Parkway is not going to fix our traffic problems,” said Tim Gerk, a Plano science teacher who is active in Kendall Citizens for Farmland Protection. “For people living in these towns, we’ll have to double back just to get around the highway.”

“You want traffic flowing east-west in addition to north-south, otherwise you get a bottleneck where the east-west roads are cut,” said Stacy Meyers-Glen of Openlands.

“The local alternative would do more for the people who live and work in these communities than a freeway connecting one interstate to another,” said Jan Strasma of Citizens Against the Sprawlway.

The coalition came together early this year and submitted comments to IDOT’s draft environmental impact statement, which they said used flawed and inaccurate data to downplay harm to local waterways and endangered and threatened species. IDOT is due to submit a final EIS late this year.

Meyers-Glen is concerned that the agency chose a route before it addressed serious discrepancies – such as using old data instead of newer and more accurate measurements – pointed out by critics. “If they haven’t done a valid cost-benefit analysis, how do they know they’re choosing the best alternative?”

The highway will take away over 2500 acres of agricultural land, running through 189 farms, and will attract development in an area already losing thousands of acres of farmland to sprawl every year. Gerk says IDOT’s estimate that the parkway will attract development taking 5,000 additional acres of farmland over the next 20 years is “way too small.”

“It’s prime farmland – some of the finest soil in the world,” said Meyers-Glen. “And once you pave it, you can never bring it back again.” It’s also an area “where people are trying to preserve agriculture, where families have been farming the same land for generations,” she adds. “They’re going to lose their livelihoods, their way of life, their heritage – and they don’t have any choice, it’s being imposed on them.”

Kendall Citizens for Farmland Protection has been promoting the county’s agricultural conservation easements program, Gerk says, but the highway has made people hesitant to sign up. “They say the parkway will take it anyway,” he said. “They see the parkway as inescapable.”

Nine local governments in the three relevant counties have endorsed the parkway, but in April two small, rural communities voted against it in advisory referenda. Kaneville residents voted by 81 percent against the highway, and residents of Big Rock Township opposed it by 88 percent. The road would cut through the middle of each town.

The 435 members of the Kendall County Farm Bureau are also on record as opposed. In a 2000 survey by University of Illinois Extension Office in Yorkville, 87 percent of residents said the county should “aggressively protect its agricultural lands from development.”

“There’s one view in the area that favors preserving our hometown ambience and agricultural communities, that sees all this as a rich tradition,” Gerk said. “Others say we want to be a suburb just like everybody else.”

[In 2004, Newstips reported that after IDOT failed to compile public comments on the Prairie Parkway proposal, the Center for Neighborhood Technology did so — and found that nearby residents were overwhelmingly in opposition; the strongest supporters were business interests from McHenry County.]

Meyers-Glen said that while “IDOT has created a sense of inevitability” to the project, a number of local legislators are supportive of the local alternative. “We need to let people know there’s still time to fix this plan.”

The High Cost of Transportation

Our standards of housing affordability leave out a crucial component – transportation costs – according to new research from the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Transportation is the second highest expense for the average household, and can add greatly to financial stresses on households already burdened by rising housing costs. Nearly two thirds of a moderate-income family’s budget now goes to housing and transportation.

But transportation costs vary widely across communities in the region, said Carrie Makarewicz of CNT. Most new market single family homes that are affordable to median-income families are being built on the far edges of the collar counties – where distance from jobs and shopping mean that transportation costs can add many thousands of dollars to a household’s annual expenses, she said. Meanwhile, new housing developed near transit tends to be high-priced.

On the city’s transit-poor far South Side, where the Red Line extension continues to be postponed, older, affordably-priced housing is far from job-rich areas, so higher transportation expenses undercut household savings on housing.

“It makes a difference whether a family needs one car, or two or three; whether each car is being driven 20,000 miles a year; and not just whether shopping is in walking distance, but whether it’s 1 mile or 10 miles away, and whether a job is 2 miles or 20 miles away,” Makarewicz said.

A range of factors go into CNT’s new housing and transportation affordability index, including density, walkability, distance to employment and services – and not just distance to the nearest transit station, but the extent of transportation connections to that station.

It helps explain why much of the Chicago area’s extensive rail transit system is underutilized, Makarewicz said. Of 402 transit stations in the region, close to half are in areas with less than six dwelling units per acre – too few to support frequent connecting bus service. In the city, CTA lines with irregular service and poor connections are also underutilized, she said.

The new research points to new strategies to promote affordability and relieve financially burdened working families, Makarewicz said.

The implications for planning policy will be the subject of a panel discussion this Thursday, with State Rep. Julie Hamos (D-18), urban affairs writer John McCarron, and Wanda White-Gills of Team Englewood. Cosponsored by CNT and the Chicago Rehab Network, the event is Thursday, June 29, 8 to 10:30 a.m., at Fannie Mae Foundation, One South Wacker Drive, 15th Floor.

Residents Oppose Prairie Parkway

In 2001 and 2002, IDOT collected public comments on the proposed Prairie Parkway, but it never compiled them.

Now the Center for Neighborhood Technology has done so, and they’ve found that three-fourths of residents within 15 miles of the proposed route oppose the project.

A favorite of U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Prairie Parkway would connect Routes 80 and 88 and run through sections of Kane and Kendall Counties which have been designated as Agricultural Protection Areas.

Of those testifying at public comment hearings, 85 percent of those living within five miles of the route opposed the project, as did 75 percent of those from within 15 miles, said Jan Metzgar of CNT. The strongest supporters of the project were business and economic development groups from McHenry County, she said.

CNT is also studying a preliminary engineering report for the project, Metzgar said.



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