By John Greenfield
For most of the campaign, mayoral hopeful Jesús “Chuy” García has been relatively quiet about transportation issues, except for his vocal opposition to Chicago’s automated traffic enforcement program. Most recently, following the revelation that a former top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied for awarding the latest red light contract to Xerox, García announced that he would shut down all of the city’s traffic cameras on his first day as mayor.
The Emanuel campaign has noted that, before the Cook County commissioner joined other candidates in criticizing automated enforcement, he supported it. On March 11, 2014, García was part of a narrow majority of commissioners who approved an intergovernmental agreement that allowed Safespeed, LLC to install a red light camera on County property in suburban Forest Park.
Campaign finance records show that Citizens for Jesús García received a $1,500 contribution from Safespeed one day before the vote. When I asked about this issue, a García spokeswoman stated that the donation was from Safespeed president and CEO Nikki Zollar, a “thirty-year-old friend” of the commissioner, and it did not influence his decision.
Shortly before the February 24 municipal election, García, who has a master’s degree in urban planning from UIC, broke his relative silence on other transportation topics by releasing a transportation platform (TinyURL.com/GarciaTranspoPlatform). The document suggests that he is well informed about transit funding and transit-oriented development, although there’s little mention of pedestrian and bike issues.
The platform endorses Transit Future, a campaign by the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood technology to create a dedicated revenue stream at the county level for public transportation infrastructure (as does the Emanuel campaign). García says he’s interested in the possibility of raising the state gas tax to fund transit, and/or creating a transit-impact fee for new developments.
The candidate called for building more housing near train stations and reducing the parking requirements for these developments, in order to reduce car dependency. He also stated that he wants to secure a larger percentage of state and federal transportation funds for the Chicago region, which contains seventy percent of Illinois’ population but only gets forty-five percent of state transportation funds.
On March 7, I caught up with García at his Woodlawn campaign office to talk about sustainable transportation and safe streets issues in advance of the April 7 runoff election. We discussed his positions on pedestrian infrastructure, bike facilities, road diets, bus rapid transit and, of course, traffic cams. I’ve edited the conversation for brevity and clarity.
I was impressed that your transportation platform endorsed Transit Future and transit-oriented development.
I’m a transit rider, a Pink Line guy. We fought for the reconstruction of the Pink Line, which used to be the Blue Line, the Douglas [Branch], back in the nineties, when they were going to eliminate it. We fought back and got it renovated. We even engaged in some civil disobedience to force the contractor to hire some folks from North Lawndale and South Lawndale. We got arrested for blocking the entrance to an office of the contractor because they weren’t hiring any minorities.
Interesting. I just wanted to double check, on the Active Transportation Alliance’s transportation survey, you checked a box that said, yes, you would be in favor of dedicated funding for pedestrian safety infrastructure. These are things like speed humps, crosswalk striping, curb bump-outs and pedestrian islands. If elected, would you, in fact, propose a line item for safety infrastructure in the city budget, instead of requiring aldermen to pay for that stuff out of menu money?
I’m leaning toward doing that. I say that with some hesitancy, recognizing how the financial straits of the city seem to be worsening, with the [credit] downgrade that we suffered, the park district downgrade, and now yesterday’s Chicago Public Schools downgrade. I would want to do that, but I’ve got to have a better picture of exactly what the finances are going to be, in terms of the city budget. But if I had it my way, yes, I would do that.
A Federal Highway Administration study found that four-lane streets that carry fewer than 20,000 vehicles per day can be converted to two lanes plus a turn lane with a minimal impact on traffic flow, and a reduction in speeding and crashes. This also opens up right-of-way for wider sidewalks and bike lanes. The Emanuel administration has implemented a lot of these kinds of road diets. For example, successful ones have been done on Pershing Road and Lawrence Avenue. If you are elected, will the Chicago Department of Transportation keep doing road diets on streets with fewer than 20,000 vehicles?
I recognize the value of road diets, based on new evidence that CDOT is providing. I think we should continue doing that. However, because I’m a neighborhood guy, I think we’ve got to have neighborhood inclusion into that. People should know beforehand that it’s being discussed, so we can engage them and educate them about the benefits. I don’t want to impose things on people. I’m about people understanding and having an opportunity to have input. When you do that, people are more educated about the outcomes, and they understand the science and the data. Because when changes come to neighborhoods, people are like, “Hey, what happened?” Change is difficult for people. Understanding and anticipating change is very helpful.
When Mayor Emanuel was elected, he put out three big goals for biking, which were to build 100 miles of protected bike lanes, create a bike-share system with thousands of bikes, and build the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway. He has more-or-less accomplished all three of those things, or is on the way to doing so. How do you feel about those three projects?
I think the 100 miles of bike lanes is a positive development. Encouraging alternative transportation is a good thing. However, I think more work is needed to help people, especially in low-income areas, take advantage of [the bike lanes]. We need to do more to stimulate the cycling economy in those areas, so that more people are encouraged to partake in it.
I support the Bloomingdale Trail. The Divvy program has worked out well in the downtown areas and in some parts of the city, like the Near Northwest Side. But low-income folks aren’t taking advantage of it because there’s an affordability issue. If we get creative and find a way to make it more affordable, I think more people would use it, and that would make the system more sustainable.
It’s $75 for a one-year Divvy membership, so that’s cheaper than a one-month CTA pass [$100]. You think that’s too expensive?
I thought it was $100. It’s $75? OK, that’s better.
One issue is that you need a credit card to use the system.
Yeah, so that’s a bit of a concern for me, given that there are many people in the minority communities who are unbanked. Part of our efforts with financial literacy is to help people get credit cards and ATM cards, and lessen their reliance on currency exchanges, which are predators. So [creating Divvy access for unbanked people] is in that realm. We can be more creative and increase the number of cyclists on the streets, particularly in poorer and minority areas.
Do you support building more protected bike lanes, that is, bike lanes where the parking lane is moved to the left side of the bike lane, to protect cyclists from being struck?
In areas where residents would favor them, yes. The reason is that neighbors are the experts in their community. They understand the local dynamics and traffic patterns. So, where there’s good support for building protected bike lanes, I would do that.
Bus Rapid Transit [with dedicated bus lanes and other time-saving features] has been controversial. You recently told RedEye you would support the Ashland Avenue BRT project if there is a “better compromise” in terms of travel lane conversions and restrictions on left turns. What do you have in mind?
I’ve heard from residents along Ashland. I’m trying to understand whether Ashland really is the best north-south corridor for BRT in the city or if there might be better alternatives. Western Avenue is generally wider. So I’m wondering why that isn’t under consideration. I feel that the Ashland corridor isn’t ready for prime time. There isn’t great support for it. [The city originally considered Western as well as Ashland for the project but, after a round of community input meetings, chose Ashland. Active Trans has collected over 1,700 signatures from residents who are in favor of the project.]
I understand that when new transportation systems like this are rolled out, there will always be some opposition. I understand that people eventually become accustomed to BRT systems and [the systems] work out. I support the concept of BRT, but I think we need to be open-minded about what might be the best thoroughfares for it.
Western is also a four-lane street, with a similar layout as Ashland. If we were going to build BRT on Western, would you support converting two of the travel lanes to dedicated bus lanes?
On some street. I don’t want to be married to one street or another at this point. But, yes, BRT is a good idea. It helps get people out of cars and it helps people move around more easily and conveniently.
So, if we choose the correct street, then you do support converting two of the lanes on a four-lane street to dedicated bus lanes in order to create BRT.
[A few days after our conversation, the Garcia campaign emailed the Sun-Times this statement about the Ashland proposal: “There are a multitude of concerns that have been raised, including limited numbers of car lanes and left turns, and the impact on local commerce has yet to be fully taken into account… This project cannot be approved in its current form, and frankly may never be appropriate for approval.”]
Now for the tough question. I’ve heard from a number of people who aren’t fans of a lot of Emanuel’s policies, but they like what he’s done for transportation. Meanwhile, they agree with many of your positions, but one thing they’re a little nervous about is transportation. One of the big issues for them is red-light cameras. In your literature, it says you would “abolish red-light cameras and speed cameras that fail to make our streets safer.” Unfortunately, the red-light camera program has been tainted by allegations of mismanagement and corruption under the Daley and Emanuel administrations. But studies have shown that automated traffic enforcement has improved safety in other cities. For example, a 2010 review of twenty-eight studies of automated speed enforcement found uniformly positive effects on motorists’ speed and fatality rates. So, does it really make sense to get rid of traffic cameras altogether?
Studies have demonstrated that [Chicago traffic cams] are there mostly for generating revenue. The most recent revelation of Rahm’s former campaign manager’s connection to Xerox underscores concerns about favoring cronies and about pay-to-play politics. It’s a new revelation in the story of corruption in the red-light camera program under two administrations. I’m concerned that we need some independent data on which to base our decision about how we can enhance safety at intersections in Chicago. I think the red-light camera program is badly tainted.
If we’re going to assume that the Daley and Emanuel administrations didn’t do a good job of running the automated enforcement programs, would you consider reforming the programs rather than abolishing them? If traffic cameras have been shown to save lives in other cities, are these necessarily bad programs?
I want new, independently verifiable data that we can use to make decisions about safety at intersections.
There’s already a lot of data out there that proves automated enforcement works. An FHWA study determined that red-light cameras reduce the number of severe injuries and deaths. Now, the Chicago Tribune recently focused on the fact that red-light cameras have increased the number of rear-end crashes with injuries at [local intersections where they’ve been installed].
Yes, by twenty-two percent.
But the Tribune downplayed the fact that the cameras have decreased the number of right-angle crashes. People don’t tend to be severely injured or killed in rear-end crashes, because they’re low-speed, and because cars have front and rear crumple zones. Injuries from right-angle crashes are much more likely to be severe or fatal. So, the FHWA found that, even with an increase in rear-end crashes, red light cameras lead to a net reduction in serious and fatal injuries, and the associated financial costs. So, with that information in mind, does it make sense to not get rid of the traffic cameras?
I think the program is seriously tainted and we will look at what safety measures we will take after I am elected mayor.
Would you consider bringing the cameras back after that study?
We would consider the best public safety options to utilize in the most dangerous intersections.
OK. You’ve come out really strongly against Governor Bruce Rauner’s proposal for deep cuts to state transit funding. And you’ve also said that state transportation funds need to be more fairly distributed, with a bigger share going to the Chicago region, rather than downstate. So what’s your strategy for influencing state transportation policy under a Republican governor?
Because I’m a believer in regionalism and greater cooperation between municipalities in the metro area, I would collaborate with leaders in the suburban communities in Cook County, and the surrounding counties, to work in Springfield. I have a set of relationships, given my history as a former state legislator, that will help me impress upon the legislature the important role of the metro area, in terms of it being an economic engine, and the fact that the resources for transportation that are allocated here should be proportionate to the role that the region plays in Illinois’ economy. The current formula isn’t fair.
The budget that the governor has proposed would be a huge hit to the Regional Transportation Authority and to the CTA. It needs to be resisted and changed.