Emanuel’s mobility task force thinks big to combat congestion

SHARE Emanuel’s mobility task force thinks big to combat congestion

Traffic crawls toward downtown Chicago on the Eisenhower Expressway. | Sun-Times photo

Adding toll roads, carbon taxes and other user fees to provide dedicated revenue for public transportation without raising the gasoline tax.

Redesigning streets and restructuring Chicago’s array of transportation taxes and fees with an eye toward reducing reliance on single-occupancy vehicles.

Creating Las Vegas-style “innovation zones” to start a scooter pilot and test other “new mobility services and technology,” with “smart lanes” dedicated to bicycles, vanpools and other shared rides.

Appointing of a “chief mobility officer” whose job it is to live, eat and breathe transportation.

The task force charged with reimagining Chicago’s transportation system in a fast-changing landscape is making no small plans.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, to lead the charge into the brave new world and he’s doing just that.

Never mind that there’s no guarantee any of the ambitious recommendations will see the light of day.

“If Rahm were gonna continue to be mayor, it would not collect dust. But I don’t know if [Lori] Lightfoot or [Toni] Preckwinkle will adopt this,” LaHood said.

“This report was put together not by the current mayor, but by the citizens of Chicago. That’s who the new mayor needs to listen to if they want to coordinate transportation. The alternative is continued confusion. Are people really being well served with all of these forms of transportation if they’re not coordinated?”

The 45-page report includes seven recommendations supported by 50 “specific actions, policy changes or studies.”

“The one that’s absolutely critical in my opinion is the appointment of a person who gets up every day and thinks about mobility and how to coordinate all of the different transportation around the city,” LaHood said.

“We [also] believe that an increase in the state gas tax and the federal gas tax is absolutely critical so the resources are there — not just for roads and bridges, but for transit.”

Between 2015 and 2018, the number of ride-hailing vehicles on the streets of Chicago rose from 2 million a month to 9 million, the report states.

Lori Lightfoot wants to abolish the city sticker — along with the city clerk’s office that sells them — and replace the revenue with dramatically higher fees on ride-hailing vehicles. She also wants to impose strict new limits on the number of Uber, Lyft and Via vehicles; those limits will ease what she calls a “perpetual rush hour” that mirrors traffic jams in Los Angeles.

Toni Preckwinkle has similarly argued that Emanuel’s decision to impose a fee of 20-cents-a-ride on Uber, Lyft and Via to offset CTA bus ridership losses to ride-hailing does not go nearly far enough.

But the mobility task force co-chaired by LaHood, one of the mayor’s closest friends in politics, goes far beyond tinkering at the margins to reduce congestion.

It talks about testing New York-style “car-free zones” and about launching a “scooter-sharing pilot” with speeds capped at 15 mph to identify safety issues and pinpoint ways to reduce “sidewalk clutter.”

It even talks about toll roads, carbon taxes and user fees as a long-term alternative to the gas tax.

“Northern Virginia has pioneered this idea of, if you want to get someplace faster, get on a road that’s tolled. . . . Northern Virginia people use these congestion-priced lanes a lot. They’re expensive. But they want to get to where they’re going. They don’t want to have to wait in congestion,” LaHood said.

“New York has tried congestion pricing. We talked about that a great deal. Other communities have tried that. It ought to be debated and people ought to figure out if it makes sense for Chicago. It obviously made sense for New York. It’s not for every community. That’s why this task force had very spirited debate about whether it makes sense for Chicago.”

In Oregon, a “voluntary user fee program” charges participants 1.7 cents per mile in lieu of a gas tax.

California and Washington are studying road fees. Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania have all “applied for federal support to test how a user fee could work across multiple states,” according to the report.

In addition to exploring similar user fees, the report recommends “restructuring” existing city taxes on ground transportation, parking, car rentals and leasing to “promote public transit and shared trips” and reduce “single-occupancy vehicles and single-passenger trips.”

Toward that end, the task force recommends converting vehicle lanes into “smart lanes dedicated to micro-mobility,” including “bicycles, buses and van pools and other efficient shared rides.”

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