The long ride - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The long ride

Meeting suburban mass transit needs means a fundamental change in the way it is provided, transportation officials said.

Decades ago it was enough to connect the suburbs- where people lived- with downtown Chicago- where many suburbanites worked.

But employers are scattering around the area, making it difficult to provide transportation options. That means workers turn to their cars and SUVs to get to work, increasing congestion on interstates and main roads.

Suburb-to-suburb connectivity is a main challenge, said Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority, which provides financial oversight and planning for the region's three mass transit providers -- the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and Metra.

The RTA unveiled an initiative this summer called "Moving Beyond Congestion," and is soliciting input from suburban residents to identify problems and solutions for increasing ridership, Schlickman said.

"We need to listen to the suburbs on what they believe their mobility needs are and how we can address them," he said. "Our suburban transit system is not as comprehensive as our city center system. It's more spread out and harder to serve. We need to think of innovative ideas."

Some of those ideas start with Pace, he said.

"Buses will always be part of transit," Schlickman said. "It's more flexible than a rail route."

One Pace initiative, Schlickman said, is a rapid service line to connect Evanston with Elgin .

"That's an inter-suburban service, but it's not done with expensive rail," he said.

But Pace is looking at fundamentally different ways of providing transportation, said Michael Bolton, the transit company's deputy executive director of strategic services.

It's a different world in the suburbs these days, he said.

"If you said that people would be leaving the city to go to the suburbs for jobs, people would have looked at you strangely, but what's happened in the last 20 years has been absolutely incredible," Bolton said. "This whole growth has taken place, and during that, Pace was essentially continuing to operate by servicing the old job satellites."

Smaller buses and vans are on the streets to connect transit points that aren't viable as traditional "routes." Since the suburbs don't follow the traditional grid system the city does, smaller buses or vans also provide access for patrons who don't live near main intersections, he said.

"There's a certain amount of transit coming on because of these (housing) subdivisions, because you've got roads that run around in circles and cul-de-sacs and you really have one place you can get out of the subdivisions," Bolton said. "Asking people to walk out of the subdivision and get on a bus doesn't really make that much sense."

Smaller buses can make a run through subdivisions "frequent enough to be attractive to people going to work and frequent enough during the day for people to travel between suburbs," Bolton said.

Metra trains, which basically form spokes from downtown Chicago through the suburbs, serve their purpose, but that purpose is no longer comprehensive, said Randall Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

"Metra does a great job of bringing people downtown," Blankenhorn said. "How do we get them to jobs? How do you get the last mile? We can get them to Arlington Heights , but how do you get them to their job?"

One of Metra's most ambitious plans is a new service called the STAR Line, connecting O'Hare International Airport with Joliet via Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Mount Prospect, Rolling Meadows, Rosemont, Schaumburg and other outlying suburbs.

The $1.1 billion proposal is in the federal funding process and roughly 10 years away from becoming a reality, said Mike Walczak, transportation associate for the Northwest Municipal Conference.

The STAR Line would benefit area residents who don't ride it by taking vehicles off the road and easing highway congestion, he said.

"It would help with the reverse commute by linking up with the Blue Line at River Road , as well as three or four other Metra trains along the way," Walczak said.

Metra is also looking at adding capacity to certain lines, such as the Northwest, Union Pacific and West lines.

But while the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion initiative is designed at getting vehicles off the highways and people onto mass transit, it also takes a stab at land-use issues.

"We need stronger support from local government in encouraging development near transit," Schlickman said.

He pointed to Interstate 90 and the employers that have opened office buildings along the corridor.

"(In many cases) it's too expensive to live there," Schlickman said. "If employers are going to locate in that area, they should locate near transit."

Part of the Moving Beyond Congestion plan calls for cooperation between the RTA and local municipalities.

"But we don't control how land use is managed," Schlickman said.

Kit Hodge, an associate with the Metropolitan Planning Council , said land-use is vital to the mass transit discussion.

"How do we reshape our towns around new transit services to make the best use of them? You have to think about how to attract people to use it," she said. "One way is to make it an anchor to a revitalized town center. You need to have a certain number of people using the station in order for it to be financially viable and for the federal government to fund it."

Hodge said a major boon to the Chicago area is the creation of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which combined two agencies -- the Chicago Area Transportation Study, which studied mass transit issues, and the Northeastern Illinois Planning Council, which looked at land-use issues.

Combining the two creates a resource for the area's municipalities to create competitive transit proposals during the federal and state funding processes.

"It's sort of the hope for making it easier for towns that are new to the idea of having transit in their area," Hodge said. "They need to have assistance, and if they get through the (planning) process they have incentives or the ability to know how to get the funding for it.

"There is fierce competition at the federal level," Hodge said, noting that the Chicago area is contending for dollars against other parts of country, such as Atlanta , Boston and San Francisco . "We need to prove that we have our act together."

On the state level, she said, priorities in the General Assembly must be set to accomplish growth in mass transit.

"I think the big question happening in the Chicago region is, we want it, how can we best get it to meet our growing demand?" Hodge said.

"I think one of the main things on the horizon for state candidates is the capital bill - capital money for transportation and schools," she continued. "Are they willing to prioritize funding, in this case for transit? And are they looking at ways to ensure that projects that are well-planned and will likely succeed will get funding from the state?"

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