DOWNTOWN — City budget committee members urged transportation department officials to make Chicago’s streets safer for all users during a hearing last week, though some alderpeople pushed back against efforts to expand protected bike lanes across the city.
Mayor Brandon Johnson’s 2024 budget proposal includes $1.48 billion for the Department of Transportation, which is more than double the 2023 budget.
The seemingly massive increase in spending is due to the structure of grant funding, officials said at Thursday’s budget hearing on the transportation department.
About 85 percent of the department’s budget comes from grants, like the federal government’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality and Highway Safety Improvement programs, while the city’s general fund only pays for about 3.5 percent.
The 2023 total reflects the “actual receipts of grant spending,” while the new budget is more like an estimate of all grants “the department believes it could potentially get some portion” of in 2024, said Daniel Fristrom of City Council’s Office of Financial Analysis.
“The actual spending is dependent on how many projects are slated or programmed to begin in a given year,” Fristrom said.
Acting commissioner Tom Carney touted the accessible 43rd Street bridge for pedestrian and cyclists, transportation work around the Obama Presidential Center and the ongoing resurfacing of Lake Shore Drive among the department’s 2023 achievements in his opening statement.
The department’s 2024 goals include rehabilitating the Lake Street bascule bridge over the Chicago River, opening the Damen Green Line stop, breaking ground on the new State/Lake “L” station and continuing to expand the Divvy bike network.
“The downward trend is continuing” after a spike in traffic fatalities early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Carney said. Alderpeople at Thursday’s hearing pressed transportation officials to prioritize safety for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.
Eighty one people in cars and 38 pedestrians have been killed in traffic crashes this year, according to city data. Drivers have killed at least five bicyclists this year — including three this month alone — sparking a renewed sense of urgency and fear among the cycling community.
“Too many of our residents are dying on our streets,” Ald. Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth (48th) said.
Transportation officials pledged last year to install concrete barriers along all protected bike lanes by the end of 2023. They’ll come up short on that promise with “95 percent” of protected bike lanes upgraded by the end of the year, and the remaining locations will be complete by spring 2024, Carney said.
“We also released the Chicago Cycling Strategy, which outlines our community-driven approach to extend Chicago’s bike network and create a more equitable, safe and inviting city for cycling,” Carney said.
Transportation officials should continue to expand the bike network, said Ald. Nicole Lee (11th), the budget committee’s vice chair. City departments must also do a better job of keeping bike lanes clear, which includes keeping city-owned vehicles out of the lanes, she said.
Lee’s office — and her account on the site formerly known as Twitter — are inundated with complaints of large vehicles blocking the 18th Street protected bike lane, she said. This forces cyclists to make dangerous decisions and either enter traffic or ride up on the sidewalk, the alderperson said.
“It’s not just regular cars, it’s FedEx trucks [and] also it’s city vehicles, which is all the more galling,” Lee said. “… I think this is a call to work with [the assets, information and services department] and others that have fleet vehicles, just to remind people that we have laws on the books for a reason. City workers certainly shouldn’t be egregiously violating those.”
Ald. David Moore (17th) called for alderpeople to have final decisions over bike lanes in their ward, rather than simply offering input to the transportation department, as “in so many cases, [bike lanes are] causing us more problems than not,” he said.
“I support bike lanes, if they’re needed — if they’re needed,” the South Side alderperson said. “In so many areas … if you get one bike to come down there, you’re lucky.”
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) rejected Moore’s point, saying bike lanes improve cyclists’ safety and can better prevent drivers from speeding down local streets.
“I believe firmly that it shouldn’t be up to the alders as far as the bike lanes,” Vasquez said. “… If you leave it up to us, you’re going to have a system that doesn’t connect, and we need a bike grid now.”
The transportation department received a $15 million federal grant for the 2024 budget to install electric vehicle infrastructure and purchase electric vehicles.
The effort to install charging stations will primarily focus on Midway and O’Hare airports, then later “expand out into the neighborhoods and other areas of the city so people can plug in and charge,” Carney said.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said the department should instead focus on placing charging stations in communities. Dowell also pitched vacant city lots that are unsuitable for housing to be used as city-owned charging stations “to help increase revenue,” which Carney called a “great idea” that the department would explore.
Moore, Lee and other alderpeople raised the issue of lighting on city streets. Dim, unsafe lighting remains a problem despite the city’s Chicago Smart Lighting Program, they said.
“You have over 300,000 street lights in the city,” Carney said. “The smart lighting was capturing about 270,000-plus, so there is work to do.
“We do have to go back as a department and figure [out how] to get the rest of the city into LED lights — with their cost savings and longer lifespan — and also getting those lights into the smart lighting system so we get a notification when they go out,” he said.
Numerous budget committee members praised the transportation department’s operations and communication, and said they would back Carney to take over as permanent commissioner if he wanted the job.
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