The closing of a Chicago Tollway oasis

In the 1950s, the new tollways constructed in the Chicago area included the occasional rest stop, including the Des Plaines Oasis which closes this weekend:

We spent 24 hours at the Oasis talking to people from all walks of life. Here’s a peek at what we saw and heard…

An extremely mismatched couple staggers in, tipsily leaning into each other. She’s tall and elegant in a long cashmere coat and large gold earrings, her hair stylishly up.

Him, he’s wearing ill-fitting pants and a bad baseball jacket with a white body and blue sleeves…

It’s not quite light out yet, but the Oasis bustles with customers. Many of them are truck drivers, like Freeman Barber of Cobbs Creek, Va.

Barber wears a shiny black jacket decorated with several American flag pins and a baseball hat bearing the acronym BARF…

Two buses pull up. Dozens of teenage girls — hair pulled into ponytails, some still in pajama bottoms and fuzzy slippers — pile out.

They bypass the lunch crowd at McDonald’s and line up for the bathroom, talking as they wait. Moms, dressed more conservatively, join them.

In other words, a slice of life amongst American highway drivers. This is a good example of a modern-day journalistic human interest story that doesn’t tell us much about the more quantifiable side (number of people there each day, amount of goods sold, how much it costs to keep open, etc.) of the oasis.

It is interesting to note that this oasis is part of a longer chain of official Tollway rest stops that go all the way from the Chicago area through eastern Pennsylvania. This road, stretching from I-90 in Illinois to I-80 in Indiana and Ohio to I-76 in Ohio and Pennsylvania, was one of the first long highways in the United States. The reason it is a tollway is because it was built before the official Federal Interstate Act of 1956 which provided lots of federal funding for the American interstate system. States were responsible for funding highways then and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois put together a common road across their borders. Plans for highways in the Chicago area began in the 1920s and 1930s but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the tollways were built.

Having been in a number of these rest stops along this east-west route, here is my quick rankings of rest areas (from best to worst) between the Chicago stops through eastern Pennsylvania:

1. Tied for first: newer Ohio and Pennsylvania rest areas. They tend to feature good fast food options and airy buildings.

2. Illinois Oases. Pretty clean and lots of food options. Bonus: they take up less space since they span the highway and can be accessed from both sides.

3. Older Ohio and Pennsylvania rest areas. Dingier, worse food options.

4. Indiana rest areas. Nothing inspiring here.

A bonus: 5 fun facts about the history of the Des Plaines Oasis, including its short appearance in the The Blues Brothers.

New report says Chicago area transit agencies have a host of issues

Here are some of the issues facing Chicago area transit agencies according to an Illinois task force:

• The Metra scandal demonstrated that “those responsible for the transit system do not always have the rider’s best interests at heart.” Many transit board members are appointed without background checks and there are no ethics rules or discipline for those guilty of misdeeds, the task force found.

• There are four transit boards with 47 people appointed by 16 elected officials. The system leads to a lack of accountability and “makes it difficult to know who is responsible when the system is not functioning well,” the report stated. Instead of pushing for excellence, boards are more about representing political or geographic constituencies.

• A 2007 Illinois auditor general’s report found duplication and lack of coordination among various transit fiefdoms. That situation hasn’t improved in the past six years, the task force found.

• A coordinated regional transit plan to increase ridership is lacking. Traffic congestion has nearly tripled since 1980 but the percentage of commutes to work using transit have dropped from 18 percent to 13 percent in that time frame.

• The transit system under-serves the region. Only 53 percent of jobs in the six-county area can be reached using transit within 90 minutes, according to one estimate and another projection puts that number at 24 percent.

• Funding formulas encourage turf wars and a “divisiveness that splits the region and creates competition,” the report found.

Sounds like too many agencies with members who represent all sorts of groups (and perhaps not the riders) leading to a system that is not so great.

If the problems are easy to spot, what are some workable solutions? Illinois is known for fragmented government bodies – many levels with lots of groups having access to tax dollars – so this wouldn’t necessarily be easy to change. Are there models from other metropolitan areas that could produce a better mass transit system? What might Chicago area residents get in mass transit if these problems were reduced?

When Dominick’s stores close, suburbs lose tax dollars, gathering places

Amidst the news stories detailing the closing of Dominick’s stores in the Chicago area, one article highlights its effects on suburban communities:

Bruce Evensen, a DePaul University journalism professor, compared the news with the closing of Marshall Field’s in 2006. He said he has been a longtime Dominick’s shopper after living in the Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect area for the past 20 years.

“It’s a sad day,” said Evensen, 62. “To see it close is not just the closing of a store but the closing of an experience. After years of checking out, you get to know the staff, their families and their dreams. It’s the ending of that part of their lives.”…

Naperville City Manager Doug Krieger called the stores significant sales tax contributors, and expressed hope that new tenants would fill the locations.

Michael Cassa, president of the Downers Grove Economic Development Corp., said that it’s too early to know the potential effect, but the village’s only Dominick’s sits in a busy commercial complex along the main business corridor.

There are two arguments as to how closed stores will affect suburbs:

1. They will lose out on tax dollars. Grocery stores are the sort of businesses that have regular consumers – we all have to eat. Additionally, it can be hard to refill big box stores that close down. New businesses might want to construct new buildings and it would be hard for a single large company to take over all of the closed stores. That means individual suburbs will have to try to attract new businesses into large buildings.

2. In suburbs which are marked by fragmentation and more home-centered social life, persistent social institutions are limited. Local schools and religious congregations help fill that void but grocery stores could also play that role. Again, since people have to eat, customers are likely to be in and out regularly. They may even be there enough to know a lot of the details about the store as well as get to know employees and fellow customers. Interestingly, the same claims are rarely made about Walmarts or Targets – but perhaps similar arguments will be made in the future once these stores have been in communities for decades.

It is interesting to watch the sadness over Dominick’s closing. There are certainly lots of workers affected and it is unclear where they will all end up. However, this cycle of corporate merging and sell-offs seems fairly normal to me. Perhaps that is because I grew up in the Chicago area going to other grocery stores. Or perhaps it is because I’m used to our times where companies are viewed less as community institutions and more of places providing services that could be here one year and not the next.

Route to primary win for Republicans in Illinois governor’s race runs through the Chicago suburbs

A pattern has emerged as Republican candidates for Illinois governor: each ticket includes someone from a Chicago collar county.

Wheaton City Council member Evelyn Pacino Sanguinetti will be Republican governor hopeful Bruce Rauner’s running mate, he announced this morning.

The daughter of an immigrant from Ecuador and refugee from Cuba, Sanguinetti is in her first term on the Wheaton council and worked as an assistant attorney general under Republican Jim Ryan…

His pick puts a suburban name on every Republican ticket for governor.

State Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington chose former Long Grove Mayor Maria Rodriguez as his running mate, and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford chose businessman Steve Kim of Northbrook. Dillard picked state Rep. Jil Tracy of Quincy.

Additionally, the main Republican primary candidates (Rauner, Brady, Rutherford, and Dillard) are all white males who selected a running mate who is not a white male: three women and a man who is “potentially the first Asian American to hold state office.”

So the strategy appears clear: try to win the suburban Republican vote, particularly in the populous Lake County and DuPage County, and appeal to various demographics (Illinois is now 71.5% white, 15.8% Latino, 14.5% black, and 4.6% Asian American). Expect to see the Republican candidates plenty in the Chicago suburbs in the months ahead…

More low-income students in suburban Chicago school districts

A number of suburban school districts in the Chicago area have experienced increases in the number of low-income students:

An analysis of Illinois State Report Card data for 83 school districts in the Daily Herald’s circulation area shows poverty rates rose an average of 18 percentage points from 2000 to 2012…In 2000, only East Aurora Unit District 131 and Round Lake Unit District 116 identified at least one-third of students as low-income. None of the 83 districts’ poverty rates were above 50 percent.

By last year, 23 school districts reported their low-income student populations exceeded one-third. And of those, 11 had poverty rates that topped 50 percent.The most drastic increase over that period came in West Chicago Elementary District 33, where the low-income population jumped to 76 percent from 23 percent. Superintendent Kathy Wolfe didn’t respond to requests for comment…

Eight of the top 10 districts in poverty growth are in DuPage County, where the Hispanic population rose 50 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to a 2011 report by the county’s Department of Economic Development and Planning. Over the same period, the number of county residents living in poverty doubled, U.S. Census data shows.

This is not surprising given the increase in poverty in the suburbs in recent years. Yet, it highlights two other issues:

1. Some suburban communities and organizations just don’t perceive themselves as communities where lower-income people live. Traditionally, American suburbs were places for the middle- and upper-class. And, it would be interesting to see how many wealthier Chicago suburb residents would be willing to move to suburbs that have a reputation for being more working- or lower-class. My prediction: few, particularly when articles like this highlight the challenges for suburban schools, a common selling point for suburbs.

2. These same communities and organizations haven’t always allocated or shifted resources to facing the issues that accompany poverty and lower incomes. Providing more resources for schools may be unpopular with many, both because it could mean increased taxes but also because it may mean less money for other local services.

Both of these are hurdles to overcome.

A $3 billion funding shortage for relieving Chicago area railroad gridlock

A House hearing suggested there is a major funding shortage for the construction necessary to relieve railroad traffic in the Chicago region:

A potential drop of more than 60 percent in Metra delays.

That number alone makes an ambitious $3.2 billion fix for rail congestion in the Chicago region attractive in the eyes of area commuters. And railroads, with the backing of the business community, also support the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE.

But where funding for the $2 billion worth of work remaining will come from is a question both U.S. congressmen and industry officials pondered at a Monday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

The Chicago region hosts about 1,300 trains a day — 800 Amtrak and Metra trains and 500 freights. But the outdated infrastructure and numerous street level crossings make it a major chokepoint for freight trains, not to mention the delays caused for drivers.

State dollars for the project run out this year and there’s nothing forthcoming in the federal government’s latest transportation plan.

Funding is hard to come by these days. Yet, these are infrastructure improvements that affect not only the Chicago area but perhaps the entire United States railroad system. A large amount of freight traffic in the United States moves through the Chicago region. The railroads as well as local, state, and federal government have been chipping away at this for years including moving intermodal facilities and switching yards further from the city and making at-grade crossings safer and rarer.

Another question that could be asked: should money be spent on high-speed rail if there are still significant problems in the regular railroad system?

Determining how Illinois road money should be split between Chicago area, downstate

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning argues Illinois needs to change its formula for how it apportions road money between the Chicago area and downstate:

A deal hammered out by the state’s top politicians in the 1980s means that 45 percent of all transportation revenues go to the Chicago metropolitan area and 55 percent is allocated to downstate Illinois.

CMAP wants to change the status quo with a performance-based system using population, congestion, pollution and economic impact as criteria when it comes to doling out dollars for significant projects such as new highways, bridges and interchanges or additional lanes…

The agency points out that the metropolitan region comprises 65 percent of the population and contributes about 70 percent of the state’s income tax and 65 percent of its sales tax revenues.

Yet, in IDOT’s 2014-2019 multimodal transportation improvement program, about $3.1 billion — or 45 percent — out of $6.9 billion goes to District 1 including Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, CMAP planners said…

“It’s a very bad idea,” said Republican Rep. Dwight Kay of Glen Carbon. “The needs of southern Illinois in terms of total miles is far greater than in the suburbs or in Chicago. I would be somewhat dismayed if not shocked to think anyone would propose changes. We have hundreds of bridges that either need to be replaced or are older and in disrepair.”

My first question is how lawmakers came to a 55/45 split in the first place. I would hope this agreement was based on some hard numbers but perhaps they were the only figures that everyone could agree on?

It sounds like the current debate would shape up like this: downstate lawmakers argue they have plenty of road miles and infrastructure to maintain while Chicago area politicians argue they put in a majority of the money and have a majority of the population. Do Illinois lawmakers even have the ability to discuss something like this even in the midst of other major money woes? Wouldn’t this simply inflame the ongoing Chicago versus downstate debate? I suspect this won’t be on the front burner even if infrastructure is a growing conversation piece around the country.