Vote NO on Proposed Transportation "Lockbox" Amendment

When you go to the polls November 8 (You are going to the polls, right? Get your shit together and register right now if you haven't already), if you live in the state of Illinois there is a down-ballot decision that will have lasting implications for transportation spending. You recently should have received a printed copy of the full wording of the amendment and arguments for and against. View a PDF of the mailing HERE.

You can learn what the supporters of the amendment tout as the values of the amendment to the citizens of Illinois; they've created a website SafeRoadsAmendment.com and are airing a TV commercial that both lay the dismal facts about Illinois transportation infrastructure bare: 4,200 bridges in "poor condition", 50% of roads in "poor condition", $6B in "road money swept away in the last 10 years" for other uses.

If those facts and video of traffic jams and potholes don't convince you, perhaps the photos of bridge collapses in Minnesota from 2007 will scare you sufficiently to prompt a yes vote. And what will a "yes" vote do, exactly? It will add Section 11 to Article IX (Revenue) of the Illinois Constitution, which effectively locks in any proceeds raised for use on transportation expenses for the explicit use of transportation expenses. It will keep legislators from diverting critical money for our failing infrastructure for other uses. And as visitors to the "yes" camp website will note from the cover page banner, protecting these funds will "Keep Illinois Safe".

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. It may seem reasonable to draw a straight line from secure transportation funds to safe roads, but potholes alone haven't caused the over 800 deaths from vehicular crashes in Illinois this year. And all those bridges and lane miles that are in bad shape? That didn't happen in just the past decade, the time frame in which the "yes" camp notes so much money was diverted for other uses.

I typically write too much so I'm going to cut to the chase today, but if you want to read more about the various arguments on either side of this issue check out the op-ed from the Chicago Tribune (which labels the amendment "diabolical"), from the Chicago Sun-Times, from Streetsblog Chicago, IllinoisPolicy.org, Progress Illinois, Governing.com, and Reboot Illinois.

Here are three key reasons why we think you should vote NO on this proposed amendment:

1. The constitution is not (or should not) be a primary budgeting tool. Transportation funds are not the only funds that have been raided to pay the State's mounting backlog of bills; education, human services, and more have been faced with cuts and broken contracts. Also, there are other "lockbox" amendments currently in the Illinois constitution -- perhaps you're familiar with our pension crisis? "The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that public pensions were a constitutionally protected right. Their benefits, once promised, cannot be 'diminished or impaired.' That exact wording was in the constitution. And if the transportation lockbox question passes, transit funding could be just as untouchable as public pensions." (Source: Op-Ed by Reboot Illinois).

Even if we had a budget for FY17, the pie is only so big. The vast majority of that pie is already sliced up for mandated obligations. Adding a transportation lockbox amendment makes another slice of that pie untouchable, and does nothing to improve the odds that lawmakers will stop robbing other funds. So public schools, mental health and disability services, early childhood and senior care, parks and museums, will continue to be robbed for the state's mounting obligations. Don't give lawmakers an "out" that will make this any easier.

2. Without an accompanying "maintenance only" or similar clause we're guaranteed business as usual (forever?) from IDOT. It's one thing to recognize the system is underfunded. It's another thing entirely to tout the size of the system as a benefit in and of itself: from IDOT 2015 Annual Report, "Illinois boasts the nation’s third-largest road network with more than 146,700 lane miles of state and local roads, behind Texas and California, respectively...There are 26,667 bridges in Illinois, the third-largest inventory in the country." The same report lists a $600M interstate interchange project alongside a $500,000 protected bike lane on one stretch of one street in Chicago as though they are equivalent. Never mind that upon further digging that bike lane is the only exception to IDOT's ban on protected bike lanes on state-jurisdiction roads in Chicago, an exception that was made only after a biker was killed by a drunk driver on that stretch of road.

Further evidence that IDOT should not be given this guarantee of perpetual funds is found in recent reports that the Illiana Tollway project may not actually be dead, but is being strung along with court cases and back-room reworkings of environmental studies, in spite of continued evidence that this 47-mile, $3 BILLION project will not provide even enough economic benefit to cover its own construction.

Putting an amendment in our state's Constitution that guarantees untouchable funding for transportation is drawing a line in the sand and saying the trajectory and strategy of this division is acceptable. We do not believe IDOT is interested in sustainability, resilience, or place-sensitive context for their projects (note cover photo of IDOT project on South Main with its careful consideration for pedestrians). We will not support an amendment that rewards this behavior to the detriment of other vital services in our state.

3. There were lots of amendments proposed. Only this one made it through. Hmmm.... This year over 90 amendments were proposed to the Rules Committee of the state legislature. One that received considerable attention and had the potential to actually do lasting good for our state was the amendment to change the way legislative districts are redrawn; it received significant support throughout the state from a myriad of entities but was eventually overturned. The transportation amendment was the only one to make it through to the ballot. This could be indicative of unity across the aisle. Or it could be indicative of a very strong lobby that legislators are unwilling to oppose. After all, if more roads equal a stronger economy, who wants to turn that down? In proportion with the size of our road system, we're the third strongest economy in the nation, right? Hmmm...

This November 8 we strongly urge you to vote NO on this proposed amendment. Resist the urge to equate highway funding with safety. Transportation funding is not a constitutional issue. There are many questions that must be answered about the future of transportation in Illinois before it is written in stone, locked in perpetuity.

 

We're Back! And we brought friends.

We're back, at long last, after several months of amazing, blog-worthy experiences -- so many blog-worthy experiences, in fact, that we ended up not having time to actually write about them. Our backlog of potential content is enormous, book-ended by a 12-day trip to Copenhagen (we're now forever spoiled when it comes to bicycle infrastructure and just general city awesomeness) and Michael leaving a decade-long career in youth ministry to pursue a Masters in Public Administration (a pursuit that includes an internship with the City of Janesville, WI) towards the end goal of working in local government. If we weren't already the most boring people you know, just wait until he starts blogging about Janesville's open data policies and the differences in municipal taxing possibilities between Illinois and Wisconsin (can you contain your excitement??).

But before we dive into all THAT good stuff, we're coming back at you today with something even better, something that we ourselves can hardly believe is happening. If you've been paying even marginal attention to this blog, or to our personal social media feeds, you will have noticed the name Strong Towns come up again and again. Perhaps you've even liked a few of those articles we've shared, or found a headline intriguing. We've tried to sing their praises pretty loudly and widely, but let me give just a little more support for why this organization has come to mean so much to us.

When Michael and I moved to Rockford about 4 years ago, it wasn't a blind choice: Michael had grown up here, and we'd lived in close proximity for 6 years, during which time virtually all our entertainment and shopping needs were met at Rockford destinations and stores. But it was also decidedly a choice, and an enthusiastic one at that. We loved the historic houses in old neighborhoods, the unique offerings of local restaurants and stores, the proximity of amenities that let us enjoy time together and with friends rather than time in the car, the opportunity to live and play alongside people of different cultures and lifestyles (those of you who know our current neighborhood may balk a little at the idea of it being "diverse" but compared to our previous neighborhood it's like United Colors of Benetton over here).

Our little bungalow on our neighborhood's Luminary Night.

And although we learned pretty quickly that most of the negative perceptions about Rockford were simply unfounded, there were other sorts of lessons that we began to absorb. For instance, when our closest grocery store was bought out by a large chain and relatively promptly closed because of lagging sales, we learned that there was a "do not compete" city policy that would not allow the property to be sold to another grocery chain (City Council has since removed that policy but that grocery store still sits empty). Further, we learned that an enormous grocery store would be built practically next door to an existing enormous grocery store on the far East side, and that the developer would receive $800K in tax abatement for his trouble.

We learned that although our home's assessed value continued to fall our property tax bill continued to increase (we did a lot of reading but still can't quite claim that we fully understand the "EAV challenge"). And that in spite of a $250M+ bond for school improvements being voted in, and enormous field houses being built at the high schools, our gorgeous, century-old neighborhood elementary school would be closed and probably razed.

We learned that a friend who bought a vacant property and was trying to renovate and start her own business was faced with constant hurdles from zoning regulations, run-around from inspectors, double-talk from city staff, and a potential 6-figure bill for HVAC because she wasn't allowed to install it one floor at a time.

We saw women pushing strollers through ditches full of snow to get to Target, and attendees at summer concerts at a nearby park needing a police escort to cross the street to get there. We watched the city try to balance the budget by taking out street lights while pledging millions to fix a parking garage used primarily by county workers by day and out-of-town hockey attendees at night.

A little hard to see (yes, I was driving. yes, it was a red light), but a police officer crosses 6 lanes to assist two pedestrians waiting to cross to Anderson Gardens on the other side.

We started to feel a little crazy, and a lot unsettled, and often just plain mad. It seemed like all the things that were the most "city" about Rockford, the places we loved to be, the things and people that make it Real and Original had been ignored and neglected for so long, and all the new and shiny things weren't really making any difference, or helping the city gain ground against the immense list of deferred maintenance projects.

Somewhere along the line, we started reading Strong Towns articles. And it very quickly became apparent that we weren't crazy, and we weren't alone. The things we were seeing in Rockford were true in many places across the country, and there were other people who felt the way we do, and wanted to do something about it. There were clear, straightforward answers to the questions we'd been asking about our own city, words to put to the feelings we had about the decisions we saw being made, evidence and examples to show that there IS another way. We couldn't get enough! All of a sudden it wasn't just a water bill increase, it was another crack in the facade of the 70 year Ponzi scheme that is our water system. It wasn't just a "road improvement", it was highway engineering imposed on a city neighborhood with predictable results of speeding, danger, and further neighborhood deterioration. It wasn't just a sewer project, it was the inevitable result of a failed (or absent) land-use policy, with the additional insult of utter disregard for the long-planned, long-overdue inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle consideration (this example to be further explained in a future post).

Strong Towns has allowed us to powerfully leverage one of greatest things about Rockford -- armed with data, clear and helpful examples, respect, kindness, and a whole lotta enthusiasm, you can get to people who make decisions about the future of our city, and actually make a BIG difference in how those decisions play out. We're not professionals, we're not elected officials, but we care deeply about the trajectory of budgets, planning, and development in Rockford, and the lessons we have learned through the content that Strong Towns creates and shares, the networking we have done with members from across the nation, has given us the confidence to speak to the issues that keep us up at night (well, keep ME up at night...Michael is better at setting things aside when his head hits the pillow...)

So it is with incredible excitement that we announce that Chuck Marohn, Founder and President of Strong Towns, will be here in Rockford on August 29-30, to present and participate a full slate of activities, all of which are FREE, and all of which are open to the public. Here's the run-down:

Monday, August 29:
*5:30pm: Chuck will speak to Rockford City Council during their regular meeting at City Hall. The public is always welcome to attend Council meetings.
*7-8pm: "Chat on the Curb", meet at the future site of The Norwegian Restaurant, 1402 N. Main St., and enjoy discussion about and a tour of the North End.

Tuesday, August 30:
*9-10am: "Chat on the Curb", meet at Katie's Cup, 502 7th St, enjoy discussion and a tour of the Midtown District.
*10:15-11:15am: "Chat on the Curb", meet at City Market Pavilion (intersection of State and Water), enjoy discussion and a tour of the River District.
*2:30-3:30pm: "Chat on the Curb", meet at Dairy Depot, 5413 N. 2nd St, enjoy discussion and a tour of Loves Park.
*5:30-7:30pm: Community Conversation event, Veterans Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St.. Chuck will give the Strong Towns "Curbside Chat", the cornerstone presentation of the Strong Towns message which you will NOT want to miss.

We are very grateful to Transform Rockford for sponsoring Chuck's visit and a slew of individuals and community organizations for hosting, leading, and promoting the activities during these two days. Please make every effort to attend as many of these events as possible, and help us get the word out. The Strong Towns message and principles provide a path toward a stronger, more resilient future for our community, and this is our chance to see and hear the message first-hand, on the street! It's going to be amazing.

Living on purpose.

Living on purpose.

There are a multitude of reasons that Michael and I started this blog, some more altruistic than others, but one reason was purely selfish: the opportunity to experience the catharsis that writing at length about an issue for which we feel great passion can bring. So I'm jumping back in with a post that is neither technical nor timely, but intensely personal, and an attempt to put into words some conclusions that have come into focus.

Update: 227 North Wyman, Part 3

Update: 227 North Wyman, Part 3

This is the third and final post (for now) on my work regarding the Library Board’s decision to purchase and demolish 227 North Wyman Street.  Post one is here; Post two is here.

On Tuesday, March 22nd, 5:30p the Library is hosting a ‘Town Hall’ meeting at the Nordlof Center to presumably share details regarding the ComEd environmental remediation project, relocation possibilities (both temporary and permanent), and more...

Update: 227 North Wyman, Part 2

Update: 227 North Wyman, Part 2

This is the second of three posts on my work regarding the Library Board’s decision to purchase and demolish 227 North Wyman Street.  The first post can be found here.

After reaching out to Mr. Logli, I continued my correspondence by reaching out to the following individuals:

ComEd: I spoke with George Gaulrapp, Public Relations Manager at ComEd, on 16 March.  Our chat was brief but amiable. Mr. Gaulrapp expressed ComEd’s commitment to address the environmental remediation issue in a thorough, timely manner, and citied their prior remediation projects at Fordham Dam and Avon Street...