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Article updated: 12/24/2012 5:05 AM

Toll hikes, NATO among 2012's top transit stories

By Marni Pyke

Read-them-and-weep gas prices. A failed plan to institute speed cameras in the suburbs. The completion of Wacker Drive construction -- finally. The extinction of the Prairie Parkway project. And those topics don't even make our list of the top transportation stories of 2012. Here's what had everyone talking this year:

Sky's the limit

While the prospect of raising taxes seems to scare everyone silly in Washington, spikes in fares and tolls were a runaway trend in 2012.

The Illinois tollway nearly doubled its rates on Jan. 1 to pay for a $12 billion, 15-year construction program. Metra fare increases of up to 30 percent went into effect Feb. 1 to pay for operating costs. On Dec. 14, Metra leaders boosted 10-ride pass costs by 11 percent effective next February, promising to commit most of the money to capital needs.

Route 53 breakthrough

A group of politicians, environmentalists, engineers and business leaders reached consensus (with two holdouts) on extending Route 53 north into Lake County in May after years of debate. The group commissioned by the Illinois tollway recommended a four-lane parkway with a speed limit of 45 mph. The next step would be for the tollway to adopt the project, estimated at up to $2.4 billion. But nailing down how to pay for the pricey project is still elusive.

Freeways into tollways

How do you come up with $2.4 billion? Easy. Charge tolls of up to 20 cents a mile on the new Route 53 extension, add some special taxes in Lake County, lobby for some federal cash and charge tolls on the state-owned portion of existing Route 53 between Interstate 90 and Lake-Cook Road. The latter proposition is a political hot potato, however, as mayors in northwest Cook County are calling the idea of turning a freeway into a tollway a non-starter. What's the average toll per mile on the system, you may ask? About 6 cents a mile.

NATO traffic beat down

The world's power brokers and the requisite protesters descended on Chicago in May.

The NATO summit snarled traffic on Loop streets and highways as bigshots in motorcades closed down roads. At the behest of the FBI, Metra closed stations on the Electric Line, which runs under the summit headquarters at McCormick Place. Northwest suburban commuters were spared closures but endured coffeeless commutes and baggage checks under a security clampdown that banned liquids on board. The cost to Metra? A cool $800,000.

MAP-21

A short name for a marathon fight over the newest transportation bill. Congress deadlocked for months in 2012 on how and how much to pay for highways, transit and other infrastructure.

The logjam threatened summer construction projects and a House version of the bill jeopardized funding for Metra, Pace and the CTA, agency leaders warned. When the dust settled, a makeshift two-year law was approved in June. It did two things -- maintained the status quo and kicked the can down the road regarding the crisis over the Highway Trust Fund (which pays for transportation through an 18.4 cents gas tax and is going broke).

Tragedy under the tracks

Remember sun kinks? That technical term was heard everywhere last summer after a derailment collapsed a railway bridge July 4 in Glenview, killing attorney Burton Lindner and his wife, Zorine. A preliminary investigation showed record-breaking heat warped portions of the Canadian Pacific Railway track, causing loaded freight cars to topple, caving in the underpass. The tragedy spurred calls for railroads to improve their reaction to extreme weather and for greater federal involvement in inspections and investigations.

Transit family feud

Friction between the Regional Transportation Authority, which has oversight of Metra, Pace and the CTA, boiled over in June when Chairman John S. Gates Jr. accused the agencies of dragging their heels on efficiencies and consolidations. His complaint convinced Pace, CTA and Metra leaders to collaborate and write a scathing rebuttal, lambasting the mother agency for wasting money and time.

In the fall, a turf war emerged over so-called discretionary money that the RTA controls. The dispute centered on how much funding the CTA required and reignited a latent power struggle between the city and suburbs. A last-minute compromise was reached but the issue still simmers.

Limousine faux pas

In the midst of the funding fracas in October, RTA Chairman Gates spoke with the Daily Herald about the serious financial shortfall facing transit infrastructure. In explaining how money is divided between the CTA, Pace, Metra and paratransit, the transit service for people with disabilities, he stated: "It's a limousine service, but it's a federally mandated limousine service that we have to provide. It's hugely expensive, but it's something we have to do. It's the law." The disabled community called the comments insensitive and uninformed.

Gates apologized, and promised an open dialogue with riders. "Paratransit is a civil right for the approximately 50,000 people who are currently certified to use it in our region. It affords riders mobility and independence," he said.

Committee soap opera

Intrigue over committees? It's no yawning matter. Since a financial scandal rocked Metra in 2010, the agency has promised reforms and transparency. But two ad hoc committees of Metra board directors have met behind closed doors regularly, including one reviewing the 2013 budget that instituted the 10-ride fare hike. Does that contravene the Open Meetings Act? Not at all, Metra officials said, explaining that the committees are not "standing committees" and only consisted of three members, which doesn't constitute a quorum.

Despite the upbeat spin, it speaks volumes that Chairman Brad O'Halloran, at a Dec. 14 meeting, proposed four new committees he guaranteed would meet in public and offer a more open process. Board directors agreed but then divided over an Employment Practices Committee to review salary increases, benefits and hiring of executives paid $75,000 or more.

Some directors called it a "patronage committee," explaining wannabe employees would line up at their doors currying favor. Others, including O'Halloran, called those suggestions offensive, countering that the committee would increase transparency. The outcome? Officials delayed a vote and sent the issue back to an ad hoc committee. My understanding is the discussion on transparency won't be open to the public.

Your voice

Reader Randy Swanson of Wheaton weighed in on my recent series on railway crossing safety.

"During my 25-year ridership (on Metra's Union Pacific West Line) I never observed an instance where the train deviated from the tracks to strike a pedestrian or vehicle," Swanson said. "In fact, the only instance I can recall is the trestle collapse in Glenview this past year that killed the couple riding underneath. This was a truly extraordinary event. You indicate that something must be done to protect people from this menace. The menace is that some people are terminally stupid, a problem compounded by the iPad and cellphone etc. Trains do not sneak up on people, but are large items with lights and horns. Just because some of these fixes are paid through federal funds doesn't mean I'm not paying out of my pocket. I'm a believer in Darwin's theory and I say, enough is enough. Waking up in the morning entails risk and this is a part of life and personal responsibility."

Got an opinion? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Upcoming

The CTA will offer its traditional Penny Rides program New Year's Eve. Starting at 10 p.m. Dec. 31 and running until 4 a.m. Jan. 1, all bus and trains will cost a penny. Meanwhile, Metra's last departure after midnight on New Year's Eve will be at 1:15 a.m. For more info, go to metrarail.com/metra/en/home/service_updates/holiday_20121.html.

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