CDOT Commissioner On The Hot Seat At Budget Hearings
Normally, it’s all appreciation, praise and pleasantries.
Sure, the alderman toss in a few questions and complaints, but the crowd was a bit tougher on Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein at Friday’s City Council budget hearings.
After lunch, Klein gave the requisite opening remarks reviewing his department’s accomplishments in the past year and then previewing what CDOT hopes to accomplish in 2013.
“This year has been a highly productive one for CDOT,” Klein said Friday. “By the end of the year, we will have rebuilt or resurfaced more than 257 miles of streets and alleys, including parts of North Lake Shore Drive, almost double, the 137 miles completed in 2011.”
By year’s end, Klein says CDOT will have resurfaced more than 233 miles of roadway, repaired over 140 blocks of sidewalks, installed/replaced/repaired over36,000 traffic or street signs, painted in excess of 3,700 street markings, installed 200 blocks of residential street lighting and completed the Wacker Drive construction project.
Klein also touted his department’s commitment to pedestrian safety and biking through the release of the Chicago Pedestrian Plan and the installation of 30 miles of protected bicycle lanes.
Klein then outlined his goals for 2013, which appear to be as busy and ambitious as this year.
Perhaps the biggest project will be the rebuilding of the Wells Street Bridge which crosses over the Chicago River. Because the bridge carries motor vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian traffic as well as CTA trains, it will surely be a logistical challenge.
A bridge over the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal on Kedzie will also see a major renovation.
CDOT also plans the start of removing two major roadway overpasses next year. While actual construction begins on the removal of the Ashland Avenue viaduct over Pershing Road on the Southside, the Western Avenue viaduct over Belmont Ave. on the Northside will begin its design phase.
Once his speech was over, City Council members got a chance to take aim at Klein and question him on a myriad of subjects.
While many of the alderman queried Klein about mundane issues only of interest to a particular ward, some council members touched off discussions which were enlightening and informative.
Bicyclists Gone Wild
Several aldermen complained about the behavior of bike riders who ride recklessly, blow through stop signs and traffic lights, and generally hold contempt for the Rules of the Road.
“I have to obey traffic signals,” said 30th Ward Alderman Ariel Reboyras. “What happens with guys who run through stop signs and stop lights? What can we do about this”
Klein says that 3000 warnings and tickets have been issued by police to bike riders so far this year. In addition CDOT plans to launch a biking education program in the spring.
Despite Klein reporting of 3000 warnings/tickets to bikers, 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, an ardent bicyclist himself, feels there needs to be more enforcement of bike riders.
“I would like to see more enforcement efforts,” said Waguespack. “I want to look at the issue of ticketing cyclists. Many bikers are putting pedestrians, drivers and other cyclists in danger. I think heavier enforcement is something we have to look at more seriously.”
Speed Cameras Coming Soon
Not surprisingly, the issue of automated speed camera enforcement came up several times during questioning.
“I do not support speed cameras in the ward,” said 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell who asked Klein to talk to her before any speed cam was installed in her ward.
Waguespack also asked for more info on the status of the speed camera program. According to Klein, the original field of nine vendors bidding for the contract have been reduced to seven. Redflex Traffic Systems’ bid was denied after ethical lapses were reported by the Chicago Tribune earlier this week, but Klein did not name the other firm which has been eliminated.
Klein says the vetting of the bids is ongoing with the hope of narrowing the field to two vendors to participate in pilot testing in the late fall. The winning vendor would be announced in January with the hope of having the first of 30 speed cameras installed and issuing violations for 2013 installed by April.
Minority Hiring Issues
Perhaps the most heated issue of the hearings was Minority and Women owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) issues. Alderman with primarily African-American constituents hammered Klein over and over regarding CDOT contracts awarded to African-Americans as well as the number of black workers employed by contractors.
Klein tried to explain that under his short tenure of less than two years, CDOT has been improving its percentages of MWBE contractors. But there are contracts currently in place, but signed under the Daley administration, which are still in force and can’t be rebid until these contracts expire, which account for the lower than optimal percentages of minority contracts.
Many alderman did not seem to understand this and continued to berate, challenge and question him on the issue.
20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochrane was angry and highly confrontational on the issue of minority hiring by CDOT contractors.
“If they (contractors) can’t hire Afro-Americans I don’t want them in my ward-period!”, said Cochrane with a raised voice.
“We will do everything within our legal rights to make this right,” Klein firmly replied.