Howard Learner: Here are 7 actions Brandon Johnson must prioritize for a greener, more sustainable Chicago

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson takes office on May 15. From budgets to education to public safety, his platter overflows with challenges and opportunities. Environmental progress is a key unifying issue.

Polling consistently shows that Chicagoans across all communities strongly support building a sustainable, greener city that’s good for our environment and economy. Here are seven high-priority environmental actions for the mayor-elect and new City Council that are must-do’s. .

1. Hold off a public transit crisis: Chicagoans across the city rely on dependable, safe and affordable public transit to get to jobs, medical and social services, schools, family and fun. The CTA’s finances simply don’t work anymore, and a financial cliff looms as federal COVID-19 emergency funds run out in 2025. The problems are well-known: unreliable schedules, safety and smoking concerns, and a struggle to hire train operators.

The CTA’s outdated business model is built on commuters going to the Loop five days a week. That doesn’t reflect today’s new hybrid workplaces and a downtown that now spreads from State Street to the Fulton Street area. Farebox revenues are suffering, and the unwieldy RTA-CTA-Metra-Pace governance system should be reformed.

Editorial: R.I.P., Metra’s commuter rail. Long live regional rail! ]

What’s needed to restore commuter confidence? Johnson should visibly lead by showing he cares. Work with the CTA’s leadership to create reliable schedules and better safety measures. Ask Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the legislature to provide more state funding for the CTA and Metra while working on creative new funding strategies. Get ahead of the crisis. Chicago can’t aspire to be a green city without a public transit system that works well.

CTA Blue Line passengers wait for an O'Hare-bound train at the Clark/Lake station during the afternoon rush on Feb. 7, 2023, in Chicago.

CTA Blue Line passengers wait for an O’Hare-bound train at the Clark/Lake station during the afternoon rush on Feb. 7, 2023, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

2. Reinstate the city’s Department of the Environment: Johnson pledged to reinstate the Chicago Department of the Environment, which was closed more than a decade ago. If you do, then do it right — staff it with a top-notch team the mayor can rely on and don’t fund it with vested interest corporate money. An understaffed, underfunded department that checks off a campaign promise isn’t moving forward.

3. Make Chicago’s buildings more energy-efficient: Energy efficiency is the best, fastest and least expensive climate change solution. It’s a win-win-win: Save people and businesses money on their utility bills, reduce pollution and create jobs. Federal and state incentives support making buildings more efficient and avoiding energy waste. President Joe Biden outlined how cities can apply for $27 billion in low-interest “green bank” loans to finance projects designed to reduce greenhouse pollution.

As a candidate, Johnson supported a climate justice buildings ordinance. He can start with making city-owned buildings more efficient. That’s a no-brainer while policy measures such as energy efficiency building codes take hold for all buildings.

4. Modernize Union Station: Union Station is the hub of Metra and Amtrak’s Midwest rail network, which together serve more than 120,000 daily passengers. The passenger rail system brings jobs, people and business into Chicago’s downtown. Passenger trains pollute less than cars and airplane travel. Union Station, however, is an aging, crowded building with convoluted approaching train tracks.

The $418 million Union Station Access Project, a badly needed cooperative initiative of Amtrak, Metra, Chicago, Cook County and the Illinois and Michigan Departments of Transportation, would revitalize the station and realign tracks to serve more rail passengers better and faster.

An Amtrak Southwest Chief train before departure Feb. 25, 2019, at Chicago's Union Station.

An Amtrak Southwest Chief train before departure Feb. 25, 2019, at Chicago’s Union Station. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

The Inflation Reduction Act provides federal funds to modernize Union Station. Seize this winning opportunity.

5. Stop adding more pollution in environmental justice communities: Some Chicago neighborhoods have long borne the brunt of toxic dumping and highly polluting industries. The General Iron scrap metal plant on the Southeast Side and other industrial facilities in Little Village and McKinley Park exacerbate the problems. It’s time to provide the benefits of cleaner, sustainable development to all communities and reduce the cumulative impacts of pollution burdens that have been disproportionately concentrated in lower-income communities.

6. Accelerate lead service pipe replacements: Lead poisoning harms kids’ health and impairs brain development. Chicago has the most homes with lead service pipes in the country. Kudos to U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth for working to secure $15 billion of national funding for lead service pipe replacements. City agencies, unfortunately, are way behind on using the money to replace lead service pipes for safe drinking water in homes across Chicago. The mayor’s office should task a senior staffer to work with the Department of Water Management to accelerate implementation. Let’s protect kids’ health while federal funds are available to get the work done.

Op-ed: Now is the time to protect ourselves against the invisible threat of lead service lines ]

7. Protect our Lake Michigan shoreline: Chicago’s lakefront is a gem with miles of parks, beaches and public recreation enjoyed by all. Climate change is causing more extreme water levels combined with more intense storm winds and waves that are hammering beaches, bike paths and apartment buildings from Rogers Park to South Shore. There are also commercial and industrial risks, including the Army Corps of Engineers’ misguided proposed expansion of its toxic dredge waste dump along the Lake Michigan shore next to Calumet Park on the Southeast Side.

The city needs to rethink the shoreline’s built environment. The lakefront belongs to all of us — for recreation, enjoyment and safe clean drinking water. Let’s not take it for granted.

We all deserve clean air to breathe and safe, clean water to drink, and to live in communities without toxic threats. Public transit that provides reliable, safe and affordable mobility is essential for a vibrant city with thriving communities. Who doesn’t love beach time and a swim on a hot summerday.

A cleaner, greener Chicago requires both city innovation and effective blocking and tackling to get things done. To the new mayor and City Council — let’s seize these opportunities.

Howard Learner is executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Midwest’s leading environmental legal advocacy and sustainability innovation organization.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email

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April 21, 2023 at 06:52AM

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