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Transportation Thu Jul 15 2010

Fare is Fair

But it's gonna take money
A whole lotta spending money
Its gonna take plenty of money
To do it right child

Its gonna take time
A whole lot of precious time
Its gonna take patience and time, ummm
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it,
To do it right child

Yes, the above lyrics reference James Ray's 1962 soul hit "Got My Mind Set on You." (Or if you prefer, George Harrison's 1987 cover version. Regardless, both are great.) But when read on paper, could these stanzas not be the prescription for transportation in Chicago, and the nation as a whole?

It is hard to note where to begin when trying to untangle the mass of transportation issues that face the country. On one hand, with our outdated financing mechanisms, partisan culture, variety of needs and differing stages of existing and/or new transportation systems across such a large nation, it seems rather daunting to try and find comprehensive solutions. On the other hand however, it is beyond encouraging to hear so much discussion taking place in regards to how we go about moving ourselves and our goods. Just in the past few days, a flurry of articles examining Chicago's transportation issues have hit the news wire. And seeing as Chicago is in many respects still the nation's most vital transport link- and of course, encompasses nearly all forms used elsewhere- what happens here is a good indicator of what will happen elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest news was the announcement from US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that Chicago would be the recipient of more than $35 million in federal funding to develop two Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes. The first route has been dubbed the Chicago Central Area Transitway, which will connect Union Station and Navy Pier while stopping along the way to intersect with CTA and Metra rail stations. In time, the CCAT will be expanded to connect the West Loop with North Michigan Avenue, Illinois Center, the Museum Campus and McCormick Place, ultimately acting as a quick circulator for heavily-accessed points all across the Central Business District.

The real project to watch though is the other, much more needed route connecting the Far South Side to the Loop. A BRT line is being introduced to run along Jeffery Boulevard from 103rd Street and Stony Island Avenue to the intersection of Jefferson and Washington just west of the Loop. Not only does this development draw parts of the Far South Side back into the fabric of the city, but this will also be the first true dedicated BRT line the CTA puts into operation. If the CTA finds success in its attempt to approximate the speed and efficiency of rail with BRT service, expect that to become one of its main priorities in the coming years.

This week also brought word that congestion pricing- basically, a toll or fee charged during rush hours to discourage vehicle use in certain areas- may be getting a second wind in Chicago. Most successful in London, the idea of congestion pricing in the Loop was first floated here back in 2007 by 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke. At the time, the Metropolitan Planning Council concluded in a study that the Chicago region is suspect to lose nearly $7.3 billion dollars and 2 1/2 days of work per person due to traffic congestion. A new study the MPC did in concert with the Illinois Tollway suggests reviving this debate and moving the region towards its implementation.

These are all good, forward-thinking events. Here is the also where we cue up the Harrison version of the aforementioned song. Forging further ahead with any project beyond an exploratory one will require a massive amount of investment from all levels of government and their attendant bureaucracies and agencies. More tellingly though, it will also require people to pay more for using these services. As Randy Blakenhorn, the Executive Director for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning told the Chicago Tribune, "Is everyone going to be happy with paying more? No, but money isn't going to continue to drop down on us from Springfield and Washington. ... Infrastructure is not free. We want to make it fair and user-based. Users should pay for the system."

Taking a step back from Chicago and applying this to the country now, we have long been coddled by our political culture not to pay the true costs of the services we utilize. It is anathema to raise the price on Americans for any public service, and the mere mention of taxes is often enough to send people and an entire region into a tizzy. But there needs to be an opening in the dialogue between what constitutes a tax and what is basically a market-price for a service one uses. In order to move forward, we cannot assume it will simply happen while we are already barely playing keep-up with the steadily crumbling infrastructure we currently have.

There is no quick fix here either, except to perhaps note that to break the literal gridlock, we first need to break the political gridlock that hinders movement on most large issues, transportation policy included. Most importantly, we need to move beyond the "versus" mentality that infects political discourse and leads to nowhere. This means updating the way that the Department of Transportation for individual municipalities and mass transit agencies in urbanized areas are funded, so they are not so subservient to state legislatures who pit city mice vs. country mice in order to maintain their political position. (The City Council of New York approved congestion pricing with the blessing of the majority of NYC citizens. The New York State Legislature vetoed the measure.) It also means urbanites, antsy TOD planners and the anti-car crowd tone down their rhetoric and recognize that we should not target cars and trucks as evils. Rather, they need to be a part of the solution to make our transportation goals as inclusive and seamless as possible. Whether a Red, Blue or Tea-Stained state, the one thing Americans should be able to rally around together is the fact that we need quick, easy, functioning ways to get from point A to point B.

The key here is efficiency. America needs to be remade and reshaped into a gigantic, swiftly-moving interconnected intermodal hub of all forms of transport. As an established intermodal hub already, Chicago holds the possibility to be the best barometer to show the way.

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b.hack / July 15, 2010 11:55 AM

"Free parking" is never free.

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