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Tuesday, March 5

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The Mechanics
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Public Transportation Fri Aug 13 2010

Raise the Grade

Chicago's Aaron Renn, who writes an influential blog under the moniker The Urbanophile, is one of the region's- if not nation's- leading thinkers in providing innovative solutions to urban issues. Last year, his series "Chicago Transit at a Crossroads" won the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce's Transit Innovation Award, and his work regularly is quoted and/or appears in the New York Times, Forbes, and New Geography, amongst many others. Needless to say, when Renn digs into an issue or picks up a cause, it is pretty much assured worth a read.

This past week, Renn made his case in a lengthy post about Metra's plan to use earmarked transit capital dollars to raise the grade of clearance bridges in order to accommodate more truck traffic on the roads below, and to remove a currently unused third right of way track that runs alongside the Union Pacific North Line. As is usually the case, Renn clearly illustrates his point, lucidly cutting to the heart of the matter by asking: why is Metra using any amount of their minuscule funds available for transit in order to enact what is essentially a roads improvement project? He further questions the wisdom of permanently removing the currently underutilized third right of way track in light of all indications pointing to increased ridership in the years to come, making it seem foolhardy of Metra to remove an essential bit of infrastructure that could very well be needed in the future. In his post, Renn encourages his readers to email the Metra Board and at the very least, appoint a third party to review their intentions before moving any further with the plan.

This bit of advocacy actually worked in prompting a response from Metra to Renn, presenting their side of the story and an explanation of some of their plans. (You can read their response by downloading the following: Urbanresponse.doc) While the factual matters concerning this debate would seem to fall in Renn's favor, one of the more interesting aspects of this exchange is the response elicited by the petitioning body and the speed in which the governing faction- in this case, Metra- responded. Saul Alinsky and neighborhood community groups aside, direct democracy and advocacy are not traditional strongholds in Chicagoland. Given the paucity of funds floating around during these critical times, and the utter incompetence of, sadly, most everyone involved in making funding decisions, there seems to be a slight shift afoot in how people interact with the powers and services that be. If, on a larger scale, Machine Lite may be in its waning days, could Renn and his readers represent an emerging kind of informed and eager class of citizen demanding direct interaction and response from their public utilities and government? If so, Paddy Bauler might be needing a new quote.

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