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Public Transportation Wed Jan 05 2011

Not Even on the Map

Recently, the CTA announced that its long-awaited Train Tracker app will be launching this month. Utilizing a system similar to its popular Bus Tracker app, CTA riders will now be able to get real time information on when the next train is due to arrive at the platform. Ideally, this story would be part of a narrative that the CTA, despite these lean times, continues to produce the best possible product it can for its ridership, and is dedicated to taking whatever steps necessary to ensure its service continues unabated.

Unfortunately though, the Train Tracker seems to be one of the only
projects that is realistically slated to get off the ground this year for the CTA. In an inventory carried out by the sweeping transportation blog The Transport Politic, a study outlining all of the major planned transit projects across the country is now available for review. Light rail in Denver, Dallas, and Pittsburgh? Construction already underway. Streetcars in Atlanta, D.C., Portland and Seattle? Making progress. Busways in Hartford, CT, and Los Angeles, and commuter rail in New York, Boston, and San Francisco? All are in various stages of construction or completion. Chicago? Not even on the map.

For a city with such historical precedent of great public works, and relatively recent cachet to preen about large-scale infrastructure projects such as Millennium Park or innovative greening initiatives, it's startling not to see it listed anywhere. In Chicago's defense, it's not as if it's starting from zero in terms of transit infrastructure. For that matter though, New York, D.C., and the majority of other cities on the list aren't either. With the completed Brown Line renovation, the CTA has been incrementally fixing what it can. And though they've still yet to move out of the review phase, there are plans to move the system forward with BRT lines, and the forever-in-review Red, Yellow, and Orange Line extensions .

Yet maintaining the above defenses on behalf of Chicago becomes more difficult when seeing other cities muscling forward in a trying climate like the current one. The CTA has always maintained that its inability to implement concrete expansion projects is due to the paucity of funds at its disposal, and there is no doubt the CTA is hamstrung by factors both in and out of its control. If other cash-strapped municipalities are thinking ahead by working with their transit agencies to strengthen their systems though, it's nearly criminal that Chicago is simply sitting on its hands. By not doing anything, the CTA is letting advantages fall by the wayside, and when the economy eventually rebounds and service is demanded to keep pace with activity, the CTA will be in the unenviable and untenable position of having to doubly catch-up, just to maintain.

How can Chicago be in this position? Could it be that the desire for a great civic public transit system just isn't there? Could it also be that there's a failure to prioritize transit from the top-down, both on a city and state level? In states like Ohio and Wisconsin, where new governors are shunning federal transit funds for high-speed rail, and now with Iowa thinking of doing the same, a clear vision, however misguided it be, is emanating from the executive offices. Gov. Quinn needs to grab the same bully pulpit and steadfastly position Illinois as the dominant doer and player in the MidWest in support of high-speed rail. As the economic catalyst of the state and the vast region, and the conduit to which the majority of high-speed rail lines would connect, Chicago's and the CTA's leadership needs to do the same, exerting further influence on how a stronger Chicago results in a stronger Illinois and a stronger region. But with the CTA idly sitting by with no ready plan to realistically improve in an intra-city capacity, no example is being made, and it is merely a pipe dream to envision anything like the above coming to fruition.

The entire affair is indicative of government's failure to harness the capacity of limitation into creative governance. On a national level, the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts illustrate this trend -- instead of reaching a true compromise that attempted to solve structural problems, the resolution simply gave both Democrats and Republicans a little bit of something each were angling for. On a local level though, where there's a more immediate relationship, and a more immediate return, Chicagoans should demand the city be put back on the map. With a prominent mayoral candidate being on record as having said that a serious crisis should never go to waste, solutions should be remedied immediately to creatively ensure Chicago's transit infrastructure does not falter further.

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Carfree Chicago / January 4, 2011 8:27 PM

I totally agree with your general sentiment, but sounds like you're blaming the CTA for our stagnation, which I think would be seriously misplaced angst. Other cities are not making the leaps they're making because they have incredible transit agencies -- they're making progress because of strong political leadership. We have been lacking that. Our city and state elected officials are the ones who are actually responsible for the CTA, Metra, Pace and the RTA. Mayor Daley largely ignored transit, except for little pet projects (like the airport express service boondoggle) with little real impact and for which regular service was sacrificed. It took a transit crisis for Daley to sack his college roomie and appoint a new CTA head who would prioritize keeping the system in good working order. Placing the blame on the CTA itself only perpetuates the mistrust that prevents the agency from getting more funding in the state legislature.

WAJ / January 5, 2011 9:52 AM

"As the economic catalyst of the state and the vast region"

Do you (or anyone for that matter) have any evidential support for this statement or is it simply a "if we build it, they will come" idea? Really, this idea is continually trotted out without any actual and real support whatsoever.

With the governors of WI, OH, IA, and you can assume that the new republican governor of MI, all rejecting the notion of building "high speed rail" in their states, what is IL going to do? With its vast debt, is IL going to take on more debt and build high speed rail to the state's edge? Is the "vast region" now simply to Peotone?

Put simply, what is the business case?

R.A. Stewart / January 15, 2011 10:42 PM

That Urbanophile series you linked to had me wanting to call Walgreens to see if they have hemlock. All those pictures from cities whose transit systems have left us far behind--Minsk, for God's sake! And that was in 2009, before the resurgence of the Party of No Transit.

An intriguing question, whether there really is a desire for a great public transit system here. I wonder if it's more a bone-deep conviction that, however much we may want that, it can never happen. Which would be to a considerable extent a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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