This is the fifth and final installment of my series on taking transit to the next level in Chicago. Previous installments were:
- Part One: Building the Vision
- Part Two: Raising the Bar on Design
- Part Three: Cost Containment and Governance
- Part Four: Paying For It
As I write this, Chicago has just announced another massive transit revenue shortfall. The CTA’s budget deficit for next year is a projected $300 million – an incredible percentage of the overall budget. The need for change is clearly more urgent than ever. While we probably can’t look to raise revenues in the current economy, a lot of ground work needs to be laid to get to where we need to go.
Who Should Lead the Charge for Change?
The reality is that the CTA and the existing transit agencies are not going to be able to drive this themselves. The CTA is only one of the service boards. And many of the transit projects on its own system aren’t even driven by the agency, but by other organizations like the city DOT. The CTA has its hands full just operating the system. And it doesn’t have the clout to really drive regional change.
So who does? In Chicago, it starts with the mayor. It is critically important to convince the mayor to make transit a top priority for the city. He has to look at the CTA the same way he looked at Millennium Park or Chicago 2016. If it isn’t important to him, it won’t be important to anyone else either. As Mayor Daley contemplates a possible fifth term, I hope he considers what he wants to make the signature issues of that term, and what he wants to leave as the capstone of his legacy. Clearly, there are major issues of importance in the city: youth violence and rising crime, improving the schools, etc. But I believe transit needs to be on the list. Not least of which because it is vital to economic development in the city, and thus the city’s long term fiscal health, and also to neighborhood revitalization in many struggling parts of the city.
Ok, so that immediately begs the question: Who can get the mayor to put this at the top of his agenda? Ultimately, I believe it has to be the leadership of the business community. If you look at major civic change in most cities, including Chicago, the business community has been a big driver. That needs to be the case here as well.
I mentioned before that Metropolis 2020 will soon unveil their plan for Chicago transit. They are an operation of the Commercial Club, which represents the major corporations in town. Still, Metropolis 2020 is a behind the scenes type organization that isn’t likely to lead a public charge. I doubt most Chicagoans have even heard of it. They could play a key role, but they are not sufficient.
What’s needed is for some current and former CEO’s who are trusted by the mayor to go to him and make the case for him to take on this issue. They have to make it clear that absent major investment in Chicago’s transit system, business investment in the city and especially the Loop will be threatened. Of course, they have to really believe this themselves. But assuming they do – and the fact that Metropolis 2020 is taking on transit seems to indicate that the business community does feel this is important – then they need to do that sales job.
They also need to stay engaged to drive a community effort to make it happen, with the mayor’s full support. This probably involves creating a committee similar to Chicago 2016 – one that has participation from the key stakeholders that would be necessary to move transit forward. The beauty of this issue is that is – or should be – everyone’s issue. It’s difficult to identify a natural constituency who would oppose it. The Loop business community needs it, organized labor should definitely be on board with a big construction program, various advocacy and grass roots organizations – including many of the mayor’s big critics – want the CTA upgraded, and minority communities want better access to transit and enhanced mobility in their neighborhoods. If there is any one issue that should unite the White, Black, and Latino communities, it should be better transit.
The city coalition should be easy. Of course, the city isn’t the only player. The big problem is likely to be suburban areas and the power structures in Springfield. Clearly, those are areas that need to be tackled, and that’s one of the group’s key to-do’s.
The Program for Change
So what does this committee do? Here is what I see as the workstreams that need to get accomplished. Most of these can and should run in parallel:
- Visioning. Create the end state vision of what our city is like with an enhanced transit system. This includes a holistic, phased view of what is to be implemented. The existing plans can be used as input, but I believe we ought to rethink a bit what our system needs to look like. Many of the current proposed expansions, for example, are simply pet projects of various politicians. Again, I won’t give the answer, but simply say that we need to ask the question.
- Cost Reduction. Figure out how to drive major reductions in the cost of construction on rail projects.
- Governance. Rethinking how we ought to organize and run our transit systems, set investment policies, the city-suburb situation, etc.
- Financing and Legislation. Identifying the preferred financing plan and doing the ground work to get the enabling legislation through the state legislature and for maximizing federal funding.
- Sales and Marketing Plan. Looking at a short and long term program of making the case to the public and building that demand for the program so that when it is in Springfield and up for a vote in a referendum, there will be clear and overwhelming public support. This is where having that broad coalition is critical.
This creates the plan we need. In parallel, we should start right now, today, dramatically improving the quality of design in our system. And of course we then need to make it happen politically. Once approved, we need a clear focus on execution. I think part of the governance effort ought to look at the best way to organize the new build and capital side of the business vs. the operating side. And I think there should also be ongoing marketing as we deliver on the system to show people how the benefits are actually coming to life.
Doing this won’t be easy. It will probably take some time and cost some money – money that won’t be easy to raise in this environment. Probably it would have to involve a mix of public and private funds to really put together a proper and credible plan.
Again, taking Chicago’s transit system to the next level isn’t going to be quick, easy, or cheap, but it is important to be done. Without this investment, it will be a struggle to merely maintain what we have, and a deteriorating transit system could ultimately be a major stumbling block to the city realizing its civic ambitions.
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