Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part Five – Getting It Done

This is the fifth and final installment of my series on taking transit to the next level in Chicago. It has been updated from the original version.

As I write this [in 2009], 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 new mayor to make transit a top priority for the city. He has to look at the CTA the same way Mayor Daley looked at Millennium Park or Chicago 2016 or the O’Hare Modernization Plan. If it isn’t important to him, it won’t be important to anyone else either.

Mayor Daley was an incredible mayor for the city in many ways. Whatever you might think of various parts of his personality or ways of running the city, I believe this is a guy that gets up every day and says to himself, “What can we do today to make Chicago a greater city?” That’s a quality of leadership all too rare in American cities.

But Daley just didn’t get it on transit. I mean, I believe he intellectually understood it – he’s reputedly quite the policy wonk – but he doesn’t feel it in his gut. If you’ve ever gotten a chance to see Daley just talk off the cuff about the city, it’s incredible. This is a guy who overflows with passion for Chicago. When he gets started on, say, education, you can tell it’s a topic close to his heart. But I’ve never heard or heard of him talking like that about transit. He doesn’t ride it, unlike Bloomberg who has made a point of regularly taking the subway to work in New York. It’s just not something that emotionally engages him.

That’s not to say it was an invalid choice. A leader is faced with infinite problems to address – budgets, the economy, crime, infrastructure, parks, economic development, taxes, education, transportation, equity, etc. – but only has finite time and resources, even in a city like Chicago. You can’t chose to do everything. Daley chose to focus his efforts elsewhere.

So the immediate critical question is whether the incoming mayor, whoever that is, puts transit on his list of top agenda items. Given that this is a longer term, not instant gratification, it doesn’t seem likely to bubble up frankly.

So who could 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.

Reputedly it was former Sara Lee CEO John Bryan who sent Daley on his legendary trip to Paris that led to a lot of the beautification efforts in Chicago. It was supposedly Lester Crown who convinced Daley to undertake the ambitious, long term, and expensive O’Hare Modernization Plan.

Similarly, what’s needed is for some current and former CEO’s to go to the new mayor 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, and its ability to stay in the top ranks of global cities impaired. Of course, they have to really believe this themselves. I do. That’s not something that can be taken for granted given that most of them probably don’t depend on the CTA. But assuming they do, then they are the ones 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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Cost Reduction. Figure out how to drive major reductions in the cost of construction on rail projects.
  3. Governance. Rethinking how we ought to organize and run our transit systems, set investment policies, the city-suburb situation, etc.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 just like Chicago 2016 did – 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.

More in This Series

Part 1: Building the Vision
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It

This version of this post originally ran on October 11, 2009.

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