The elevated trains that have circled the city core since 1897 give downtown Chicago its name: The Loop. (Image: Ian Freimuth CC by/sa/nc)

By John McCarron

Chicago exists because of transportation.

French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet learned its strategic secret from the native Potawatomi in 1673. Just west of what would become the city was a canoe portage connecting the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers. Which is to say, connecting the Great Lakes and the East to the Mississippi River and the West.

Author bio

John McCarron is a contributing op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune, an adjunct lecturer at DePaul University’s School of Communication and a freelance urban affairs writer.

Little wonder the first investors to buy and subdivide the southwest shore of Lake Michigan in the 1830s did so to raise capital for a canal that would connect the two vast watersheds.

So opened America’s Golden Funnel – a mega-port through which the bounty of a fruited midcontinent flowed east and finished goods west. First by water and later by rail, semitrailer and jetliner.

All of which explains why Chicagoans worry so much about transportation. For if the funnel is to function on a wider, global scale, the region’s elaborate web of highways, railroads and airports will require constant repair and timely expansion. This is a problem, because the demands of world-class logistics run smack against a new fiscal reality, with governments at all levels cutting back on capital investment to stay solvent and provide basic services.

So while some projects are going forward ­­– the rebuild of double-decked Wacker Drive just west of the Loop, say, or the renewal of outlying toll roads funded by a recent major toll increase ­– other planned improvements – such as extension of the city’s main subway line and, crucially, the final expansion phase of O’Hare International Airport – remain unfunded. (The Loop, by the way, is the downtown rectangle of 35 blocks circumscribed by the Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated rapid transit tracks.)

A European import: the "complete street" on Kinzie Avenue with pedestrian and bike lanes protected from auto traffic by a line of parked cars. Kinzie is a pilot. The city plans to install 100 miles of protected bike lanes in the next four years. (Image: Steven Vance CC by/nc/sa)

Federal fadeaway

Central to the problem is that America’s federal system for subsidizing state and local transportation projects is in ugly disarray. Nearly all transportation projects of any scale are underwritten by Washington at levels ranging from 50 to 80 percent, with much of those funds coming from a highway trust fund that depends on a tax on the purchase of gasoline. Every three to five years Congress is supposed to pass a master funding plan that endows local projects nominated by cities and states.

Trouble is, the federal fuel tax was last raised (to 18.4 cents per gallon) in 1993, and the revenue it produces is falling further and further behind the need, what with cost inflation and more fuel-efficient automobiles. Moreover, partisan gridlock in Congress, especially after the Republican takeover of the budget-writing House in 2010, has stymied all efforts at passing a new transportation bill.

So virtually all cities and states are making do using their pro-rata share of the gas tax under temporary extensions of a bill passed in 2005. Requests for new projects are piling up, unfunded, while Democrats complain of a “failure to invest” and Republicans warn against “pork barrel spending” using borrowed money. This same attitude among Republican governors in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio also has chilled prospects for a Midwest high-speed passenger rail network that was to have centered on Chicago.

Chicago and Illinois did wangle some one-time funds from the stimulus program enacted early in the Obama administration. Chicago’s share, plus other competitive grant programs, are helping fund the Wacker Drive redo, expansion of O’Hare, a pilot bus-way system and CTA upgrades of stations and rolling stock. It hasn’t hurt that President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation is a genial former GOP congressman from central Illinois named Ray LaHood.

Springfield snags

Then again, even if Congress got its act together, Illinois would be hard-pressed to find the 20 percent match generally required under the federal-state formula. In 2009 the state legislature passed what was to be a six-year, $31 billion capital improvement bonding plan based on an assortment of sin taxes.

But the liquor industry struck back with a time-consuming, if ultimately unsuccessful, lawsuit; and many Illinois locales opted out of the law’s legalization of video poker at pubs and restaurants. Result: less than half of forecasted revenues are being collected and bond issuance has been scaled back.

So local governments, perforce, are having to gin-up infrastructure monies in novel ways. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced an ambitious $7 billion plan called Building a New Chicago. Its centerpiece is an infrastructure trust through which private investors would front money for new projects or repairs and get repaid over time by taxpayers and/or users of new or upgraded facilities.

To some, however, this smacks of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 75-year lease of the city’s parking meters and lots for $1.2 billion. After the deal closed, private investors sold the lease for roughly twice the city’s price. Oops. Many like the convenience of swiping a credit card at the new curbside e-meters, but the city still seems to be discovering the deal’s fine print, such as compensation due investors for every space blocked due to street repairs or special events (like international summits). Lesson: privatization can be good business … but it’s not risk-free business.

O'Hare International Airport is the nation's second busiest. (Image: Peter Roome CC by/nc)

Still rolling

So where do all these travails leave the city that transportation built?

Starting at the top, O’Hare remains the nation’s second-busiest airport – with 878,798 flights in 2011 – and civic leaders remain convinced its future is to be America’s midcontinental, over-the-pole gateway to Asian markets. This despite the fact one of its two main tenants, American Airlines, is reorganizing in federal bankruptcy court; while the other, United Airlines, recently merged into United Continental Holdings – thankfully headquartered in Chicago, but with Continental’s CEO in command.

Expansion of Midway Airport is complete and the nation’s 27th busiest is thought to be a candidate for privatization. There is talk, still, of adding a third airport in far south suburban Peotone, though planners are leaning toward freight-only.

The Chicago region’s freight rail system remains the world’s largest and most complex. Its 26 truck-train transfer yards place the region among the world’s top intermodal ports, yet it’s a mixed blessing. For historical reasons the nation’s great eastern and western railways terminated in Chicago yet did not directly connect. So besides 2,000 grade crossings, area motorists compete daily with some 3,500 truck trips as big containers are shuttled from one yard to another.

One response by the railroads, which troubles Chicago boosters, has been to swing trains south through new outlying yards south of Joliet. Another has been to participate in a public-private initiative – called CREATE, the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program ­– that aims to eliminate the worst grade crossings and better connect rail yards to reduce truck drayage.

The Metra commuter rail. (Image: Contemplative Imaging CC by/sa/nc)

Behind the wheel

Chicago also has the nation’s most elaborate commuter rail systems, both heavy and light. Trouble is, heavy Metra trains are run by suburban Republicans and the CTA by Chicago Democrats. Rarely do the twain meet ­– except on the letterhead of the all-funding Regional Transportation Authority, or RTA. There’s no integrated fare system; and lacking any lane-separated downtown circulator, travelers who speed downtown via Metra often take longer to cross choked Loop streets by bus on their way to lakefront museums or Michigan Avenue shopping.

Doubtless this is a reason why less than 6 percent of area commuters utilize public transit, and why, consequently, commute drive-times here are among the nation’s worst. The region consistently ranks first or second in the annual gridlock survey of the Texas Transportation Institute. In 2010 Chicago-area drivers lost 367 million hours to travel delays, costing the region $8.2 billion in lost productivity.

One obvious solution would be to drive less, which is why the city is experimenting this summer with a subscription bicycle rental program; and why advocacy groups like the Center for Neighborhood Technology keep pushing for urban designs that shorten distances between home, work and other daily destinations.

Design for bicycles

Could biking and hiking, then, be the next secret solution to Chicago’s transportation issues?

The city is famously bike friendly; National Geographic Traveler puts it behind only Portland and New York City as the best in the US. Mayor Emmanuel has pledged to install 100 miles of protected bike lanes — a so called “complete street” with parked cars and pylons separating cars and bikes — after a pilot project proved inexpensive and had no impact on motor vehicle travel times.

Riding a bicycle to work is up 120% in the last decade; even so only only 1 percent of all Chicagoland commutes are by pedal. Bikes cluster where urban design supports them. A recent count of rush hour traffic on Milwaukee Avenue, a popular bike route, found roughly equal numbers of bicycles and motor vehicles.

And aren’t those the ghosts of Marquette and Joliet, smiling as they paddle away in their canoes?

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