“Stay on Track”

4 April editorial in the New York Times:

But any mass-transit renaissance will come to a grinding halt unless a commensurate investment is made in upkeep and expansion. As Libby Sander reported recently in The Times, Chicago’s elevated train system, known as the El, appears to be near a breaking point. The second-largest public transit system in America after New York’s is suffering from rising commute times as the century-old system deteriorates… Once a system begins to break down, it can hurt the quality of life and economic growth of a city.

29 January editorial in Crain’s Chicago Business:

Chicago’s rapid transit system is rolling toward a disastrous tipping point. So far, riders have stuck with the elevated train system as service has gotten worse and worse… At some point, ridership will plummet as commuters abandon the trains for more reliable transportation and businesses depart downtown for more accessible locations. The effect on the city’s economy will be devastating.

Only Mayor Richard M. Daley can save the train system. So far, he’s mostly ignored the deterioration of service as trains swell with downtown office workers commuting from the gentrifying neighborhoods of the North and Northwest sides — a predictable side effect of the middle-class renaissance he worked to hard to foster.

(emphases added) This is the biggest point I’ve wanted to make about transit funding: without transit, downtown Chicago would cease to exist. Without downtown Chicago, Illinois might as well be Iowa or Indiana, some generic slice of rich Midwestern prairie. This isn’t just a city issue.

It might be interesting to calculate some rough figures on this topic: what would happen if 20% of downtown jobs disappeared? or if 20% of CTA riders started driving? The cascading impacts down the line — property values and tax revenue, income tax, sales tax, air pollution, stormwater and heat island impacts from parking — would be astonishing. It’s also not entirely unprecedented: look at, say, Philadelphia, where poor transit was one factor in the decline of a CBD that now accounts for just a third of the region’s office market.

And a curious 29 March entry from the Economist (which has direct experience in congestion pricing):

But there is something odd about the way that many of Chicago’s leaders talk about [transportation] problems. They invariably try to link their suggestions to grand or abstract ideas, such as being a “global city” or winning a bid to host the Olympics. _The simpler need is to get goods and people moving_… The public debate over making drivers pay to use the roads has been as shallow in Chicago as in the rest of America. The argument tends to revolve around whether it makes more sense to use tolls and private enterprise to pay for better roads, or instead to keep charging taxpayers for a system that just limps along. By contrast, not much is said about the role that prices might play in altering the behaviour of both companies and commuters.

There you go: we need price incentives that cut car and truck traffic while raising revenues for rail.

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