Looking West, not East–Analysis of Chicago’s Transit Future

On Thursday, a coalition of Chicago nonprofits, advocacy groups, politicians, and corporate leaders unveiled the Transit Future campaign, dedicated to bringing improvements to Chicago’s public transit system through dedicated revenue streams. On Friday, I offered my thoughts on some of the specific lines proposed; today, I want to take a step back and look at the political processes that might lead to some of this actually getting done.

The primary reaction to the revealed map of proposed improvements on Chicago planning Twitter and in the comments on Streetsblog Chicago’s article about the campaign was surprise, ranging to shock, at the extent to which the ideas presented consisted of extensions of the L into relatively sprawly suburban areas, such as Schaumburg and Oak Brook. Personally, I’m skeptical of the utility and fiscal efficiency of these extensions, but I do think there is a method to the madness in some ways, and that it actually says a lot about the political strategy being implemented with the purpose of getting these projects done.

Traditionally, Chicago’s transit system has (and for good reason) been most closely compared with those of the older, core cities of the East Coast. The Transit Future campaign, though, is looking west. The presence of former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the press conference, and the prominent mentions of Los Angeles’ Measure R sales tax campaign, which Villaraigosa helped shepherd through as mayor, make it clear that the leadership of Transit Future intend to copy not from the playbook of New York’s MTA (as the governor’s commission on Chicago transit had proposed), but from that of Los Angeles, acting at the county level. A brief recap: Measure R was a half-cent sales tax increase on Los Angeles county residents approved by referendum (which, in California, requires a 2/3 majority) on the November 2008 ballot. At the time of passage, it was expected to raise up to $40 billion for transit projects. Since then, LACMTA has expanded its transit system with alacrity, with a combination of Measure R and some federal funding.

So how, exactly, did a massive spending increase on public transit pass with a 2/3 majority in famously car-mad Los Angeles? One possibility is that Angelenos had simply tired of sitting in traffic all day and wanted options for getting around. More importantly, though, I think, is the careful coalition-building that the supporters of Measure R conducted. The Measure R coalition included politicians from several different constituencies, labor groups, business groups, and environmental groups–the same mix apparent on Transit Future’s “supporters” page. For better or for worse, determinations of where Measure R-supported lines would go weren’t determined by technical measures alone; the benefits were spread around to ensure political support, even from semi-suburban constituencies who might not be expected to vote for transit funding. It’s worth noting that, even though an LA County follow-up measure known as Measure J failed very narrowly in November 2012 because of a drop in support from suburban voters, a majority (though not enough to pass a 2/3 vote) supported transit improvements in almost every suburban area. Is every line built with Measure R funds going to show maximal return on investment? Probably not. Is the system going to get built, when it would not have without massive county-wide support? Yes.

Chicago’s task is, in many ways, easier than LA’s was. First of all, for better or for worse, Cook County’s Board of Commissioners can approve a tax hike without a referendum, needing, as far as I can tell, only a simple majority of Commissioners. The Transit Future plan appears to already have the signature of 9 of the 17 commissioners, and the presence of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Board President Toni Preckwinkle at the press conference means they are at least willing to consider lending their considerable clout to the project. Ultimately, though, the ability of the Commissioners, especially those from suburban areas, to continue supporting the Transit Future plan will rely upon their ability to present the plan to their constituents and point to specific benefits which those constituents will be receiving. That means spreading the love around.

And that, ultimately, is I think one of the major factors underlying the structure of the Transit Future plan. Everyone wins a little. The white, liberal North Side gets a rebuilt Red/Purple Line. The poor, African-American South Side gets better service along the Metra Electric District (the “South Lakeshore Line“), and a way to get to Midway Airport and the industrial corridor with its few remaining jobs along Cicero Avenue (the “Lime Line,” or Mid-City Transitway). Commuters in the western suburbs, who confront horrible traffic on any given day, get a new commuting option with the Blue Line extension to Oak Brook (which is, oddly, in DuPage county–I don’t know how that would work). The northwest suburbs would also get a new commuting option, with the Blue Line extension from O’Hare to Schaumburg fitting in nicely in the geographic gap between Metra Milwaukee District West and UP-NW line service. The denser first-tier northern and southern suburbs would get extensive Arterial Rapid Transit (think express buses, with many of the amenities of full-blown Bus Rapid Transit, but without dedicated lanes) networks. The business community gets improved access to both airports, including a direct link between them (though I think that’s the single least likely project to get built). There’s a little something for everyone.

Is every one of these projects going to be a success on a dollars-for-riders basis? Probably not. But some of them will be, and we won’t get those projects without countywide political support, and we won’t get countywide political support without a few projects that satisfy the the parochial needs (ok, probably wants) of certain constituencies. Given the timing of then announcement–in an election year–and the fact that 9 out of 17 county commissioners have already signed on, there seems to be a decent amount of confidence in the plan’s ability to go forward. Ultimately, this is Chicago. Chicago has the benefit and curse of having a tradition of strongly centralized, almost authoritarian political maneuvering. And though that tradition has certainly been weakened in recent years, if Rahm and Toni want Transit Future to get done, it probably will.