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Which way for O’Hare Express?

Mayor Daley’s vision for a high-speed train from O’Hare to a “superstation” under Block 37 at State and Randolph faces major hurdles, as Jon Hilkevitch points out in the Tribune; a proposal by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association may offer some solutions.

Along with questions of financing and marketing, there’s the question of routing:  building alongside the Blue Line from State Street would mean digging miles of tunnels and “demolishing hundreds, maybe thousands, of buildings and other structures along the route,” as Hilkevitch writes.

MHSRA has backed a proposal for a high-speed railroad built on existing tracks from Union Station to O’Hare, part of a larger project to build a 220-mph “bullet train” line from Chicago to St. Louis.

The O’Hare-Union station leg would follow Metra’s Milwaukee West route; there is space for additional track “along essentially all of the route,” according to a feasibility study issued by MHSRA a year ago (pdf).  At Union Station, a four-level West Loop Transportation Center proposed by the city would facilitate interconnections with Amtrak, Metra, and CTA.

From Union Station the train would head to McCormick Place – a three-minute trip along existing track, according to the study – then south to Kankakee, Champaign, Springfield, and St. Louis.

Basic construction from O’Hare to Union Station, not including stations, would cost about $1 billion in 2012 dollars, according to the study; service from station to station would take 25 minutes and could be operated profitably with a fare of $10.

A 2005 CTA study of express airport train service (pdf) projected a 30-minute ride with fares of  $12 to $17 – though those figures were determined by dividing taxi fare by a third and a half, reflecting relative fares in other cities.  The CTA study notes that the train is intended for the “price-insensitive business traveler market.”

There are much larger advantages to the MHSRA plan, hinging on an ambitious long-term vision of a Midwest high-speed rail network.

“It’s exciting that Mayor Daley has made getting an express train to O’Hare from downtown such a high priority,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of MHSRA.  “Our proposal provides an opportunity to use that as a stepping stone for something much bigger.”

The long-term advantages involve directly linking O’Hare with a regional high-speed rail network eventually serving 42 billion passengers in eight or nine states with over 2,000 miles of track and 28 stations in large and small cities and airports around the region.  Such a system would dramatically reduce highway and airport congestion, carbon emissions, and oil dependence, proponents say.

A recent Illinois PIRG study says a high-speed rail network would strengthen the region’s economic integration and create 57,000 permanent jobs.  It would boost the rail manufacturing industry in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.  Illinois PIRG estimates that 70 percent of Illinois jobs and 58 percent of Midwest residents — 35 million people — would ultimately be within 15 miles of a high-speed rail station

And most remarkably, it’s happening.

Work started last month on improvements to the Chicago-St. Louis line that will cut travel times to four hours. It’s part of $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds the Obama administration awarded to Illinois – out of a total $2.7 billion to six midwestern states.

It’s happening in other Midwest states too.  Wisconsin is building high-speed capacity from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago, and Michigan is building capacity on the Chicago-Detroit corridor.  Congress is appropriating more funding for high-speed rail.

And Illinois has applied for federal funds to begin planning for 220-mph “bullet trains” on the route, which would cut travel times to two hours .  That makes Illinois one of the only states to make bullet train development an official priority, as MHSRA noted. (Even current improvements to provide for 110-mph service will a have a tremendous economic impact, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council.)

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is a major booster, predicting in a recent talk with the Peoria Rotary Club that within 25 years, 85 percent of Americans will be connected to high-speed rail.

Last year Mayor Daley joined eight midwestern governors at a Midwest High-Speed Rail Summit signing a memorandum of understanding establishing a steering group to coordinate planning and lobbying for federal support.  Last May the state senate passed a resolution to create an Illinois High Speed Rail Commission, which would develop plans for a private-public partnership to build and operate a bullet train system, including recommendations for integration with airports, Amtrak and public transit.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Go To 2040 regional plan, which will be rolled out on October 13, backs high-speed rail. “The advent of high-speed rail prompts CMAP to recommend creation of the West Loop Transportation Center,” according to a draft of Go To 2040 released last month.  The new facility is “necessary for Chicago to become, as intended, the hub of a Midwest high-speed rail network,” according to the draft.

(CMAP cautions that funding for high-speed rail development cannot come at the expense of desperately-needed funds to maintain existing transit.)

In August, Mayor Daley appointed an O’Hare Express Blue Ribbon Committee, chaired  by industrial Lester Crown, to “undertake a comprehensive study for express train service between O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago.”  The committee’s charge is broad – the announcement says it will consider potential routes and options for the downtown terminus.

They should consider the big picture, take the long view, and look at the Union Station connection.


High-speed rail has long been a bipartisan cause, but in this year’s elections, Republican gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin, Ohio, California and Florida are promising to reject and return federal funds dedicated to high-speed rail, the New York Times reports.

Some are worried about operating costs, some would rather spend it on highways (as if highways didn’t involve heavy maintenance costs – and heavy public subsidies).

Republicans HSR supporters like LaHood and California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger have pushed  back against Meg Whitman and the others.

In Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn has been a fervent supporter of high-speed rail, and his Republican opponent, State Senator Bill Brady, promises to “fight for federal money to enhance high-speed freight and passenger rail.”  (Progress Illinois points out that Brady was one of 12 senators to vote against the state’s capital budget last year – and has called for repealing the gas tax.)

Illinois PIRG is collecting signatures on a petition calling on Illinois gubernatorial candidates to stay on track with high-speed rail.

Grading Daley on community issues

How will Mayor Daley’s record be judged on the issues that impact Chicago’s communities?  One primary source is a report card issued earlier this year by a coalition of community and civil rights groups, and it’s not particularly favorable.

The Developing Government Accountability for the People project rated the city’s record on a range of issues in March, giving an overall grade of D and finding that the city’s performance in several areas had declined since a previous assessment three years earlier.

On criminal justice, DGAP gave the city a D, citing the failure to institute an effective early warning system for abusive cops or to fund alternative crime models like CeaseFire.

On economic development, the city got a D, with the O’Hare expansion serving as “a prime example of the inequity and corruption that plagues economic development in Chicago: money is ill-spent and goes to the people who need it least.”  DGAP called for living wage protections for big box and TIF-backed development, and for stepped up funding for jobs, including TIF funding for summer youth jobs.

On education, DGAP gave the city a D+ and called for a moratorium on school closings and for support for LSCs.  On the environment the city got a B+, with DGAP calling for action on recycling and coal power plant pollution.

On ethics and corruption, the city got a D+, with DGAP calling for enacting Shakman Decree protections, making budget information transparent, limiting campaign contributions, and requiring public hearings and independent evaluations of privatization deals.

The city got an F on housing, with DGAP reporting that the CHA Plan for Transformation has been a disaster for many residents, and the city’s ten-year plan to end homeless has only two years left and “there is still no city investment in creating permanent housing for homeless people.”

On transportation, with CTA service cuts “exacerbating inequities in service provision across the city,” DGAP gave the city a D and called for a congestion tax, full accessibility on public transit, a new formula for RTA funds, and a commitment to the Gold Line and the Red Line extension “to rectify the huge transportation inequity on the southeast side.”

The report showed that “despite all of its efforts to beautify and modernize the city, local government does not adequately and equitably serve all of its communities,” said DGAP coordinator Michaela Purdue in a statement with the report’s release.

“Where residents have expected to be actively engaged in the implementation of equitable policies that benefit all residents in every neighborhood across the entire city, they have instead found themselves in a constant struggle against forces that ultimately exclude their voices from the democratic process,” according to the report.

The Mayor still has several months to get his grades up.

Clean Air and Water Show

Without a car, any Little Village resident going to the lakefront for the city’s Air and Water Show earlier this month would have had to take several buses – and probably walk a half mile or more in addition.

That’s just one of a number of issues to be raised by an alternative celebration, the Clean Air and Water Show, taking place this Saturday, August 28.

Sponsored by a coalition of grassroots environmental, community, labor and peace groups, the Clean Air and Water Show starts at noon with a rally for clean power at the Crawford coal-fired power plant in Little Village (34th and Pulaski).

Along with a sister plant in Pilsen, Crawford is the leading source of air pollution and carbon emissions in the city, said Michael Pitula of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

At 1 p.m. there’s a bike ride along the proposed route for a 31st Street bus line.  LVEJO has been organizing for restoration of the route for several years, pointing out that there’s a 25-block gap between east-west bus routes in Little Village – and that African American, Latino and Asian American communities on the South and Southwest Sides have no direct transit to the museum campus and lakefront beaches, Pitula said.

The route was eliminated in 1997, but since then several schools have opened, along with housing and shopping, in the area.  Restoring the route was first proposed by students at the new Little Village Lawndale High School, who pointed out that there’s no transportation for students who stay after school for tutoring, sports, or arts programs, Pitula said.

At LVEJO’s urging, the CTA applied for a federal Job Access Reverse Commute Grant and was awarded $1.1 million in 2009, contingent on coming up with matching funds. Then came a series of budget crises and service cuts.

LVEJO plans to ramp up efforts to identify local funding sources this fall, Pitula said; the federal funds must be returned if they aren’t used in the next year.  One idea is to ask the White Sox, Bears, and lakefront museums to kick in for matching funds.

“We need to turn the tide on service cuts,” he said.  “We’ve had a decade of service cuts, and it’s getting to the point that there’s not going to be much of a system left.”

At 3 to 6 p.m. there’s a Clean Air and Water Show at the 31st Street Beach, with skits, performances and speeches highlighting the value of clean energy and public transit for the health of Chicago residents – and as a source of jobs.

The contast to the military extravaganza staged by the city on the lakefront is intentional, Pitula said.

“It’s a question of priorities,” he said. “We can choose to spend our tax dollars on war or we can choose things like renewable energy and public transit.”

Ride of Silence

The Ride of Silence, a slow, silent bike ride commemorating cyclists who have died on their bikes, leaves from Daley Plaza at 7 p.m. this evening.

The 12-mile route passes ghost bikes – old bikes painted white and chained at the site of cyclists’ deaths – memorializing Clint Miceli, Blanca Ocasio, Mandy Annis, Jepson Livingston and Tyler Fabeck.  It will conclude at Damen and Wellington, where there’s a ghost bike for Liza Whitacre, a 20 year old who died in a traffic incident there last October.

As Newstips reported in 2006, it’s estimated that some 200 cyclists and pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles in the Chicago area each year.

Rides of Silence are taking place at Arlington Heights, Evanston, and Joliet tonight.  Begun in Dallas in 2003, the Ride of Silence now involves thousands of cyclists in cities around the world.

Rail crew drivers picket

At Working In These Times, Kari Lydersen reports on a picket Thursday at BNSF’s Corwith intermodal railyard at 41st and Pulaski.

Van drivers who transport train crews – once railroad company jobs that have been subcontracted out in recent years – organized Local 1177 of United Electrical Workers in February and are negotiating with Rezenberger, Inc.

The union says they want living wages, basic benefits, and safer conditions; their demands include pay for on-call time and enforcement of legally-mandated work breaks.   The company is refusing to consider any wage increases or paid time off, Lydersen reports.

Preckwinkle and Peotone

Talking about economic development and “regional planning” – and no doubt eyeing a possible endorsement by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. – Ald. Toni Preckwinkle has come out in favor of Jackson’s scheme for a new airport in Peotone.

Preckwinkle’s (rather far afield) support comes on top of Governor Quinn’s backing, which includes $100 million for property acquisition  in the state’s crisis budget and a promise to accelerate the process in his State of the State speech today.  Quinn actually got an endorsement from the Congressman in exchange.

Still, “there are so many obstacles,” said Peotone resident George Ochsenfeld of Shut This Airport Nightmare Down.  “The state is really broke – I mean really.  The airport industry is in a shambles.  And Jackson is damaged goods.”  The FAA has yet to approve a new airport, and there are still two competing plans.

Angry that his state representative wouldn’t speak out against the $100 million, Ochsenfeld is now a candidate for state rep in the Green Party primary in the 79th District.  He thinks he stands a chance come November – and he thinks his colleague in STAND, Judy Ogalla, has an even better chance to win the 40th District state senate seat; she’s running in next month’s GOP primary.

“Judy’s frustration with the state’s decades-long effort to build an unnecessary airport in the farm fields of eastern Will County was the catalyst for her desire to run for office,” says her website. “She has already stood up for her friends and neighbors in the path of the state’s favored project.”

Said Ochsenfeld:  “We’re closing down health services and social services — and we have $100 million to force people off their property?”

Airport opponents have held township offices in the area for several years now.  (For more see 6-12-08 Newstips.)

From Roseland to Oslo

In Roseland, the Developing Communities Project – founded in 1986 under the guidance of a young community organizer named Barack Obama, who served as its first executive director – will host school and community leaders for a viewing of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at 1 p.m. at Langston Hughes Elementary School, 103rd and Wentworth.

And at a community event this evening, DCP members will view the ceremony and President Obama’s address, followed by a program calling on a focus on Greater Roseland for youth and community development, jobs and vocational training, and violence prevention (Thursday, December 10, 5:30 p.m. at Lilydale First Baptist Church, 649 W. 113th).

They’ll also be celebrating CTA’s approval of the Red Line extension, long advocated by DCP.


With Asian carp closing in on Lake Michigan, IDNR is continuing electrofishing and the Army Corps plans further environmental testing, the Tribune reports.

This “slow-motion effort” to block infiltration by the Asian carp – which we’ve known was possible since 1993 – is “embarrassing and pitiful” writes Henry Henderson at NRDC’s Switchboard.

He thinks it’s time to reconsider the fundamental wisdom of the Cal-Sag Channel and the rest of the “Chicago diversion” connecting Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River.

It was built when shipping was easiest by water, and while Great Lakes shipping may still have a role to play, Henderson says improved intermodal technologies (offloading goods to other forms of conveyance) could now provide a more sustainable transportation system.

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