Watering the Deserts: How Transit Future Can Connect 400,000 Chicago Residents

 /  Oct. 31, 2014, 1:35 p.m.


Beyond the 95th Street terminal of the CTA’s Red Line, residents of Roseland, Pullman, and other far South Side neighborhoods face a long bus-and-train commute to Chicago’s commercial heart. They rank among the 400,000 Cook County residents stranded in “transit deserts,” where sporadic public transportation makes for a difficult choice between an hours-long commute and the significant expense of owning a car.

The Transit Future Project, spearheaded by the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technologies (CNT), aims to correct this problem. Transit Future hopes to connect the city’s South, West, and North Sides with four new CTA lines, extensions and modernizations of four existing lines, a new  rapid transit bus route, and a vastly expanded suburban bus network. Transit Future promises that these measures will simplify commutes for the residents of Chicago’s transit deserts—at a cost of $20 billion.

Transit Future’s vision is financially ambitious, and many would argue that Chicago is in no position to spend such a massive sum. The city’s debt rating took a hit back in March, and media outlets such as the Chicago Tribune have begun calling Chicago the next Detroit-like urban bankruptcy. The city’s transit system has been hit particularly hard. The Chicago Transit Authority is still working to mend budget wounds sustained during a massive pension crisis in 2008. In such a dire financial situation, the obvious way to spend new revenue would be to fund existing pension obligations, rather than build new train lines.

Transit Future has no shortage of ideas to deal with this problem. CNT spokesperson Riley Kilpatrick proposes a series of financial steps to fund the program. First, he argues, Cook County should create a local revenue stream by increasing the sales tax. Then, he predicts, federal initiatives such as America Fast Forward will pick up the rest of the tab. “Federal money that is available goes to regions that help themselves,” he explained.

Chicago would not be the first city to attempt a massive public transportation expansion in the twenty-first century. The Transit Future Project looks to Los Angeles for guidance, describing its example in a blog entitled, “LA did it. So can we.” In a 2008 referendum, Los Angeles introduced Measure R, a sales tax that the city used to help raise funds for its expansion of the LA Metro. Transit Future thinks that a similar tax in Chicago could produce similar results.

Not everyone is as confident as Transit Future about the LA Metro expansion project. Urban planning expert Marlon Boarnet said in a 2012 statement to the Annenberg Media Center that the use of sales tax revenue “has worked, but is not ideal.” According to Boarnet, the project in LA relies heavily on federal funding, which has dwindled since the 1990s. There is hope yet for LA—the city recently received a large federal grant—but the city still lacks the funds necessary to cover the first phase of construction, and the future of the project remains uncertain.

In Chicago, meanwhile, the CTA budget is threatened by recent efforts to defund public transit at the state and federal level. Since Chicago’s free rides program for low-income residents was introduced in 2008, its funding was  threatened three times: in 2010 and 2012, and finally took $17.6 million in cuts in 2013. The trend has been similar at the federal level; in 2012, members of the US House pushed to slash federal funding of subways and highways. Funding public transit is not in vogue with legislators in Springfield and Washington.

As a result, future CTA  expansion faces steep obstacles. The Transit Future Project aims to support disenfranchised, low-income families in transit deserts around Chicago. However, the first people to bear the burden of a larger transit desert’s increased operating costs will be these same low-income families--when fares are raised or free rides are reduced.

Public transit availability has vexed urban planners in cities throughout America. One metropolis, Dallas, has pursued a different solution. In the mid-1980s, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) created a private-public partnership to fund the construction of the longest light-rail system in the US. Much like the proposed Transit Future Project, DART uses money from the sales tax of each participating city to subsidize its cost, according to DART spokesman Morgan Lyons. What sets the methods of DART apart from Transit Future’s proposals is the use of the Cotton Belt Corridor Innovative Finance Initiative, which uses advertising, name rights, and other private measures to supplement public funding for the expanded light rail network.

Are public-private partnerships (P3s) in transportation even possible in Chicago? The Transit Future Project does not see a P3 as the solution to the city’s transit problems, instead favoring a publicly funded approach. Considering the controversy that surrounded  Mayor Richard Daley’s 2007 privatization of parking meters, and the abortive attempt at privatizing Midway Airport in 2013, gaining political support for another P3 seems unlikely.

However, Dr. Gregory Newmark, lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and CNT Senior Research Analyst, believes that P3s in transit are possible in Illinois, and notes that “there are many examples of them in Chicago.” Despite the city’s long-term financial loss with private parking meters, the privatization of the Grant Park parking garages has, according to a 2010 article in the Government Finance Review, allowed the city to begin repaying debts from Millenium Park, expand neighborhood parks, and implement other city improvement measures. Additionally, the privatization of highway billboards in 2013 by Rahm Emanuel brought in $15 million of revenue in its first year.

What’s more, Illinois is currently considering a P3 for a different public transit project, the Illiana Expressway. The highway, which would circumvent the city of Chicago and connect the I-55 to the I-65 in Indiana, has received support from many city and state politicians, despite backlash against the project. Considering these recent developments and the success of Dallas transit, the possibility of a P3 in Chicago’s public transit deserves consideration.

Though the future of Chicago transit is still uncertain and the financial dilemma daunting, Chicago’s leaders must not forget the people of Roseland, Pullman, and Brighton Park who have been struggling on the edge of the CTA network. Families in these and other transit deserts will continue struggling to reach their jobs until Chicago can solve this problem. If the federal and city governments won’t step up to fund this project, Transit Future should consider a public-private partnership.

Erin Hagood


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