Local Beneficiaries of Obama's Presidency

We’ve had some discussion in the past about the potential implications of an Obama presidency. As we noted on Thursday, California’s High Speed Rail System, now that it has a $10 billion taxpayer-approved bond on its side, may well be the first project to benefit. But there are three other major infrastructure projects that are quite likely to find further funding in the first few months of the Administration: the further reconstruction of New Orleans and the surrounding area post-Katrina; a Midwest High-Speed Rail system initially emanating from Chicago; and the necessary financing of the Chicago 2016 Olympic Games, if the city is selected by the International Olympic Committee as host.

Mr. Obama has made it clear that the Bush Administration’s failure to provide for the functional reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is unacceptable. His campaign platform argues that “as president, Barack Obama will partner with the people of the Gulf Coast to rebuild now, stronger than ever.”

New Orleans’ transit network was devastated by the hurricane. It had recently completed construction on its first new streetcar line in years, along Canal Street, and outfitted that line with brand new cars. But the storm’s rising waters destroyed their machinery. And the city’s older existing line, along St. Charles Avenue, had its catenary system tangled by the hundreds of fallen trees in its path.

While the Federal Transit Administration under Bush has indeed helped the city pay for not only the reconstruction of the damaged cars but also gotten to the St. Charles line going again (a renewal of the catenaries was planned anyway), there has been little federal interest in paying for expansions of the network.

Pre-storm plans for a “Desire Streetcar” that would travel from the city’s core to the Lower Ninth Ward to the East and to the Airport to the West seem to be regaining traction with the city’s recovery. If we are to believe the campaign’s rhetoric about giving this area of the country a second chance, then an investment in improved transit seems likely, and we might indeed see the Desire Streetcar fast-tracked.

In Obama’s native Midwest, perhaps the biggest winner will be the Midwest High-Speed Rail proposal, which would dramatically improve services in that area of the country. Unlike the California High-Speed Rail plan, which involves the construction of a brand-new corridor for trains travelling at up to 220-mph, the Midwest plan would simply improve existing rail corridors to make them able to handle trains running at up to 110-mph.

Indeed, while this would not be most dramatic of improvements, it would allow train travel to be competitive on routes of less than 300 miles with automobile travel. This plan is similar to that proposed by Southeas-High Speed Rail. The first phase of the plan would be involve improving the lines that spread out from Chicago. Since these older lines need dramatic improvement for the sake of the city’s commuter rail anyway, their development for a Midwest High-Speed Rail program makes sense.

Obama’s repeated expressions of excitement about the potential of high-speed rail to improve communication networks in that region implies that he will devote himself to working on funding the service

China proved this year how an Olympics can radically transform a city for the better. Beijing’s renaissance, including the construction of a vast network of subway lines, the huge olympic stadia, and the development of a new Central Business District put the Chinese capital firmly into the small group of world cities and allowed it to host a highly successful Games.

More importantly, though, the improvements that came with the Olympics have made it significantly more livable for its own inhabitants. This is the real potential benefits of hosting the Games: making a dysfunctional city workable again. And herein lies Chicago’s chance with its plan to host the 2016 Games. This great Midwestern city, for all its beauty and fame, is in some ways falling apart at its seams. Its transit system is repeatedly underfunded, its elevated trains still running on uneven tracks and its stations have ancient wooden platforms. Meanwhile, though its reputation and economy have improved far more than many other formerly industrial cities, huge sections of the city’s West and South sides remain impoverished and crime-ridden. The exodus from the urban core that marked the period beginning in the 1960s is still plainly evident, with many neighborhoods half-vacant, the result of arson and neglect.

Chicago’s Olympic Games would provide an impetus for change, especially since the epicenter of the Games would be in the depressed South Side. But only if the Obama Administration commits to a large share of the project’s costs will the benefits be manifest. Indeed, the recent economic downturn and the city’s already shaky finances mean that it would never be able to fund improvements itself.

And it needs improvements. While Chicago has a natural opportunity to win the games, as North America hasn’t hosted the summer event since 1996, transportation is a major problem. Competitors for the opportunity to host Madrid and Tokyo have far more extensive and modern transit networks.

Chicago’s Applicant File assumes the development of two major expansions to the network, both of which provide bypasses around the Central Business District. The Circle Line would be a secondary loop around the city’s core, providing direct access to the United Airlines Center, which would be a major location for Olympic events. The STAR Line, which would be run by the commuter rail system Metra, would be less useful for the purposes of the Games but allow for suburb-to-suburb commutes by public transportation, a service that is currently impossible.

Though almost all venues are either at current stations or near them, the overcrowded transport infrastructure as it stands today wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds, though the plan calls for events to be scheduled at off-peak hours as possible. As a result, the project will be compact, with most events in and around the Olympic Village on Lake Michigan. In addition, “Olympic Lanes” along the region’s highways would allow for athlete shuttles to move quickly between events.

But the fundamental point is that Chicago will not be an effective host unless its public transport infrastructure is improved. Fortunately, President-Elect Obama, whose adopted home is Chicago, has demonstrated his past interest in supporting the Games. This support will be essential in providing funding to improve transit services adequate for the International Olympic Committee to support Chicago’s bid.

2 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • There are major problems with Chicago’s transit plans as they now stand (at least to the extent we can figure out what they are – the Olympics bid committee is secretive and has not permitted community involvement in their planning). The Circle Line is an expensive luxury at this point, and there are a number of other projects that would extend the system far more at lower cost while helping poorly-served low income communities. (The only Olympics justification for the Circle Line – a United Center stop – could easily be added to the existing Pink Line at very low cost.)

    A group of community organizations is currently pushing for the Metra Electric South Shore Line – a train line configured for rapid transit but currently run (and massively underutilized) as a commuter line – to be added to the CTA as a new El line. Details: http://alwaysintransit.typepad.com/hyde_park_urbanist/2007/10/gray-line-lite.html This is by far the most relevant project to the Olympics, since the South Shore Line runs from downtown past the proposed Olympic Village and many of the venues for the Games.

    Other priorities that should precede the Circle Line include the long-promised Red, Orange, and Yellow Line extensions and the Mid-City Transitway El. Details: http://razetheladder.blogspot.com/2007/02/paving-over-mid-city-transitway.html The MTC would connect the two airports and the Blue, Green, Pink, Orange, and Red Lines and bring rail service to many disadvantaged neighborhoods, adding four to five times more track than the Circle Line for a similar cost. Unfortunately, the MTC is in danger of being built as a busway rather than rail: http://razetheladder.blogspot.com/2008/03/expanding-to-west.html and http://razetheladder.blogspot.com/2008/03/cook-dupage-corridor-comments.html

  • Nathanael Nerode

    Sadly, Chicago’s priority has to be to restore funding for capital improvements (and indeed major maintenance). The state legislature still hasn’t come up with a capital funding bill. The current budget isn’t even enough to prevent deterioration; major operating cuts will be needed unless the capital bill comes through, because both the CTA and Metra have sworn that they will *not* indulge in deferred maintenance again (after having done so repeatedly in the past with disastrous results).

    The Loop proper needs to replace a certain amount of wood with concrete and do some serious track upgrades. The Evanston line (the highest-volume route) needs structural work. And there’s massive money needed for accessibility….

    The Metra Electric needs a LOT of improvements put in, and *should* be run as rapid transit.

    Then there’s connectivity problems: only one of the four commuter rail stations is connected to an L station, and none of them are connected to each other. The very expensive West Loop Transportation Center proposal would connect L stations on two different lines with the two largest commuter rail stations; Millennium Station is another problem (though its main problem is a shortage of entrances).

    On top of all of this, the freight railroads in Chicago need serious money put in — they came up with a plan (CREATE) which helps them, the commuter rails, and Amtrak, and requires relatively little government money, but it hasn’t been funded either. Amtrak needs better Chicago approaches, and there’s a plan for that, but again no money….

    Frankly, Chicago needs a lot of money just to get the existing lines up to modern (or even 1930s, in some cases) standards. For now, new lines should be a secondary consideration, unless they relieve congestion pressure on the existing lines. They badly need to get the existing lines up to snuff.

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