Categories
Amtrak Congress Finance

Discussing Privatization of the Northeast Corridor, but for What Aims?

» House Republicans suggest putting Amtrak’s primary line up for bids, but faith in the private sector is not enough to promote this change.

House Representative John Mica, a conservative Republican from central Florida and the Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has been berating Amtrak for years, so his announcement last week that he would promote the privatization of the Northeast Corridor comes as no surprise.

With Democrats still in control of the Senate and a Republican Party history of bringing up the issue and then promptly giving up in the 1980s and 90s — even when the GOP has controlled the Presidency or both houses of the Congress — any such plan is unlikely to move forward. Yet the question of the privatization of intercity railway operations in the United States will play a role in future debates, especially if the federal government continues to invest in new and improved rail networks. This may be the opening salvo in a years-long argument.

Before stepping into that, though, we need an honest discussion about the goals of the railway system and that of the transportation network in general. Is it there to generate profit for a small number of private corporations, or to ensure alternative mobility options to the largest possible percentage of the population? Should its operations be ultimately determined by surface-level profitability, or by public and political consensus?

Mr. Mica’s recent denunciations of the national railroad have come across as downright dogmatic: So convinced of the failures of Amtrak, he has been referring to it as a “Soviet-style” railroad. The committee released a chart showing little growth in Amtrak ridership along the corridor over the past thirty years to back up this notion.* Thus the committee chair’s privatization argument, founded in the broader modern conservative logic that claims — whatever the evidence suggests — that anything that the public sector does, the private sector can do better. For Mr. Mica, who is an adamant supporter of high-speed rail between Boston and Washington, this means that Amtrak’s current ownership of the Northeast Corridor is a stumbling block in the way of progress.

Instead of Amtrak’s 30-year, $117 billion proposal to build a new true high-speed link along the East Coast, Mr. Mica would produce the same benefitsin half the time and at significantly less cost,” thanks to private sector participation, which would be involved in building, designing, and operating the new system. His committee has yet to release any information showing how this could work.**

Avoiding the complicated issue of construction and focusing on operations alone, the committee compared Amtrak’s performance with that of Virgin Trains, which has since 1997 held the contract to operate the United Kingdom’s West Coast Main Line, connecting London with Birmingham, Manchester, and other cities. Mr. Mica made the claim that Virgin had been operationally profitable and been able to pay the government usage fees, compared to Amtrak, which he noted was subsidized. The U.K., which began the privatization of its railroads in the early 1990s, is the model the Florida congressman seems to be interested in imitating: The general idea, like in Great Britain, is to pull the Northeast Corridor itself out of the hands of Amtrak and hand it over to a new track-owning entity under the auspices of the Department of Transportation (the fate of the track section not owned by Amtrak in New York and Connecticut is unclear). Then private operators, potentially including Amtrak, would be able to bid out for operations rights.

This was an odd comparison to make, not only because Amtrak is operationally profitable in the Northeast Corridor, but also because Virgin’s history of operating trains in the U.K. has not been scot-free. Though ridership has increased more than expected, on-time performance of Virgin trains have never reached levels above 90%. Instead of paying £1 billion to the government as originally planned in the contract, the company actually received what were effectively £590 million in operating subsidies between 2002 and 2006, according to the National Audit Office (much of which was due to the government’s own poor contract writing).

And then there’s the fact that the U.K. government paid for most of the costs of the £9 billion upgrade to the West Coast Main Line that was completed in 2008. Can we compare Amtrak effectively to this history? The U.S. government certainly did not commit to a $15 billion upgrade of the Northeast Corridor over the past 15 years — in fact, the Northeast Corridor Master Plan, the last serious effort to improve the system, lasted between 1977 and 1998 and distributed only $6 billion to the line.

This is not to say that Virgin is a particularly bad example. Its peer companies have a history of dropping their contracts in order to avoid paying the government for the use of the railroad tracks. During the recession, several private companies simply determined that they could not handle the agreements they had signed just a few years before, putting several lines into public hands (which now are making a profit). But these failures do not “prove” anything: There is no evidence that a public sector entity would have done the same job more effectively. A well-functioning government service provider would have passed any profits or shareholder dividends back to the user or the government, arguably the better outcome — but how can we be sure that it would be well-functioning?

The irony for Mr. Mica is that Amtrak, especially in the Northeast, has been acting much like a private, profit-motivated company would. The company has prioritized profitability in its operations over expanded ridership: The growth of intercity buses between the region’s largest cities has been met with little decrease in rail prices, and that’s because Amtrak knows it can fill its trains even at higher fares. The continued operational profitability of the corridor in the face of this competition is indicative of this fact.

Why, then, bring up the issue? Because the value of the nation’s rail system is established by the policymakers determining how to distribute grants or to whom to award service contracts, whether they be to public or private entities. Alon Levy wrote pointedly last week that the major handicap to improved performance in the Northeast is not Amtrak but rather the Federal Railroad Administration, which determines the regulations that govern the operations of the railways. Public or private, these rules would have to be followed.

If Mr. Mica’s ambition is to improve rail services, a reasonable path must evaluate the risks and benefits associated with different models of transport operations. This might mean transferring control of the infrastructure to an independent entity, or altering regulations, or even promoting some competitive bidding for the rights to operate in certain rail corridors.

But a goal of moving yet another service out of public hands and into private ones mostly for the sake of denouncing government as a concept is one that cannot be accepted. The surface-level comparison Mr. Mica made between Amtrak and Virgin Trains is indicative of the lack of serious thought that has been devoted to this conversation thus far. We need to evaluate and determine the national vision for our transportation system, and then move on from there.

* There was no mention of the fact that Amtrak’s capacity problems are mostly structural, stemming from track conflicts with commuter railroads and an inability to buy new railcars until recently. Update, 31 May: Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers notes that the decline in ridership cited by the committee was not accurate; the initial figures included New York to Philadelphia Clockers (turned over to New Jersey Transit in 2005) and trains between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, neither of which were included in the 2010 numbers. Comparing the same train service, Amtrak ridership on the Corridor increased from 7.7 million in 1981 to 10.4 million in 2010.

** Amtrak has recently announced that it will pursue partnerships with private investors on future improvements for the Corridor.

Image above: Amtrak Acela train, from Flickr user Angelo Leung (cc)

Categories
Metro Rail Paris

Paris Region Moves Ahead with 125 Miles of New Metro Lines

» Months after regional and national officials agree to a huge plan for improving suburb-to-suburb connections, final decisions are made on future stations for Paris’ future supermetro. Completion of the initial project is planned for 2025.

In the developed world, few metropolitan areas are as dependent as Paris on their public transportation networks. Of mechanized trips within and into the central city, transit holds a majority mode share; in the 11.5-million-person Île-de-France region as a whole, almost 60% of all trips are made by foot, bus, or train. Part of the reason is that despite a century of continued development in the suburbs, densities are high throughout: The Petite Couronne (the inner ring of suburbs, with a collective population of about 4.3 million), for instance, is about as dense as the City of San Francisco.

But as in most cities, the increase in population outside of the central city (which now houses only about 20% of the region’s inhabitants) has until recently not been matched by significant investments in the transit network. Most new lines have been built either within the central city, such as the Métro Line 14, or radially out from it, like the RER E. Over the past few years, smaller projects like new tramways and bus rapid transit lines have assumed prominence, but their slow speeds and limited capacities have done little to improve circumferential travel around the city.

With yesterday’s announcement of the final route choice for the Grand Paris Express, however, that situation is set to change. After what was apparently Europe’s largest-ever series of public meetings and months of debate between local, regional, and national officials, the largest metro expansion on the continent and one of the most massive in the world is now under development. The national legislature is expected to approve the project and its financing this summer.

Altogether, officials plan to invest €20.5 billion ($29.5 billion) on 200 kilometers (125 miles) of rapid transit lines, most of which will be completed by 2025. With an expected two million daily riders, the Grand Paris Express program will transform the commutes of a huge percentage of the region’s inhabitants by offering far faster connections between suburbs, allowing people to avoid transferring trains in the central city and saving them twenty minutes or more on many popular trips. Trains will be automated and some sections may run 24 hours a day, a first for Paris.

The Grand Paris Express plan is a compromise between the French central government, which proposed a project called Métro Grand Paris in March 2009, and the Île-de-France region, which had separately concocted its own plan called Arc Express. They agreed to merge their projects in January, though final route alignments were not agreed upon until this week. A strategic decision was made not to directly connect Paris with Charles de Gaulle Airport north of the city, a component of the original Grand Paris plan, because it was feared that this link would overcrowd the system; instead, commuters will be able to transfer to another line to get there or use the existing link on the RER B.

Of total funding for the new lines, €4 billion will be granted from the national government, €1.5 billion from local governments, €7 billion from loans, €7 billion from new taxes on commercial activity and real estate (€500 million will be collected this year alone), and €1 billion from existing taxes. The state intends to use eminent domain to redevelop land around each of the stations. It will use the funds it accumulates through sales and added-value taxes to help pay off debt.

Separately, the region and state will by 2025 fund €12.5 billion ($17.7 billion) in upgrades to the existing system, including the construction of several new tram lines and busways and the extension of the RER E to the west.

Construction is expected to ramp up quickly, with the Île-de-France region and its STIF funding agency beginning an extension of the Line 14 Metro north to St. Ouen in 2014, with completion set for 2017 or 2018. This project, labeled the Blue Line, will use Line 14’s rubber tire trains and travel at average speeds of 40 km/h and is intended to relieve crowding on one of the existing system’s most overbooked lines, the Line 13.

Soon after, the Société du Grand Paris, a national government entity, will begin work on the southern section of the Red Line, from Champigny-Centre to Nanterre. This project will feature steel-wheel trains and average speeds of 60-65 km/h (37-40 mph), quite a bit higher than most of the Metro network today.

By 2020, work should be underway on the northern and eastern sections of the Red Line, as well as the extension of the Blue Line south to Orly Airport and the Green Line from Orly Airport to Versailles. Due to lower expected ridership, the latter project will be a light metro more like Vancouver’s SkyTrain, featuring trains with a capacity of about 250 people each, compared to 1,000 on the Red and Blue Lines.

In addition, an inner-east section of the project, from Noisy-Champs to St. Denis-Pleyel via Rosny-Sous-Bois and a short segment from Champigny-Centre to Val-de-Fontenay, will be put under construction by the region (the exact routing of these lines has yet to be determined). The original national government plan did not include this component, but the region insisted on its inclusion to serve the densest sections of the inner suburbs.

Up to eight tunnel boring machines are expected to be in use in parallel.

In total, 57 stations are to be built, 44 of which will provide transfers to the existing system and seven of which will offer links to the high-speed TGV rail network.

After 2025, other sections, including a branch of the Green Line from Versailles to Nanterre, a connection from Val-de-Fontenary to Rosny-Sous-Bois, and a link between Les Agnettes and Nanterre via Colombes, will be put under construction, though their funding has yet to be assured.

The scale of ambition in this Paris region project is stunning, especially since the hope is to concentrate 95% of the region’s job growth and two-thirds of its population growth within areas adjacent to network stations. Thanks to hard-fought cooperation between the regional and the national government, funding is assured for most of the project, and the result will be a tremendously improved transit system for the region’s inhabitants, especially those who live outside of the center city.

Categories
Bus Light Rail

The Silly Argument Over BRT and Rail

» Reserving respect for each mode.

As if operating in parallel, Toronto’s Globe and Mail and The Wall Street Journal each published articles last week describing the merits of bus rapid transit, which each newspaper described as the future of urban transportation.

Both noted that BRT was cheaper to construct than rail lines. Each suggested that in an age of government pull backs and general skepticism over the value of public investment, BRT could offer substantial benefits to a transit system at a reasonable price. And each article concluded with a warning by rail proponents that buses wouldn’t be able to attract people out of their cars.

This is a sensationalized opposition between two modes of transportation that should be thought of as complementary. There are advantages to improved bus service in some corridors, reasons to support rail in others.

What is clear is that for the majority of American cities — excluding only a few in the Northeast — buses will remain the predominant mode of public transit for most riders, even after major expansions in train networks planned for cities from Charlotte to Phoenix. So even cities that choose to invest in rail projects must also spend on the improvement of their bus lines.

Nor is the difference in costs between rail lines and BRT nearly as great as some would argue. The Journal article quotes Dennis Hinebaugh, head of a transportation center at the University of South Florida, saying “You can build up to 10 BRT lines for the cost of one light-rail line.” That might be true if you’re comparing a train operating entirely in its own right-of-way with a bus running in a lane painted on the street. But a streetcar is probably cheaper than a busway. Just ask Hartford, whose busway project will cost $60 million a mile to build.

Just as importantly, the argument made in the Journal by Simon Fraser University Professor Anthony Perl Pearl that “Rail has a proven record of being able to take people of their cars; buses don’t,” is quite frankly premised on antiquated views about the differences between buses and trains. A well thought-through BRT line, operating in its own right-of-way, can offer riders most, and sometimes more, of the comfort, convenience, and accessibility of a rail line.

The Globe and Mail notes thatLRT advocates often argue that light rail has better interaction with the streetscape and is a better way of achieving dense, transit-oriented development than BRT,” and indeed, that point is frequently made. But plenty of vibrant neighborhoods in American cities have developed just fine without rail. The City of Seattle, whose first modern light rail line opened in 2009, nevertheless has been densifying for decades, increasing in population from 494,000 in 1980 to 609,000 in 2010 (with no annexation).

The best argument for rail is that it has the ability to provide massive rush-hour passenger-carrying capacity without destroying the city through which it runs. Whether buried in a subway or operating quietly along in grassy medians, trains can be integrated into the public realm without diminishing the pedestrian-friendly qualities all urbanists should hope to encourage. BRT boosters often argue that their mode of choice can carry a similar number of riders, but neglect to mention that this is only possible when buses arrive every 10 seconds along highway-like four-lane corridors. These are conditions that destroy the walking environment.

Fortunately for American cities looking to invest in new public transportation infrastructure, there are few places that demand the passenger-carrying capacity provided by those freeway-based BRT lines in places like Bogotá. In most metropolitan areas, a two-lane busway inserted on an arterial is perfectly appropriate and sometimes even beneficial for a city. Indeed, as we all know, the story that is too complicated for any mainstream paper to explain is that BRT can mean any number of things. The most rudimentary elements of BRT — the nice buses, the well-articulated stops, the traffic signal priority — are basics we should expect from all of our bus lines. Pushing for their implementation along certain corridors shouldn’t arouse much controversy.

But these points are rarely discussed when the argument between modes are made.

The real divisions between bus and rail are political: For those who would fight for improved transit systems in their cities, the truth is that rail projects do certainly have more appeal among members of the public. Thus a billion-dollar rail project may be easier to stomach for a taxpaying and voting member of the citizenry than a quarter-billion BRT line. While the former is qualitatively different than what most car drivers are used to, the latter mode is too easily lumped in with the city bus, which car users have already paid to avoid.

Better transit can come in many forms, but in a country in which the vast majority of people have no contact with public transportation this side of Disney World, making the argument for investments in more buses is difficult, to say the least. BRT is just not sexy until you’ve experienced it. Which is why the considerable success of BRT in South America has not convinced many U.S. cities to abandon their ambitions for more rail.

Articles like those in the Journal and the Globe and Mail, despite their positive assessments of the potential for BRT, nonetheless reinforce the sense that BRT is inferior to rail by putting the two in contrast to one another, rather than focusing on the relative benefits of each. By continuously describing BRT as an economical way to get something like light rail, all that comes across is that it’s cheap.

Image above: BusWay in Nantes, France, from City of Nantes

Categories
Finance Washington DC

Finding the Means to Keep Transit Running

» An investment of billions of dollars in a new rail line should be backed by a guarantee of minimum operations standards.

In a hearing in front of the Senate Banking Committee yesterday, Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff spelled out his agency’s priorities: Maintaining and renovating the nation’s existing public transportation networks, and providing temporary federal assistance for bus and rail operations.

Keeping transit running should be one of the nation’s top priorities, but the FTA has had to mostly stand by in recent years as region after region has experienced cuts in the services provided by local transit systems. This coming in the midst of a recession and mounting gas prices, each of which make a larger percentage of the population in need of non-automobile-based travel options. Thus the interest of Mr. Rogoff and the Obama Administration in general in providing aid to local agencies may come as a relief — if members of Congress decide to jump on board.

Just this week, Washington’s Metro announced that its $66 million budget deficit expected for next year would have to be covered by some sort of service cuts. Top on its list is a proposal to decrease weekend train frequencies from every 12 minutes to every 18 on Saturdays and from every 15 minutes to every 20. Riders are being asked to complete a survey to express their opinions. With Rogoff’s aid, the District could potentially avoid such cutbacks in the future — though Washington, one of the nation’s only regions mostly unaffected by the recession, may not qualify as “economically distressed,” which is a criteria the FTA wants to use to determine which agencies would be able to take advantage of operations grants.

Similarly useful would be the FTA’s State of Good Repair grants, which the agency wants to expand significantly and which would make it more feasible for cities like Chicago to keep their older rail lines in constant use. Both this and the transit operations aid initiative would require the Congress to approve at least some form of the President’s proposed 2012 budget, a prospect that may be dimming in the face of disagreement about how to pay for increases in federal spending on transportation.

Yet the problems suffered by Washington’s transit system due to its inability to cover operations costs without reducing frequencies say a lot about that region’s commitment to transit and imply that regional authorities are willing to sacrifice good service in the name of making budgets line up. The mere fact that Metro, a system that cost billions of dollars to construct, would ever offer services at headways of more than every 15 or even 10 minutes at any time, is disturbing.

As it moves forward with the funding of new transportation projects across the country through the New Starts process, the FTA works to ensure that the regions to which it is providing financing have the resources to guarantee that initial investments in capital are backed by transit operations reserves. Indeed, one of the primary criteria the federal government uses for establishing whether an agency should invest in a new project is the stability of that agency’s service funding. Theoretically, if a transit provider cannot show that it will be able to commit to the funds to operate its vehicles, it will not receive construction funds.

But as has been demonstrated by the Washington example, those assurances can only go so far — especially when tax revenues decline substantially because of recessions. Thus the rationale behind advocating using federal funds to cover those operations costs, despite a recent history of the Department of Transportation only spending on capital initiatives. (I have argued that it may be more economically rational for the central government to invest primarily in operations and cities to spend on capital, the inverse of what occurs today.)

Yet as the FTA considers these future changes in what it agrees to fund, shifting more national dollars to transit operations, it must also establish standards that define what minimum standards need to look like. There is a significant difference between offering bus service to a neighborhood twice a day and providing subway trains every ten minutes at least. For an increasing share of the population to agree to use transit, they must be assured that buses and trains will arrive frequently, at least on primary lines. Washington’s initiative to cut service — a proposal that would significantly limit any perceived time advantages of taking Metro — runs against those forces.

Of course the reduction in Metro offerings is not the choice of local transit officials: It is a political compromise aimed to avoid criticism from residents over increases in fares and it is the result of a lack of political will to expand revenue from tax sources. Yet the loss in utility experienced by everyone in expanding waiting times for trains is dramatic; an increase in fares that protects — or even expands — service would probably be more beneficial to the region’s inhabitants, even its poorest, who need transit more than anyone else and who shouldn’t be left behind by inconvenient service standards. Ineffective, infrequent service turns off current and potential riders.

If the FTA ever moves forward with this idea, it must take steps to push transit agencies to commit to financing frequent service on all of their major lines in exchange for covering short-term revenue gaps.

As a side note, Washington Metro’s position is a structural one that is difficult to work around. The system was built to handle huge crowds at rush hours, but its weekend traffic is too low to justify too-frequent operations because of the length of trains (at least four cars) and the cost of paying drivers. How can transit agencies make an acceptable trade-off between building a system that offers great rush-hour capacity to a huge percentage of the workforce and guarantees convenient access to the people who need to use the network at off-peak times?

For rail systems, one solution is automation: By removing the need to have a driver, the cost of train operation can be reduced substantially — mostly to the price of providing traction power to trainsets. If Washington Metro’s services were provided as such, trains at off-peak hours could be reduced to two-car sets and provide double the frequency for a lower cost than currently provided by its person-driven four car trains. In the short term, converting existing systems to such standards may be unrealistic, but such an investment should be incorporated into agency long-term plans because they reduce operations costs and make more possible the maintenance of all-day, all-week frequent service.

Image above: Miami’s Tri-Rail commuter rail system, from Flickr user Bob B. Brown (cc)

Categories
Chicago Elections

Rahm Emanuel and the Power of Municipal Entrepreneurship

» Taking the realm of America’s third-largest city after 22 years under Richard Daley could produce big changes for local transportation.

Despite its burgeoning downtown, Chicago has big problems. The city lost 200,000 people between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Vast tracts of the south and west sides of the city sit vacant. Job growth in the metropolitan area is slower than in most other regions of the country. The city faces a $75 million budget deficit just over the next few months.

Thus the swearing-in this week of the city’s first new mayor in 22 years, Rahm Emanuel, cannot come at a better time. In order to gain ground over the next few decades, Chicago has to do a better job keeping its existing residents and attracting new jobs. The mayoral election in February was a landslide for Mr. Emanuel, which means he has the political momentum to pursue change for this great city after decades under Richard Daley’s leadership — but will the new mayor be able to do so? Or will the city stagnate?

Transportation is only one of a myriad of concerns that must be addressed in Chicago, but Mr. Emanuel has made it one of the foci of his transition plan — and initial signs indicate that his goals are appropriate: Incrementally improving the transit network and remaking the streets so that they better address the needs of all modes of transport. The choice of Gabe Klein, of Washington, D.C. bike share and streetcar fame, to lead the city’s transportation department, implies that the new mayor understands the value of improving local non-automotive mobility systems.

In a cash-poor municipality whose transit system requires $7 billion in renovations now, it is not surprising that new rail transit lines appear to have been sidelined — at least for now. In the short-term, this may be the right approach. The city cannot afford to maintain what is has, so investing in new capital programs may be inappropriate. But whether Mr. Emanuel’s brand of local modesty is right for Chicago in the long-term is worth evaluating. Does this city need to play it safe, or become ambitious?

The transportation components of the transition plan, which is the best sign yet of where this mayor hopes to take his city, can be divided into two themes: One, the improvement and expansion of the Red Line, and two, the retaking of the city’s streets from the dominance of cars.

The first project — the Red Line renovation and extension — is a necessity: The northern sections of the corridor (shared with the Purple Line) are a century old and the Chicago Transit Authority has already presented a number of alternatives that would relieve the problem. Also on tap is the extension of the corridor south to 130th Street, designed to improve the commuting times for people who live in the city’s Far South Side, whose residents are transit-dependent but poorly served. The combined cost: Somewhere between $3 and $6 billion.

Other far less expensive improvements mentioned by Mr. Emanuel’s transition plan include a bus rapid transit corridor for Western or Ashland Avenues that could include dedicated lanes within 3 years (already being planned by the CTA); an attempt to reform the city’s zoning code to encourage transit-oriented development around stations; and the implementation of a citywide bike share system and the expansion of the bike lane network. The latter initiative would expand lanes by 25 miles a year (versus 8 today) and prioritize protected lanes. The first two miles of those, the document states, would be selected arrive in the mayor’s first 100 days. (See Steven Vance’s post on where those might be most effective.)

The overall message is that of a politician who sees the value in improving the way the city’s streets work for all their users. For Mr. Emanuel, the implementation of reserved lanes for cyclists and buses can be done incredibly cheaply but to great benefit for the quality of life of Chicago’s denizens, more than 30% of whom rely on walking or transit to get to work and a quarter of whom have no car available to their households at all. With wide streets everywhere in the city, bus rapid transit is a particularly relevant and easy-to-implement improvement for Chicago transit.

The costs of the Red Line expansion are in themselves beyond the city’s current means — especially considering that President Obama’s budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would have included billions for renovations just like this one, is likely to go down in defeat. This suggests that Mr. Emanuel will have to either get more funds from the state or raise local revenues if he is to follow-through on his campaign promise to act on the matter.

Should Mr. Emanuel, then, aim higher? Faced with the need to raise taxes anyway, should he be looking to imitate Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who transformed his personal ambition to build a one subway under Wilshire Avenue into a multi-pronged strategy to rethink all of L.A. County for transit through the construction of a dozen new lines — with a dedicated sales tax to boot?

Chicago certainly has room for improvement: Travel between neighborhoods, rather than to downtown, is difficult, and the Circle Line rapid transit corridor could be an investment-worthy piece of infrastructure. But its development has been sidelined due to a lack of funds. Meanwhile, the integration of CTA with the Metra suburban-oriented commuter rail system (the two currently have different fare structures and few interchange points) could be a boon to ridership if the Metra network evolved into a regional rail system that provided frequent access to the city’s citizenry.

But either effort would need a cheerleader. Will Mayor Emanuel step up?

Unfortunately, hopes such as those may be sidelined by a different, less pressing concern: The ever-present push to connect Chicago O’Hare Airport to the downtown Loop with a dedicated high-speed rail line. Recently revived by Mayor Daley, it is the pet project of the Loop’s business interests — but it will serve few of the city’s many transit-dependent residents and it will do little to ameliorate the problems of everyday life on Chicago streets.

Image above: Chicago’s Green Line, from Flickr user John Picken (cc)