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Aerial Chicago Finance High-Speed Rail

Chicago’s Plans for a High-Speed Airport Link Revived Thanks to Investor Interest

» Mayor Richard Daley hopes for a fully privately funded project connecting downtown with O’Hare Airport, but the city should be sure not to give away too much in the process.

Chicago, perhaps like no other city in the United States, has set itself apart as a center of trade, and recently that has been expressed in the growth of its two airports, O’Hare and Midway. With the resurgence of passenger rail promoted by the Obama Administration, it may be able to reassert its dominance in that field; it will sit at the confluence of three upgraded intercity rail lines already at least partially funded: One to St. Louis, another to Detroit, and a third to Milwaukee and Madison.

Now Mayor Richard Daley (D) is promoting a plan to connect the two modes of transportation via an express rail line between the Loop and O’Hare International. This is only the most recent in a long line of proposals designed to establish quick links between the airport and downtown; it is, perhaps fortunately, no more likely of success.

This week, Mr. Daley formed a 17-member exploratory committee to study options, arguing that private investors from around the world had suggested to him that they might be available to help finance the project. The Mayor promised that the municipal government would provide none of the funds for either construction of operation of the program, though he did not rule out the possibility of demanding state or federal dollars to aid in the investment. The new chair of the Regional Transportation Authority is likely on board, being a big supporter of public-private partnerships.

The previous plan for the express rail link, developed earlier this decade, would have included a “superstation” downtown also connected to the local rapid transit network where travelers could drop off bags before boarding trains. The expresses would run along upgraded Blue Line rapid transit tracks; the fast trains would use new bypass tracks to get around the slower-stopping local trains, providing a 25-minute ride between downtown and O’Hare Airport at a cost of between $15 and 20 dollars per rider. Rapid transit currently requires 40 minutes to make the trip. It is likely that any new project would follow similar principles, but the new committee has obviously yet to determine what plans it will advance. If any private investor is involved, changes are likely.

The superstation, located under the Block 37 project, has been partially constructed after a $250 million public investment. But the station is not completed and does not include track connections between the Red and Blue rapid transit lines, one of the primary goals of the project. Nor does it have the check-in facilities necessary to make the express service feasible at this time.

Mr. Daley’s impulse — to promote a new transportation project specifically without committing the public sector to financing its completion — certainly makes sense considering the city’s limited fiscal reserves and its other priorities, but it may also be unrealistic.

For one, reason puts in question the assumption that private investors would be willing to fund the capital costs of the airport line, no matter the cost customers may be asked to pay to ride along it. There are significant obstacles to putting the project into play, including the purchase of new trainsets; the construction of bypass tracks along an elevated line in dense urban neighborhoods; the expansion of an underground station downtown; and the possible need to create a new terminus station at O’Hare Airport. In other words, airport service of the type that’s been discussed before for Chicago would require several hundred million dollars — of somebody’s money.

Just as important, even if the project does move forward, Chicago has a responsibility to ensure that the new airport express service doesn’t intrude on the daily operations of Blue Line trains, which are arguably more important since they serve tens of thousands of riders a day. With bypass tracks, it would be technically possible to run both services on the same corridor, even as one is providing express operations and the other local ones. But ensuring the express nature of the airport trains without dedicated tracks for them would inevitably mean interrupting Blue Line operations. So even with a privately funded project, there is likely to be some loss in terms of efficiency for the publicly funded rapid transit service. That’s a problem.

Moreover, as Toronto’s recent difficulties with its own airport project demonstrate, investors looking to invest in infrastructure like public transportation may want continuous, year-to-year subsidies even just to pay for operations. Chicago certainly isn’t looking to commit to anything like that.

Image above: Chicago O’Hare International Airport Rail Station, from Flickr user ono-sendai (cc)

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Aerial Medellin New York Philadelphia

Searching for Interest in the Daily Commute

» As gondolas catch on in South America, should other cities search for ways to make transit trips more interesting?

When I lived in New York, I took the subway from Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn to my office at Union Square everyday. It’s easy to get between the two — there are several different lines that make the trip in about fifteen minutes — but I would inevitably choose to walk out of my way to take the N Broadway train rather than the closer 4 and 5 Lexington Avenue lines.

There’s a simple explanation: whereas the N soars high above the East River along the Manhattan Bridge as it leaves Brooklyn, the Lexington Avenue lines run underwater. The three minutes it takes to cross that bridge brought to my mornings the light of the sun and magnificent views of New York’s skyscrapers, parks, and riverfront. I’m not sure how much the other people riding with me cared, but it certainly woke me up.

The experience of riders on the subways that run across the Manhattan Bridge — the B, D, N, and Q trains do so — is a rarity. Few typical commutes on transit include aerial views of the city or the natural environment. Most transportation rights-of-way in central cities are either hidden below ground or surrounded by ugliness. Most daily transit commutes, if they aren’t downright sad, certainly aren’t particularly inspiring. Should that change?

Steven Dale, who publishes the Gondola Project, a year-long exploration of cable-propelled transit, toured South America earlier this year to gain insight into efforts to connect often out-of-the-way neighborhoods with broader transportation networks. In Medellin, Columbia, the local transit system wanted to connect isolated barrios on mountaintops to the metro lines below, so it built a two kilometer initial line that hovers above the city and now carries 40,000 riders a day. What began as a bit of an experiment has expanded into an eight kilometer network at a much cheaper price than would cost an equivalent rail system. Caracas, Venezuela, among other cities, has begun developing similar technologies.

Dale has proposed a series of gondolas for his home city, Toronto. Gondolas — like the télécabines found at ski resorts — and aerial tramways — such as New York’s Roosevelt Island tram or the Portland Aerial Tram featured in the image above — are different technologies, but they offer the same advantages of carrying commuters above instead of through the city.

What Dale describes as a “Disruptive Technology” — a “simple, convenient-to-use innovations that initially are used by only unsophisticated customers at the low end of markets,” a result of difficult geography and limited local funds — is to me a prime example of cities thinking differently about how to make the daily lives of their inhabitants more interesting. Wouldn’t you like to be able to glide above the city on the way to work?

There are of course major limitations to aerial vehicles like the gondolas Dale has highlighted; their maximum running speeds are relatively slow and they lack the ability to handle anywhere near the capacity of traditional train systems. But those issues are besides the point: the issue here is that these South American cities are improving public transit in a way that brings an element of joy to the daily lives of their users. How frequently can you say that about most bus lines?

Earlier this year, Jarrett Walker pointed to what he refers to as transit’s “Zoom-Whoosh Problem.” Noting San Francisco’s BART regional rail system, he suggests that transit benefits when it feels fast, modern, powerful — qualities it too often lacks. But that sensation is ephemeral — once you know the BART sensation, it loses some of its excitement: It becomes mundane. Washington’s Metro, designed in a similar era, is an underground architectural monument — a fantastic play on the use of concrete and light — but after a while, it begins to feel a bit gray and boring. Indeed, that’s the problem with any form of transportation that generates interest as a result of its newness; at some point, that feeling wears off.

The efficiency of urban subways, after all, does have its downsides.

That’s why the perspectives offered by South America’s aerial gondolas are so marvelous. They suggests that modern public transportation can be made interesting not so much because of its technological advancement, but rather because of the views it offers onto the beauty of the human and natural environments that surround our cities. The mountains or river in the distance will never grow tiring; nor will looking at the people staring out from their balconies or the stores hawking their wares.

It’s true, of course, that it makes little sense to build a gondola in many cities — many places lack major elevation changes or large natural obstacles that preference an investment in a mode of transportation that simply goes over everything that’s around it. The two North American examples I cited above — in Portland and New York — are both responses to geographical difficulties.

But you don’t need to build aerial trams to give people a more interesting, joyous experience when they’re making their daily commutes to and from work — you don’t even have to have that great of a view. To coincide with the complete renovation of Philadelphia’s Market Street Elevated, artist Stephen Powers created dozens of beautiful murals on the sides of decrepit surrounding buildings in a series entitled A Love Letter for You visible primarily by train riders.

We should see more of the same. One of the great advantages of riding transit is that you actually have the chance to take in what’s outside the window; you don’t have to pay attention to the “road.” We just need to give people something to look at.

Update, 15 June: Steven Dale responds on The Gondola Project to this post, arguing that gondolas “can exploit rather than just deal with natural obstacles” — they aren’t as limited as I suggest above. I think this makes sense: It is true that you can install an aerial transportation system much more easily than a ground-based one, and this means that barriers to transportation for other modes suddenly become opportunities. Dale also suggests that I underestimate the ridership potential of cable-propelled transit; I admit that it’s unfair to compare capacity of a gondola with a metro, since they don’t address the same markets. For more of his thoughtful discussion, check out his site.

Image above: The Portland Aerial Tram, from Flickr user neighborhoods.org