Editorial: Think big, Chicago, with a fast train to O’Hare

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Passengers walk through Terminal 3 at O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday.

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At a time when Chicago must squeeze every dime, can the city afford to think big?

In a word, yes. A great city always does.

Chicago should push hard on the sort of small-bore financial economies that Inspector General Joe Ferguson keeps trotting out, such as requiring some 1,800 multiunit Chicago residential buildings to start paying for garbage pickup. At the same time, the city should charge ahead to build a high-speed rail line between the Loop and O’Hare Airport, as the city’s new aviation commissioner, Ginger Evans, urged Tuesday.

A tight wallet is no excuse for a pinched vision. Superb access to the airport is central to our city’s economic future.

By demanding payment for the garbage pickup, Ferguson figures, Chicago could pull in an extra $3.3 million a year. That may not seem like much, given the crushing weight of the city’s $30 billion unfunded pension crisis, but it would be a part of the solution. Equally appealing is Ferguson’s suggestion that the city start charging for water the moment a new building gets under construction, rather than wait for the permanent meters to be installed. From June 2008 to December 2014, the inspector general estimates, the city would have pulled in another $3.9 million.

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But Chicago has never just pinched pennies, or where would it be now?

In recent decades, we’re thinking about Millennium Park, the new 606/Bloomingdale Trail, Northerly Island’s new nature-lined strolling paths, Navy Pier’s crowds of tourists and the soon-to-be built Obama Library. Each of these urban jewels adds to the quality of life in Chicago — and to the strength of the local economy.

Building an express train to O’Hare, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel says could be a “game-changer” for the city, won’t be easy.

The cost is daunting, as are the geographic logistics. Fitting a high-speed rail system onto existing right-of-way will be a monumental challenge. But other major cities around the world already have built high-speed links between their airports and central business districts. Chicago lags behind, with slow Blue Line service to O’Hare and a congested Kennedy Expy.

Evans’ entire tone is refreshing. She just hit town, but already she’s laying down the law — a high-speed line to O’Hare is “an essential piece of infrastructure.” She’s challenging Chicago to get its act together. She’s looking to the future.

If Chicago hopes to compete globally, it needs that high-speed train. And it needs that spirit.

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