There’s a reason Mayor Rahm Emanuel put transportation funding at the top of his legislative wish list last week. The Chicago region must build an expanded and more reliable transit system — trains and buses and Ls — if it is to remain nationally competitive.
More than 2 million people a day use transit in the Chicago area. And most riders probably assume the systems are in reasonable condition because, despite numerous breakdowns, the buses and trains keep rolling.
But transit planners and engineers know better. They warn of signals and switches that are worn out. They warn of locomotives, coaches and buses that are past their useful lives, or close to it. They talk of transit deserts, where the demand is there, but the buses and trains are not. Kirk Dillard, the chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, says he generally rides to work on a Metra coach that was delivered during the Eisenhower administration.
If we don’t act now, the experts say, the Chicago area could suffer the kind of rapid decline in public transit that has occurred in New York and Washington, D.C., where persistent underfunding has turned once-admired systems into untrustworthy headaches that chase away riders. Last year, New York’s subways posted the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world.
For the sake of its future, the Chicago area must invest more to create a smoothly operating system that can meet growing demand, beginning with an extension of the CTA’s Red Line to 130th Street. The Metropolitan Planning Council reports that more of us, especially young millennials and Gen Xers, are taking public transit to work, and the trend will only grow.
Already, neighborhoods and suburbs located near transit stations are attracting many more new jobs than other areas. According to MPC Transportation Associate Jeremy Glover, from 2005 to 2015 the region added 300,000 jobs — an 8 or 9 percent growth rate — but not in a geographically uniform way. Jobs were created at a much faster rate within a five-minute walk of a CTA or Metra station.
That said, it will be a challenge for the region to even properly maintain the current transit network. In February, the Regional Transportation Authority estimated that it will cost $37.7 billion over the next 10 years to get the six-county region’s existing transit systems into a state of good repair. Almost a third of the region’s public transit equipment is past its useful life.
The Chicago region’s transit system was built up over a century without any real plan — a train line here, a bus line there.
And if nothing is done now, it will fall apart without a plan.
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