Elevating Chicago

High Speed Rail Archives

21st Century Mobility for Chicago

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on "21st Century Mobility" at the Goethe Institute in Washington, DC.  (Note they actually pronounce it 'Ger-te' there, not the real way of 'Go-thee' like we do.)  David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington and Professor Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech were the speakers, and it was a great way to spend an evening.  They filmed the session, but I haven't yet seen it posted anywhere--I'll update if I find it (let me know if you do!) The discussion mostly focused on activities in DC and throughout Germany, but they touched on a lot of widely applicable ideas.  DC is a mess when it comes to overlapping jurisdictions, and Germany obviously doesn't have the same governmental structure, so only some of them can really be applied to Chicago.




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News and Notes

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

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Car companies have to find something to promote during Bike to Work Week, right? Photo by the author.


It's Tuesday.  Ivory Coast plays Portugal at 9am, and if this doesn't get you psyched for the match, then I can't really help you.  Here are some news and notes that'll fill your morning while you wait for kickoff.

  • It's Bike To Work Week!  It looks like there might be a few showers today, but then it'll clear up for the rest of the week.  Go enjoy it, stop at any of the pit stops that'll be all around the city.  The Active Transportation Alliance is all over it, as is Bike Chicago.

  • Oooooh, pretty trains go fast

  • The Trib had a few transportation items yesterday with decidedly mixed results.  First is Dan Simmons' "Reverse Commute Takes Their Time" which ignores the basic fact that commuting in any direction takes time.  I think the bigger story here is that reverse commuting exclusively on transit is possible in Chicago at all.  Let's not forget how good we sometimes have it: many cities don't have anywhere near the robust suburban transit options that Pace and Metra provide.  One of the examples Simmons uses is Carmen Cartegena's Elmwood Park-to-Schaumburg commute.  I'm not convinced that's a true reverse commute, but let's say it is: is it any faster in the other direction?  Can it be done from Schaumburg's residential areas anywhere near as easily as the denser Elmwood Park?  And couldn't the headline just as easily be "Reverse Commute Saves Their Money"?

  • Next up is Jon Hilkevitch's pretty balanced piece (though I'm not enamored with the chip-on-our-shoulder headline) "Chicago on the Low-end of High Speed Rail." He makes the case that as many benefits as HSR may bring to Chicago, it won't be as big a boon for us as it will for other regions, including the planned Florida, California, and upstate New York lines.  He notes that this is partly because Chicago is already a remarkably connected city, especially with two major airports serving the city.  This is also something to keep in mind as the US DOT parcels out HSR funding: as worthwhile an investment as Midwest HSR may be, it's going to be tough for us to make the argument that we're the best place for those limited dollars to go.

  • Finally, last Friday the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) published their draft GoTo 2040 Plan.  You have about 6 weeks to comment on the report, and there will be an open house at their office on South Wacker on August 3.  I'm still digesting all of it and hope to have some preliminary thoughts up later this week.

Want High Speed Rail to Fail? Don't Fund Local Transit

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

On March 18, the Illinois State Senate approved the formation of a High Speed Rail Commission for Illinois.  While the bill still has to be passed by the State House and signed by Gov. Quinn, the bipartisan vote in the Senate seems to make its eventual passage a foregone conclusion.  This is great news for a number of reasons.  One of the biggest in my view is the proscription for studying and designing truly high-speed trains, that is, trains that top out over 200 mph.  Let's be completely clear: current rail travel between Chicago and St. Louis, even when the enhancements funded by the US Department of Transportation's $1.13 billion stimulus infusion earlier this year are complete, will only speed trains up to 110 mph.  That's not high speed rail, and the ridership levels on the current line flounder because of it.  Really, that's regional rail at a regional scale that's too large for the train to gain any market share.

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A true HSR line would serve a market with similar demographics to the outstanding Paris-Lyon TGV line.  It would serve more than 3 million riders annually and help grow the regional economy.  The next step will be to integrate the planned Milwaukee-to-Madison HSR line into a full Midwest Line running from St. Louis through Chicago and Milwaukee to the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

There are, however two fundamental problems with a high speed rail proposal like the Chicago-St. Louis line, though both are entirely solvable.  The first, of course, is the price tag: on the order of $12 billion to fully build out the line.  Whether it's through a Public-Private Partnership (hopefully more artfully executed than the Chicago parking meter debacle,) taxes, bonds, or some combination of all three, the people of Illinois--and Chicago in particular--will have to decide if we have the will to bear a cost that may take a generation to be repaid.  I believe there is, or at least should be.*

The second, more fundamental problem is what all these people will do when they arrive in Chicago--and especially how they will get there.  Part of the case for HSR is that, unlike an airport, it can bring people directly to the center of the city.  They'll arrive at Union Station ready to work, ready to spend, ready to enjoy and add to Chicago's vibrant city life.  At least, that's the idea.  But that supposes that everything they want to do in and around Chicago is accessible without a car.  Put bluntly, Chicago must be a livable city, or else high-speed rail will fail.  The CTA and Metra must meet their--and our--needs.  Walkable, mixed-use development around stations means that whether people are coming to Chicago to re-unite with their friends and family or seal a business deal, they won't need a car.  Dense, beautiful architecture will keep them coming back.  Otherwise, all these people will take the high-speed line to its proposed terminus at O'Hare, rent a car, and add to our congestion and pollution more than our economy.

*UPDATE: I originally wrote this last weekend, before the fine citizens of St. Louis recognized the crucial impact local transit can have on the success of high speed rail, and voted Tuesday to increase their sales tax by ½ cent to pay for it.  What are we waiting for?

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