Rep. Kirk's double talk on transit spending; high-speed rail or fix mass transit?

The words of U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, has come back to bite him on the issues of stimulus fund spending and high-speed rail dollars.

First, Kirk wrote a letter to the Highland Park News urging Pace to buy hybrid buses, rather than the regular gas eaters. He said Pace could use stimulus funding for the purchase. Problem is, Kirk had voted against the entire stimulus package.

And, as the Pace board chair wrote in another letter to the editor:

"Pace approached Congressman Kirk for five straight years requesting
federal funding to add hybrid buses to our fleet, and each time the
request was ignored. Had he taken action, it's very likely Pace would
not only purchase hybrid buses with federal stimulus money as he's now
asking us to do, but we would already have them out on the road today."

Keep all this in mind when considering a vote for Kirk for Senate.

High speed rail or fix mass transit? Fellow ChicagoNow blogger Dennis Byrne pointed out Monday that Tribune columnist John McCarron "nailed it" with his piece "Slow down those fast-train dreams."

It's something I've been wondering about since the learning that the stimulus funding plan included $8 billion -- and now $12 billion -- to fund high-speed rail projects. The question is: If we fund this project, will there be dollars left to pay for the $7 billion the CTA says it needs to bring the system to a state of good repair.

But as McCarron says:

High-speed trains are all the rage. What I need is one that can carry this White Sox san from the CTA's Noyes Street station in Evanston to 35th Street on the Red Line in less than one hour and 20 minutes.

80 minutes to cover 15 miles, at less than 12 m.p.h. Can't we do better
than that? Just once I'd like to get there for the first inning, maybe
even the national anthem. 

I'm not saying I oppose this high-speed rail funding. We've fallen way behind Europe, Japan and other countries. But with limited resources, it's a big concern about whether we can afford to pay for both high-speed raid and basic repairs via capital funds.

(Hat tip to Huffington Post for the Kirk piece.)


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  • Kirk seems to have, all of the sudden, gotten onto the environmental bandwagon, apparently to help his chances in the Senate race. Of course, it appears that anyone running for his current seat (especially the announced Democrats) are carpetbaggers from Schakowski's district. Why don't they run there?

    Kirk should also think about that holding up this purchase will keep the 16 year old soot belching buses still running in the Pace North Shore and Northwest Divisions, which are in his district, too.

    However, Pace is also taking out of both sides of its mouth. How can "each Pace bus can take 50 cars off the road" when it then talks about "However, the buses Pace purchases are 30 feet in length and actually get better fuel mileage than the 40-foot hybrids he heralds. A 30-foot hybrid might achieve fuel savings, but no such model is in production." For one, if a 30 foot bus with 27 seats can take 50 cars off the road, either 23 of the cars are driving driverless, or Pace has really figured out how to cram the standees in (and I have never seen that situation on a 30 foot Pace bus). Also, their supplier, ElDorado National says in its ARRA presentation that the 30 foot bus is available in hybrid. Now, maybe it is not worth it to pay an extra $200,000 over the base price of $300,000 for a 30 foot bus, but that's not saying that it is not available.

    Finally, we have to consider that the Pioneer Press is having a hard time filling is newshole lately.

    So, a pox on both their houses until such time as we see who Kirk's opposition is. Then, we'll probably really have something to complain about.

  • It's specious to act as if transit spending is in competition with that for high speed rail. Is there any evidence that the legislators would have devoted that money to transit rather than, say, highways or fighter jets? If not, then it's just empty polemics.

    Sometimes it makes sense to set priorities, e.g. Chicago is competing against other cities for limited New Starts funds, so it's important to prioritize the projects we want to invest in. But transit and high speed rail serve utterly different purposes, and there's no reason to think they're in competition with each other. Acting like they are is a distraction from the real task at hand, which is to increase the amount of funds going to transit and rail at the expense of highways.

  • In reply to razetheladder:

    Jake, until CTA's capital needs are fully funded, I will worry that there may be some "competition" here.

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    There may be a valid point, in that while they are separate programs, there are other instances that where, in a budget crunch, earmarked funds were not applied as thought. For instance, take this Pace finance committee report that because South Cook had to be funded, Pace is not receiving discretionary funds. Hence, the South Cook restructuring was basically the same as the others--a few route extensions, but at least a $1 million cutback on route 355, and almost none of the community and flex routes originally specified. There is also the question of what happened to the grant for the Harvey to Rosemont bus, which was supposed to start service on March 30, 2009, according to the RFP.

    However the real issue is that reports about high speed rail, and about TIGGER, indicate that the grant applications exceed the funding allocation by about 12 to 1. Somebody may eventually get the money, but the other 92% are just being strung along. However, I said the same about the New Starts. Are the feds really dealing in illusions?

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    I understand the concern, but I tend to think that the money going to high-speed rail (which I think is great) is competing more with highways and airports than it is with inner-city transit.

    Kirk reminds me of the Louisiana governor who bashed Obama and the stimulus bill, but then took the money, and gave it out in the form of giant checks. With his name on it.

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    But why worry about "competition" from high speed rail rather than from highway funding, or military spending, or any of ten thousand other line items? If there's some reason to think that lawmakers are choosing between transit and high speed rail, please tell us. Otherwise these kinds of concerns just play into the hands of rural and suburban interests that want to divide and conquer those of us who want to invest in sustainable transportation.

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    I also understand the concern, and certainly where there is any possibility that events will unfold so as to screw things up for the city and the CTA, I instinctively brace myself for the likelihood.

    But I think of it this way: the inclusion of high-speed rail in the stimulus plan is an acknowledgment--the first official, "mainstream" acknowledgment, if you will, in a long, long time--that rail transit is not just a dispensable luxury. Resources are indeed limited. But that's not just because of the economy: resources for passenger rail and mass transit have been extremely limited in the U.S. at least since the end of W.W. II, always, in good times as well as bad. Resources will never get less limited until attitudes change: specifically the attitude that the desirable norm, the gold cup, the can't-do-without necessity, is ever-more-sprawling exurbs, isolated residential developments, and suburban-style shopping malls strung out along interstates, all accessible only by the private car/minivan/giant pickup/SUV. If I'm right and the high-speed rail plans herald a shift in thinking about transportation, then making them into a successful reality will be fundamentally good for urban transit in the long run.

    R.A. Stewart a.k.a. Quondam El Rat

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    "Further, if you believe that Kirk has just jumped onto the environmental bandwagon, you haven't really been paying attention."

    Now, I admittedly have no knowledge of this guy's past record, but has he actually introduced, passed, or voted for any environmental issues in the past?

    And why did he ignore their requests for 5 years?

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    They are assuming that people are going to use them instead of planes or driving to near distant places. Look at the proposal to bring Amtrak back to Rockford and eventually to Dubuque, Ia. Will people really use the service? I hope so but realistically were only talking about between 100 to 180 miles distance and for the most part to Rockford. Is that too far to drive or is Rockford's mass transit good enough to use to get around in? Would you take the train to Rockford?

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    "Will people really use the service? I hope so but realistically were only talking about between 100 to 180 miles distance and for the most part to Rockford. Is that too far to drive or is Rockford's mass transit good enough to use to get around in?"

    First, as to the mass-transit issue, I would imagine the ridership on a Dubuque-Galena-Rockford-Chicago route would be primarily people going TO Chicago, which includes people driving to the train station nearest them and then riding transit (or taking a cab, walking, etc.) once they arrive in Chicago. In metropolitan Chicago, which includes areas 70 miles (or more!) from the Loop, the majority of Metra riders, and a fair chunk of CTA rail riders, drive to and from their "home" station.

    Second, towns that get new rail service might *improve* their bus system to serve the train station. Again, within metro Chicago, there are several *suburban* Metra stations with feeder bus routes to residential subdivisions and office parks some miles away.

    Third, there are destinations that don't necessarily have good transit service but where many people traveling there don't need (or are even discouraged to have) a car: university towns such as Champaign, Carbondale, Bloomington-Normal, Galesburg, and Macomb.

    Mentioning these communities, all of which already have Amtrak service, reminds me of my most important point. There is no need to idly speculate whether people will ride the trains because, while there isn't train service to Rockford now, there *is* train service in Illinois now. Today, there are multiple daily trains between Chicago and places like Milwaukee (7 round trips), St. Louis via Bloomington and Springfield (5), Carbondale via Champaign (3), and Quincy via Galesburg (4 to Galesburg, 2 beyond).

    The 2009-to-date ridership numbers for the Illinois train routes ("corridors") are online at:

    The 2009-to-date ridership numbers for stations in Illinois and bordering areas is online at:

    Notice that some of these are smaller communities with little or no transit service. For example, except for St. Louis and the metro Chicago stations, none have rail transit.

    I believe a look at these numbers is enlightening as to the "will people ride" question. IMHO, they show that, where people can ride now, they DO ride.

    "Would you take the train to Rockford?"

    Yes, if I had a reason to go there in the first place. :^)

    Before I had a car, I had a business appointment in downtown Rockford. I had to take a Greyhound bus to a gas station on the very far end of State Street and take a Rockford bus downtown, then do the same in reverse to go back to Chicago. It was a royal pain, and a train to downtown Rockford would have been handy.

    Similarly, after I had a car, I drove to a business meeting right in the heart of Madison, WI, a couple of blocks from the Capitol. The Northwest Tollroad gives me heartburn, and I would have given an eye-tooth to be able to get off a train in downtown Madison and walk to my meeting.

    Conversely, even though I have a car, I have taken trains multiple times to Springfield and Milwaukee, both considered driveable distance from Chicago by people with more tolerance than me for I-55 or the Tri-State Tollroad. :^) Conversation, texting, using a laptop, eating, or sleeping are hazards on the highway but easy on a train.

  • In reply to KevinO’Neil:

    A Chicago-Rockford-Dubuque service would have me as a customer right away for one big reason. Galena. Specifically, cycling around Galena. It's the only good climbing hill country we have in the state and it's very pretty. So if the tourism aspects of the line are promoted, it won't just be people from the boonies coming to Chicago, it will also be Chicagoans trying to get out of the smoke for a day or two. Let's just hope the trains are as generously provisioned with bike racks as Amtrak California or the German railways.

    I think it's also worth pausing to consider what will happen if we have a strong statewide network of 90-110mph trains. Complete upgrades along these lines will deliver a 3 1/2 hour Chicago-St. Louis service, a 1:45 Chicago-Champaign/Urbana route, but possibly also point-to-point connections such as a sub-two-hour Champaign-St. Louis route, or sub-two-hour Champaign to the Quad Cities, tacking on another two hours or so to get to, say, Des Moines.

    Additionally, upgrading the rail network in the Chicago area will have huge spinoff effects for Metra. Electrified commuter lines or even simply upgrading from 70mph to 90 will have a dramatic effect on commuting times on those lines that also have long-distance service. Developing rail stations into transit hubs will add to the synergy, as has already been demonstrated in Champaign/Urbana, where two hubs (the two downtowns) have now been joined by a third (the Amtrak station).

    What it all adds up to is a network, a mode of transportation, a means of getting around that is CONSISTENTLY faster than driving, bad weather or not, and that's before we even start talking about 185-220mph dedicated high speed rail. This type of ground transportation will trigger a sea-change in how people get around -- especially if the fare structure more or less retains the current very competitive fares in Illinois from Amtrak and Metra.

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