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CDOT's New Chief: A Caretaker When We Need a Leader?

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

On Friday, Mayor Daley made a sudden move to head off alleged corruption in the Water Department, but leaves the Department of Transportation in a precarious state.  For almost a year, Thomas Powers was CDOT's acting commissioner--the acting title stuck because of a conflict of interest with area engineering firms--but now he is gone to head up the Water Department.  Bobby Ware, who has been managing deputy commissioner since 2007, will replace Thomas, I would think as acting for at least a time, but I haven't seen any details indicating either way.

Now, I've never met Bobby Ware--in fact, until this little shake-up I'd never even heard of him.  I trust that he's a good man who will do right by the city.  But two things about this situation concern me--one specific to Mr. Ware, and one about the larger effect this may have on the city.  First, my concern with Mr. Ware is one of expertise.  He has only been with CDOT for about 6 years, and spent the decade before that as a lawyer.  Meanwhile, the man he replaces--Thomas Powers--is a registered civil engineer who had been working for CDOT since 1996.  Maybe 6 years in the department is enough to learn how to manipulate the bureaucracy--though my professional experience with bureaucracies on this scale says it's not.

Perhaps some part of Mr. Ware's background really proves this promotion to be the right move--maybe he's a very experienced manager and the department needs that more than lots of technical expertise right now--but then CDOT and the Mayor need to be say that they've given this some thought and aren't just promoting the next in line as a short-term band-aid solution that doesn't actually solve anything.

More broadly, the fact that the city has not had a full-time commissioner since early 2009 says something unfortunate about how Chicago views one of the most vital parts of our infrastructure.  

All around the country, big cities are striving to improve the mobility of both motorists and non-motorists alike.  Los Angeles is making a push to build 30 years worth of transportation improvements in the next decade.  Washington, DC has more than doubled the size of its bike infrastructure in recent years and is laying the first tracks of a proposed 37-mile streetcar system.  New York seems to try new things every month that generally make it a more livable city--from closing sections of Broadway to cars to the latest plan for 34th St.

All of these cities share one common trait: a competent, highly-visible leader advocating for these changes both to their constituents as well as state- and federal-level officials who can help fund projects.  Mayor Villaraigosa in LA, DDOT Director Gabe Klein in DC, and Janette Sadik-Khan in New York each have a coherent philosophy for what transportation in their cities is and can become.  They aggressively try to fix their city's problems--and if the solution fails, they scrap it, and the municipal leadership gives them the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and do better.  Between this trial-and-error and continuous cooperation with other agencies they've used their positions to improve their cities in relatively short order.

Meanwhile, what does Chicago have? Sure, the Mayor makes it to every bike-related photo op, and we'll all cheer when Congress is no longer a pedestrian's worst nightmare (let alone a commuter's,) but CDOT has no public face.  When it comes to building a livable city, public transportation can only do so much.  Funding for new rail lines is limited, and buses depend on a working partnership with the DOT for their rights-of-way.  CTA president Rich Rodriguez and Chicago Transit Board Chairman Carole Brown are making a good go of it, but they need an equal partner in CDOT to really spur the types of change we need.

So, Mayor Daley: if you want more photo ops and bombastic press conferences, do yourself a favor: find a permanent CDOT Commissioner who understands that there's more to urban mobility than cars, and let him (or her!) mold the city into something greater than the sum of its potholes.

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1 Comment

jacksone44 said:

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Great article. I was thinking the same thing regarding the core points of this article. Other large cities have "heavy hitters" in the transportation industry heading up local agencies, and who do we have? No one thats made significant impact or progress regarding mobility.

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