On Monday, the City accepted four proposals from consortiums of companies interested in building a transit link between downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport. Mayor Emanuel expressed great pleasure about the amount of interest shown in the proposed project, and reiterated his assertion that no taxpayer money would be used to build the line.
We talked this week with noted transit expert Ed Zotti (who still moonlights after four decades as editor and general assistant to Cecil Adams, the World’s Smartest Human and proprietor of the Reader’s Straight Dope column.)
Zotti thinks there’s a good possibility some kind of “express” service will be built.
“I think they will,” he predicted. “I think the chances of making it work on multiple levels are better than people think. And I don’t want to put money on it, but I think it can go ahead as the City expects in the sense that number one, it will get you down fast. Number two, the fare won’t be crazy, and number three, it can get done at some reasonable period of time. And number four, most important of all it won’t cost the City any money.
Of course, we cynics find it difficult to ever accept the idea that something will be built without taxpayer money getting in the pipeline at some point, but Zotti says it could work as a private-sector investment, and it also could spur some serious re-thinking of transit options that connect to it.
“Once you put in this major piece of infrastructure,” he asserts, “you suddenly have to think what goes in at either end? How does it connect to everything else we’ve got, and a bunch of stuff that people have been talking about, that I personally have been talking about for quite a number of years, suddenly start to think how are we going to make it all fit together? Now is the opportunity. You’re going to make major investments. You’ve got to do some major rearrangements and things. If you’re going to do anything ever now is that time.”
Zotti’s especially heartened by the quality and experience of some of the companies that submitted proposals. They include Amtrak, for example, and companies with extensive experience building infrastructure for the CTA.
But he’s not expecting the City to go along with the Elon Musk idea for a high-speed tunnel. That technology, he says, is at least 20 years away. A surface line, though, using some existing right-of-way, might be the answer, he says.
“Can you do it in 20 minutes?” he asks. ” Can you do it in – are there a lot of grade crossings? I don’t know, but it’s not a crazy thing to ask for. It’s not like you have to build a tunnel.”
Zotti is bullish on Chicago’s near-term future, and he says the trends would seem to support the O’Hare line and the associated transit infrastructure it could make possible.
“We have the fastest growing downtown in the country, I don’t want to sound like City administration here, but it’s true, in terms of population we’re at record highs in terms of employment. Downtown Chicago, the core, the central area, accounts for more than half of jobs in the City of Chicago. The first time probably in the history of the City that’s ever been the case. So that’s what’s working, and you want to play to that, and it’s the downtown jobs…I mean there’s a lot of jobs for a lot of people at a whole range of income and skill levels. So the fact that downtown Chicago becomes more viable as a business center is a good thing for a lot of people. And even if you yourself never in a million years would pay 30 or 25-bucks or whatever it is to ride a train, the fact that it’s there and other people do is a good thing for you potentially.”
In the near term, though the CTA is facing some serious drop-off in ridership.
“Rail as dropped off a lot,” he reports. “I’ve written extensively about this. Between 1992, which was the low point, and 2015 rail rose virtually every year. Bus has been up and down. Bus, let me be frank, is in long-term decline. I mean 50 years ago it was 600-million rides a day and now it’s down. It’s heading down to 200-million.”
The irony is that downtown employment continues to rise, but rail traffic is declining.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that as downtown employment goes up rail ridership goes up, because it’s the easiest way to get downtown. 2015 that very clear-cut process came to a halt. Employment continued to go up, but total rail ridership went down. What clearly was happening in my opinion was the Uber-effect. There were other things at work. Gas prices were at historically low levels…But the people who take the journey to work on the L continues to rise at a steady pace as one would expect, given the fact that downtown employment continues to go up. What is probably happening is that non-work trips are in decline…And just anecdotally, the CTA will tell you that evening traffic seems to be off. Weekend traffic which is counted separately obviously is way off, as much as 20% on some lines.
So people seem to be using Uber as an alternative to rail when they’re not going directly downtown, or when the streets are less congested, or for an evening/weekend short rip to recreation, etc, when an Uber/Lyft ride from the front door to a bar or social event can cost only a little more than the CTA.
Zotti predicts that CTA rail will always be viable whenever the expressways are clogged with traffic.
“If you can carry large volumes of people despite the fact that you’ve got street congestion, that’s a reason for people to ride your service. And that’s what’s propelled the growth of the rail service in Chicago for more than 20 years. And it went up, what my research established was that it went up in lock step with services employment in the core.”
But great change is ahead. A new generation is remaking the city center as not only a place to work and play, but also to live. And although we may not know how these trends will affect mass transit, we know even less about how it will affect the driving of personal cars.
“I was at a fascinating seminar about a year ago talking about what people plan to build now versus (then), like a parking structure,” Zotti explains. “You build a big commercial complex you’ve got to have a huge amount of parking structure. The architects now are telling people figure out a way to reuse this space.”
In other words, build a building you can re-purpose, rathe than demolish when you won’t need it any more.
“Ten years down the road, exactly, because you’re not going to need anywhere this much space for parking, a fascinating story,” he says. “So have shallow spaces. Have enough depth that you can put air-conditioning ducts and that kind of stuff in.
So expect to see garages without extensive ramps, and with higher floors. Buildings that could easily be flipped to offices or labs or warehouses.
A recent passion of Zotti’s has been attempting to re-ignite a conversation about extending transit into and through the parts of downtown that have almost no public transit.
“I was with Central Area Committee,” he tells us, “and we proposed in 2016 something we were calling the Connector, which is, I’m trying to draw you a picture of where it went, but it was going to serve many of the same areas on the periphery of the traditional loop. It would connect the rail stations, the Metra stations to the CTA, which right now are very poorly connected. I mean if you go to New York, Washington, Boston, you can take the suburban rail system in and there is a station right there, and we don’t have that. You’ve got to walk blocks if you can even find it. So I think those things need to happen, and that’s what I think the value of this express to O’Hare will be. Once we get that in place,” he says, it can be a trigger ” To get everything else going.”