The “vice president of policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago and vice chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority” gives five reasons for why mass transit needs to be expanded in the Chicago area:
Why expand transit? Why now? Five reasons: increased efficiency, improved individual and regional economies, and jobs, jobs, jobs.
Cook County’s current transit system allows hundreds of thousands of residents to get to and from their destinations in a safe, efficient and affordable way every day. Unfortunately, four out of five of the region’s biggest job centers outside of downtown Chicago are underserved by transit. People traveling to work or school in these suburbs have no choice but to drive. The resulting traffic leads to wasted time and wasted money. Expanding and improving the region’s transit system will increase commuter choice, decrease congestion, connect businesses to transit locations and reduce the number of individuals without vehicles who are, in effect, excluded from the job pool.
But it can be more than that. Transit expansion, from my perspective — which includes decades of experience in transportation and community development issues, as well as service to the Chicago Transit Authority board — must be part of a wider strategy around transit-oriented development. That is, transit expansion should be accompanied by development that integrates residential, office, retail and other amenities into walkable neighborhoods within a half-mile of quality public transportation.
This type of development tends to be more economically resilient than others, as evidenced by the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s study for the American Public Transit Association and the National Association of Realtors. Between 2006 and 2011, the report found, average sales prices for residential properties within walking distance of a transit station outperformed the region by an average of 42 percent. In Chicago, home values in transit-served areas performed 30 percent better than the region. That’s real money for local tax bases, not to mention homeowners’ wallets.
Add to this a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution that makes a clear case for transportation infrastructure investment as an economic development strategy. It’s a popular, and smart, play these days. Other countries, both developing and developed, are doubling down on investments to build and upgrade their transportation infrastructure. They see it as the path to long-term sustainable growth. We need to see, and do, the same.
One big problem the Chicago area faces in this regard is the general orientation of transit toward Chicago. If you are out in the suburbs, transit lines tend to run into Chicago. This is good for accessing jobs and other amenities in Chicago but with more jobs and residents in the suburbs, it is quite difficult to travel by transit from suburb to suburb. If the population growth is in places like Aurora, Plainfield, McHenry County, and Kendall County, how are those residents to use mass transit to get to suburban job centers like Naperville, Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates, Northbrook, etc.? Local bus service tends to run between train stations and local amenities and despite several decades worth of experimentation, there is not high sustained levels of transit between suburbs. Some things could probably be done fairly quickly, like finding the substantial funding to implement the STAR Line that would connect Joliet to O’Hare through the western suburbs on the EJ&E tracks, but on the whole, this probably requires long-term money and planning.
The money question is just that: where is the money for this going to come from? Lots of people agree with investing in infrastructure, particularly for improving quality of life issues like traffic and congestion, but are they willing to pay for it or give up other priorities?