Viewing city-to-city trains as public goods and not profit generators

An overview of what expanded Midwest city-to-city train service could look like includes a call to recast the purpose of trains:

Matthews said it is important for Congress to realize that passenger rail offers a public good, just as street lights do. The question is not whether the Southwest Chief makes money, but whether the community makes money because the train is there.

As the thinking about more train service in the Midwest between major cities continues, it will likely take a lot to shift perspectives from making money to providing a public good. If more service is provided, will more people ride it? Of course, it is hard to know what could come of more service until it actually happens. My guess is that we are still a long ways off in the United States from more train service – people still like their cars – and it would be difficult to funnel money from other transportation budgets – such as road maintenance and construction – to trains.

This call for a shift in perspective could serve as a general reminder for all infrastructure projects: focus less on the cost now and think more broadly about what that piece of infrastructure enables. Roads, power lines, water, railroads, and more enable other activities to take place that depend on solid infrastructure.

This also reminds me of sociologist Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. As railroads emerged in the mid-1800s, Dobbin argues France employed a top-down centralized strategy for railroads in the country, Britain had the most laissez-faire approach, and the United States was in the middle with some government support for railroads. While that occurred at the beginning of the railroad age, much of that transportation money in the United States has gone to roads and highways for roughly a century.

Forgetting the railroad tracks in downtown Chicago when they are covered up by developments

As Chicago grew at a rapid pace in the nineteenth century, the railroad lines that helped make the city largely converged in one place: the south bank of the Chicago River alongside Lake Michigan where goods could be loaded and unloaded for the city or for ships. A 1948 image on the Maggie Daley Park website gives some indication of the scene:

Later development of land, such as Millennium Park, helped eliminate and then cover up more of the tracks. And a new proposed development south of Grant Park may cover up more:

Even as city officials weigh other proposed megadevelopment deals in and near downtown, a Wisconsin developer who played a key role in building Ford Field in Detroit and rebuilding Lambeau Field in Green Bay is pitching another: a multibillion-dollar plan to deck over Metra Electric rail tracks west of Soldier Field to build a mix of residential, office and retail space.

Several sources close to the matter say a partnership headed by Wisconsin executive Bob Dunn has briefed City Hall and other officials on plans, set to be officially unveiled next month, to build over 34 acres of Metra Electric tracks and storage facilities just west of South Lake Shore Drive, from McFetridge Drive south to roughly 20th Street.

Air rights to build over the tracks were acquired more than 20 years ago by developer Gerald Fogelson, who built the huge Central Station residential complex just to the north, south and east of Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue. Fogelson had hoped to develop the adjacent air-rights property himself as a sort of a Central Station 2.0, and as late as 2015 he was looking for a partner, describing then a $3 billion long-term plan with 3,000 apartments and 500 hotel rooms.

But Fogelson’s plans never jelled, and a new group named Landmark Development has emerged, with Fogelson still involved but Dunn, who is president of Milwaukee-based Hammes, now serving as lead developer.

Few would argue that the railroad tracks downtown and along the lakefront contributed to a beautiful aesthetic. Between the noise and the sights, most residents and leaders would prefer to see buildings, parks, and water than tracks. But, I wonder if the continued covering of tracks and building on the air rights might help lead Chicagoans to forget both the historical and current importance of the railroads to Chicago.

As Chicago grew, the railroads helped Chicago become the center of the Midwest as commodities came in from north, west, and south and were turned around for the Chicago market or markets out East. (See Nature’s Metropolis for all the details.) Today, Chicago is still a railroad center with numerous important railroad lines and a lot of freight traffic. The move in recent years to relieve accidents, ensure on-time trains, and traffic congestion is to move more and more of the railroad traffic to the outskirts of the region.

It might be easy today in a world of smartphones to forget the basic railroad infrastructure that helps undergird Chicago and the country. Chicago itself has shifted away from a commodity based economy and joined the ranks of finance and corporate capitals (and done so successfully). Yet, the railroad will continue to be important for Chicago even if it is no longer visible in some of the city’s most iconic locations.

The 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair helped lead to Disneyland

Disneyland and Disney World are notable to urbanists for their opening spaces. Main Street is meant to evoke an American small town like the one in Missouri in which Walt Disney lived as a child.

I recently read that Main Street had an additional inspiration: the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair. From Wikipedia:

In addition to being the last great assembly of railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair holds a lesser known honor and connection to Disneyland. In 1948 Walt Disney and animator Ward Kimball attended the fair. To their enjoyment they not only got to see all of the equipment, but they were also allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the Fair. Upon their return to Los Angeles, Disney used the Fair, the House of David Amusement Park, and Greenfield Village, as inspiration for a “Mickey Mouse Park” that eventually became Disneyland. Walt also went on to build his own backyard railroads, building the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Kimball already had his own, named Grizzly Flats Railroad.

And this fair was quite a gathering of American railroad leaders and equipment:

The fair was rapidly planned during the winter and spring of 1948, and originally scheduled to run between July and August of that summer. Erected on 50 acres (200,000 m2) of Burnham Park in Chicago between 21st and 31st Streets, the fair opened after only six months of planning. A grand opening for the fair commenced on July 20 with a parade that featured such spectacles as a military marching band and a replica of a troop train, a contingent of cowboys and Native Americans, a replica of the Tom Thumb, the first American locomotive, and the spry, octogenarian widow of Casey Jones, who served as honorary Grand Master of the parade. One dollar was the price of admission, and, except food, all the attractions, displays, exhibits and shows were free. Besides the thirty-nine railroads who participated in the fair, there were more than twenty equipment manufacturers, including General Motors. The Santa Fe also sponsored an Indian Village where Native Americans sold handicrafts, staged dances, and explained the different types of lodging that were on display.

A highlight of the fair was the presence of the Freedom Train.The Freedom Train travelled the country from September 17, 1947, through Jan 22, 1949, and was at the Railroad Fair from July 5 – 9. It held many documents and artifacts from the National Archives. Available for public viewing were the original United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Security of the documents was the responsibility of the Marine Corps…

38 railroads and more than 20 railroad equipment manufacturers participated in the Chicago Railroad Fair exhibiting equipment and interpretive displays around the fair’s theme of 100 years of railroad history. The majority of the participating railroads maintained a direct rail connection to Chicago…

The highlight of the Chicago Railroad Fair was the “Wheels A-Rolling” pageant. This was a dramatic and musical presentation intended to showcase the development of transportation and the railroads across the country beginning with trails and waterways. The pageant included a recreation of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah, and various historic rolling stock and replicas of equipment in operation.

I wonder what Disneyland might begin with if Disney had been a child in the age of the automobile. Instead of Main Street, imagine a typical commercial stretch viewed at 35 mph with signs for fast food joints, strip malls, and gas stations. Would it induce the same sort of nostalgia for later generations? Or, as suburban critic James Howard Kunstler suggests, those suburban arterials are not worth places worth caring about.

Furthermore, this celebration of the railroad would be interesting to contrast with celebrations of the automobile. The largest auto show in the world, the Chicago Auto Show, starts this weekend. The displays are largely divorced from history or urban surroundings. While the automobile has been important for the development of the Chicago region (and all American metropolitan regions), it cannot claim the same influence in helping to kickstart the Chicago region in the mid-1800s. Yet, it is hard to imagine Chicago holding a massive celebration for railroads today, even as they continue to bring much freight to and through the Chicago region.

Small Illinois town becomes intermodal facility and warehouse central; long-term benefits are not good

Elwood, Illinois is home to facilities of a number of important American companies but the small community experiences few benefits:

It’s hard to find anyone who will admit to it now, but when the CenterPoint Intermodal freight terminal opened in 2002, people in Elwood, Illinois, were excited. The plan was simple: shipping containers, arriving by train from the country’s major ports, were offloaded onto trucks at the facility, then driven to warehouses scattered about the area, where they were emptied, their contents stored. From there, those products—merchandise for Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot—were loaded into semis, and trucked to stores all over the country. Goods in, goods out. The arrangement was supposed to produce a windfall for Elwood and its 2,200 residents, giving them access to the highly lucrative logistics and warehousing industry. “People thought it was the greatest thing,” said Delilah Legrett, an Elwood native…

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt…

According to the Will County Center for Economic Development, at least 25,000 tractor trailers a day come through the Intermodals. That amounts to three million containers annually, carrying $65 billion worth of goods. A staggering $623 billion worth of freight traversed Will County infrastructure in 2015 alone, roughly equivalent to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s total GDP…

But when it comes to the long-term prospects for the region, optimism is scarce. Paul Buss’s son, who works as a building inspector in Joliet, told his dad there’s concern “these companies are gonna come in, they’re gonna build these buildings, and they’re gonna use them for however long they can get a tax break on them, and then they’ll move someplace else.” The threat of empty warehouses looms large.

The freight industry, composed of both railroads and trucks, has to be placed somewhere. The southern edge of the Chicago region is a logical place with close connections to major highways, cross-country railroad lines, airports, and both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River as well as proximity to the third largest metropolitan area in the United States. And there are likely benefits to these companies and industries to have a concentration of facilities rather than scattering them across multiple communities and regions.

But, the article suggests we should not view the communities where these facilities are placed just as collateral damage. There are real consequences to the trucks and trains that ship all the goods we need on a daily basis. People’s lives are affected. Could the facilities should be placed outside of towns and away from residences as possible?

Perhaps the true test of all of this is whether the next town that is chosen or selects itself as the possible next facility center turns down the opportunity or they dive headlong into the same issues.

 

Naperville train parking permits require 7 year wait yet parking lots are 88-90% full

Long waits – seven years or so – for a parking permit at the busy downtown Naperville train station are not new but recent data hints that those parking lots are not full every day:

Of the 1,681 spaces at the Naperville station, 918 are dedicated to quarterly permit holders but those spaces generally don’t fill up. Because about 10 percent to 20 percent of permit spaces are left empty on average, Naperville oversells the number of permits for each of the three dedicated lots.

“Our spaces that are dedicated for quarterly permit holders, the utilization there is significantly lower than what we see for our daily fee spaces. Our daily fee spaces are generally fully occupied by about 6:30 (a.m.),” Louden said…

Naperville issues 850 quarterly permits for the 526 spots in the Burlington lot, which sees an average utilization rate of 89 percent, according to a presentation from city staff. The city issues 185 permits for the Parkview lot’s 110 spaces and sees an 88 percent utilization rate. And 474 permits are issued for the 282 quarterly spaces in the Kroehler lot, which sees a 90 percent utilization rate…

“For a lot of communities, what we would recommend at CMAP is to better manage the parking supply by using pricing as you would with any other economic good,” Bayley said. “It’s about incentives as well as disincentives, and really the disincentive is going to be the cost and the wait list.”

Parking can be a difficult commodity to manage. In suburban areas, it is often expected to be plentiful and free. Americans love to drive. Yet, keeping parking prices low and having a good amount of availability can influence behavior. If parking is easy, there is little incentive to do something else instead. Plus, there is a bigger picture to keep in mind. As the article asks, it is good in the long run to provide spaces that enable driving or is it better to develop and promote alternative forms of transportation?

There are numerous ways Naperville could get creative in promoting higher utilization rates. The article mentions raising prices but they could also notify certain permit holders about their spots being empty and talk about the possibility of reducing permit spots and replacing them with daily fees.

I wonder if there is are two other groups the Naperville needs to hear from:

(1) those who do not buy quarterly permits yet are unsuccessful when they try to find a daily spot. What do they do – then drive into the city? Take another form of transportation? What about the people who are not daily commuters but who might occasionally want to ride the train into the city – can they access a spot?

(2) people who do not purchase a quarterly permit but instead rely on day-to-day parking. Why are they willing to do this and can they always get daily spots

 

Photo reminders that railroads ran into the heart of Chicago into the mid-1900s

Chicago’s Loop today is associated with gleaming skyscrapers and the finance and banking industries. Here are some great photos that provide a reminder that Chicago’s rise and wealth depended on railroads that ran right to the center of the city: the south bank of the Chicago River as well at the lakefront (which is now Grant Park).

Historically, railroads helped make Chicago what it is. As detailed in Nature’s Metropolis, Chicago became the center for gathering commodities and goods from the fertile Midwest (corn, cattle, etc.) as well as distributing other goods back to the growing Midwest. This thriving trade helped prompt other businesses and industries to form, such as the development of commodity futures.

These railroads still matter tremendously in the Chicago region, even if they are less visible. There are still railyards in Chicago (such as near Midway Airport), just outside the city (such as near O’Hare Airport), and other ones a long ways away (such as the intermodal facilities in Joliet or New Rochelle which facilitate transferring materials between trains and trucks). The trains may block traffic but they help ensure Chicago remains a transportation center.

Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.