Monday, October 15, 2007

Duct Tape and Spitshine Holding CTA Together; Illinois isn't

Back in Cherokee County, Georgia, where I grew up, there is this barn over in Avery. For as long as I can remember, that sucker has looked like it was going to fall down any minute. Whenever I'd go by the place, it seemed like it was leaning a little bit more. The thing was at least 35 degrees off center on its vertical axis last time I saw it. My dad has a saying he always applied to that old shack; he'd always say that it was only the termites holding hands stopping it from falling over. I think the place must be sturdier than it looks, because a couple of three years ago a tornado hit just across the ridge. It did terrible damage to some homes and churches over there, but that barn just kept standing.

I suppose that Chicagoans must feel a little bit like that. I was in Chicago in March, and I have to say that I love the place. One of the highlights of my trip was riding the L. (Which I have been informed is the only correct way to spell it, not El or el). I've definitely been around the loop (sorry couldn't resist) when it comes to riding on transit systems around the United States and in Europe, but of all of those the L is my favorite. I can't put my finger on exactly why this happens to be the case, but I think it has to do with the character of the system. After you've ridden the L, places like Washington and Atlanta just seem so sterile. Sure, the L is loud and slow, crowded and jolting, but it is just so...perfect. Okay, so maybe it isn't perfect in a lot of respects, but the railfan in me loves it even when the transit planner in me cringes.

One of the things that struck me when I was visiting Chicagoland is the condition of the L. Frankly, it is in a horrible state of disrepair. Honestly, I am surprised that a structural failure hasn't occurred yet. Like many systems around the country, the CTA has been forced to delay or defer maintenance just to keep the trains running. It is a sorry state of affairs to see that what used to be one of the world's most extensive transit networks can't compare to systems in the second and third worlds. It occurred to me that if MARTA's funding had been cut as much as CTA's, Atlantans would probably just be getting by without a subway. For what it's worth, the CTA should be commended for the job it has done keeping Chicago on the move with the meager funding it has.

So it is disheartening to hear that CTA is facing more major cuts and fare increases. Live from the Third Rail is reporting that Chicagoans are facing massive cuts. Chicago is one of America's great cities, and it deserves a transit system to match. The advocacy group is dedicated to finding a solution to this nightmare. Of course there have been many different circumstances which have led to the situation as it stands today, but it is clear that more dedicated funding is needed. For the past several years Illinois has provided temporary fixes. It's time for a more permanent solution from Springfield. It's also time for a new direction in transportation policy in Washington, but I won't hold my breath. It doesn't look as though transit will be getting any windfalls while Mr. Bush keeps his nice view of LaFayette Square.

The dichotomy in this country between road building and alternative transportation is revolting. Within hours of the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, the Bush administration was promising to pick up much of the tab to rebuild what will become an even bigger bridge than before. It seems that there was never a moment when the planners stopped to ask whether the bridge should be rebuilt at all. The preliminary plans didn't even include provision for transit, although it seems that pressure from the mayor will ensure that the bridge is "light rail ready." At the same time, while transit riders around the country are facing service cutbacks, fare increases, and deteriorating infrastructure, the federal government refuses to step in.

As I have stated in previous posts, it is good policy from many standpoints to improve funding for transit. A growing environmental movement is seeking alternatives on the one hand. On another hand, it is a stated policy goal of the Bush administration is to reduce our dependence on foriegn oil. On still another hand, social justice advocates are as vocal as ever, and transit is one way of rebuilding our urban communities.

I won't deny the benefits of the automobile on American culture. However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. America seems to have stretched its transportation infrastructure to the breaking point, and investing in some alternatives is a good next step. In the face of rising fuel prices, increasing instability in the Middle East, and declining environmental quality we must step up our efforts to get people out of their cars. Letting the L and other transit systems in the US fall apart is not the way to go about doing that.

For now, it looks like we'll just have to pray that those termites stay cozy with each other.

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