What Chicagoans now call The Red Line is a century-old commuter train, part of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). It runs all the way from Howard Street on the north to 95th Street on the south.
As Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah famously said of nearby Lake Shore Drive, it’ll take you “from rags on up to riches” in just fifteen minutes. But unlike the scenic LSD, this train line can also give you a close-up view of some pretty rough neighborhoods, making some stations very dangerous. And the more dangerous a place is, the more you put off repairing it, until the cost of needed repairs winds up being as high as it can possibly be.
Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel (D, Wilmette) and Governor Quinn (D, Moscow) have announced that they’ll put off these repairs no longer. Announcing a billion dollar repair bill for the total CTA plan, they expect to spend some $86 million in 2012 on temporary fixes for seven of the Red Line’s north side stations alone.
But on the other hand, no responsible politician proposes a billion dollars in new spending when the city, county, and state are bankrupt, when tax rates have already been hiked past the breaking point, when unfunded pension obligations alone have a claim on all anticipated revenue for decades, when the economy is stagnant with no prospect for real recovery on the horizon.
Now, the Red Line runs through some areas with money – the short stretch from the Lincoln Park area to Downtown. But the majority of the line now runs through areas of lower incomes – on the south side, some of the very lowest and most jobless. And much of the housing near the far north end is made up of nursing homes, whose residents have long since stopped commuting for work.
In short, while there is still ridership, the economics of public transit are terrible on this line. The city can’t afford to help much, and while fares can be raised, they can’t possibly be raised enough to pay for it all, at a time when transit really must find a way to pay for itself.
Consider how airports and highway oases deal with these needs: they contract out space to concessions. Not just to pay for themselves, but hopefully to contribute a sizable profit to help cover the government’s cost of the stations themselves. Airports make a pretty penny on the rent from all those Wolfgang Puck, Starbucks, and McDonald’s franchises, not to mention the sales taxes from bookstores and souvenir shops.
Perhaps the city of Chicago could save money by thinking bigger… as long as the private developers absorbed the risk, rather than piling still more risk on the CTA, an economic model already in likely irreversible decline as our economy is transformed.
Even if more of these neighborhoods come back, through gentrification and general economic growth, there will be more jobs far away from the tracks than are created upon them, more small businesses operated out of the house, more employees working by telecommuting than ever before. For the economic model of commuter rail in Chicago to recover, they need many, many larger improvements.
Chicago must control crime. Many Chicago trains and their stations are dangerous, particularly at non-rush times. A larger police presence has a cost, one that the city can ill afford. The logical solution is to fix what’s wrong with our criminal justice system. We DO catch every criminal, but we let them go. And this must stop.
Chicago must broaden its tax base. Chicago politicians have driven businesses and private taxpayers alike out of the city, the county, and the state through their century of dominance. Instead of focusing on the long-term good of their city, the Democrat machine has been working for its own short-term gain – concentrating on re-elections and ghost-payrolling, on small-time bribery and big-time villainy, while the residential neighborhoods and local businesses crumbled around them.
The Red Line is a symptom of a city in decline; if it were not in decline, it would never have allowed these stations to fall so far into disrepair. And like most ills, the Democratic Party is inclined to address only the symptoms, not their causes.
Chicago, and Cook County, and the State of Illinois, must all cooperate to make this a more business-friendly state. It won’t be easy; the Chicago pols who dominate all three have dug a very deep hole. But there is no choice.
We need to end the welfare state. The wonderful progress made with national welfare reform in the mid-90s was abandoned, so our cities still have masses of people with no work history, no role models in their families; children are raised amidst generation after generation of indolence. It’s hard to blame them, when it’s all they know; still, somewhere the cycle must end. Only if we can end the welfare state can people be set free of its clutches; only then can families and neighborhoods begin to recover.
We need to end the bureaucratic attacks on American manufacturing. The high cost of permits and regulations, the costly mandates of health insurance and ADA-compliant construction, the property taxes before you start and the income taxes as soon as you make a penny of profit… all these governmental burdens combine to drive business away.
Not all these ills can be combated at the local level, but many can, and so they must.
- Since right-to-work states are more desirable for businesses, let Illinois join their friendly ranks.
- Since low business tax states are more desirable, reduce those taxes and fees.
- We can reduce the tort law risks of being headquartered in Illinois, so that companies don’t have to hire oversized law departments to protect against them.
- We can reduce the expense of illegal aliens driving up the cost of education, healthcare, and the welfare state by copying Arizona’s approach and enforcing federal immigration law here.
But even if Chicago cannot do everything – we cannot change the national tax code, and we cannot undo the national handcuffs on our schools, on our police, on manufacturing – still, Chicago must do what it can. It must stop driving worthwhile citizens and businesses out, and start welcoming them back in.
The problem, as usual, is one of cause and effect. The conservative knows that if the tax and regulatory environment is welcoming, and the streets are safe, then the helpful residents and businesses will come back, and then costly infrastructure improvements will be affordable.
But the liberal believes that they have to do the unaffordable infrastructure improvements first, foolishly thinking that pretty train stations attract employers, more than oppressive taxes and regulations repel them.
On this, as on so much, the left is sadly mistaken, to the detriment of the once-great cities of America.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. He lived the first year of his life a stone’s throw from the Howard El Station, and that station remained his family’s gateway to downtown Chicago during the dozen years they lived in south Evanston. But like so many others, his family fled to more hospitable neighborhoods in the 1970s, leaving the area to those reflexive Democrats who continued to look at the decay with satisfaction, and vote, year after year, for more of the same.
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