March 6, 2009

Olympic tragedies

Bureaucracy and corruption will destroy any chance Chicago has at revitalizing for the 2016 Olympics.

Given this city’s famously fragile transportation system and its frequent flirtings with “doomsday” scenarios over the past several years, hopes for improvement are usually tempered by desperate efforts to maintain current service. It seems like a pipe dream to imagine that the problems will get better any time soon, much less be resolved.

Yet the glow of the Olympic torch, that cherished symbol of dreaming big and achieving unprecedented feats, seemed until recently to have cast Chicagoans into a sort of reverie. For while the Olympic-sized laundry list of probable losses was a cause for alarm, the possible gain for which many progressive-minded citizens had hoped was that the wilting transit system would receive a fresh infusion of life.

The Chicago 2016 cabal was not over-earnest in releasing the details of its plan, but healthy speculations abounded enough to stimulate grassroots organizations interested in having a say on the final design. Displaying the sort of transparency—that is, a lack thereof—that conceals either invidious schemes or bottomless incompetence, it was only last month that the group finally spilled the juice on their design.

It turns out that Chicago’s bid book pretty much rests on the laurels of the existing transit infrastructure, boasting of public transport as “a proud part of Chicago’s culture,” while touting flexibility, efficiency, and effectiveness. But Chicago residents can’t be fooled by the high-flying language and dubious alacrity of the proposal. As the system locks up every day at rush hour and challenges us to find new meanings for the term “high-speed rail,” we’re left with little doubt that the city is simply out of touch with the logistic necessities of a global scale event, and as for the needs of its people—out of sight, out of mind. It seems that the private sector actors supposed to be underwriting and undoubtedly guiding the Olympic proposal will be its main beneficiaries.

Yet while the city certainly holds the reigns, it just as surely doesn’t have a monopoly on ideas. A constructive proposal emerged and has gained some traction on the South Side for the creation of a “Gold Line.” The idea is to make a partial conversion of the Metra commuter rail to mass transit lines operable with the CTA’s fare schedules. Organizers tout the program’s economic value and practical feasibility. But the request for a feasibility study handed to the Metra was recently rejected. No doubt the “Gold Line” idea is a good one—or at least better than most—but in the face of a labyrinthine system of power and responsibility scattered across the different service boards and urban planning actors, it looks like just another high-flying hope smashed by institutional realities.

Hopeful progressives can forget the dream of dealing with municipal authorities with ease. They can’t expect City Hall to do more than thumb its nose to the promise of transit overhaul as one lasting benefit to the city from the welter of worries the Olympics will cause. With Rod Blagojevich—the reformer—out of office and another reformer in his place, there’s nowhere left to look but the federal level. Indeed, perhaps the transit earmarks in Obama’s stimulus package will give us some leverage.

But in typical fashion, neither the city nor the state of Illinois have submitted lists of projects to receive funding under the stimulus, the deadline for which is March 10. Daley is keeping tight-lipped about what projects he has prioritized for federal aid, but he has made quite explicit that he would like a good $50 million to dump into the political toxic waste dump called the O’Hare expansion even as the airlines have asked for the expansion to cease. If much money is left for regional transit operators, it’s doubtful we’ll find more charity than a little patch to cover operating costs.

I don’t doubt that many Chicagoans will follow this unfolding process with disappointment and a not a little bit of rancor at the insufficiencies of public officials and their bloated private-public partnerships. Neither a spectacle of international attention nor a recession of global proportion seems able to stimulate the seeds of change for our local public needs. For the time being, we’ll just have to keep hoping for the future.

Marshall Knudson is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology.