Trains, Not Truck Stops, Drive Competitiveness

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist took to the pages of the Chicago Sun Times yesterday with an editorial missive arguing that the White City's competitiveness - and perhaps its Olympic bid - is at risk because Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the state Legislature aren't investing aggressively enough in public transit.

Mayor Norquist makes a brief but compelling case that global cities like New York, Shanghai, London, and Dubai are on track to outpace Chicago in the race to provide convenient modern mobility options, erase urban blight, lure the top talent, and connect them effortlessly to jobs.

If the mayor's words come as a wake up call to Chicago, they're a punch in the gut to the rest of the greater Great Lakes region.

Forget, for a moment, midsized cities like Grand Rapids and Madison, although that's where much of the innovation and progressive thought is brewing. Larger hubs like Cleveland, Buffalo, and even Lundquists' Milwaukee have only begun to provide the most basic levels of mass transit service. And Detroit, the alleged epicenter of mobility technology, has yet to even lay its first mile of track for light rail or streetcar.

If Chicago is in trouble with a transit system second only to New York and unrivaled in the Midwest, as the mayor suggests, what does that mean for the dozens of communities in the region who still wrongly believe, at some fundamental level, that mass transit costs too much and won't work?

How can they realistically expect to compete with the Salt Lakes, Denvers, and Portlands of the world who have built, and already begun to expand, alternatives to autos, highways, and parking lots.

To be certain, the greater Great Lakes region's future economic, environmental, and social wellbeing depends a great deal on a spectacular shift in thinking about how we move people around. And by most accounts that shift is far too slow in coming. Even, apparently, in seemingly pro-transit places like Chicago.

"Instead of positioning Chicago to compete with London, New York and Tokyo in ensuring efficient, predictable transportation to and from its employment core," Mayor Lundquist wrote, "the state seems more interested in competing with Detroit to see which region makes a better truck stop."

"Imagine fast and on-time service on all the L and commuter lines," he added. "Imagine the Circle Route speeding up north-south travel and new Amtrak routes to Rockford and Peoria, strengthening inter-city economic linkages. Imagine high-speed rail to all the major cities of the Midwest. The yields on these investments are a state and region that are more attractive to people and commerce."