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Chicago 2016 Olympics: Where's the Transit Legacy?
by crandell | 02/08/2009
As we wait for Chicago 2016 to make its final Bid Book public, I thought I'd take a moment to review what the last iteration of our Olympic plan said about transportation. I think one of the major selling points for Chicagoans is the promise of "legacy" projects that will improve our quality of life following the games -- and I do believe the Olympics certainly have the potential to be good for our city. The Chicago 2016 website claims this as one of 16 benefits to the city: "Hosting the Games will fast track key capital projects, especially transportation related initiatives, to coincide with the Olympiad." We balance the budget risk of the games against this legacy daydream and hope the games will draw enough funding to make the dreams a reality.
So what kind of legacy is promised for transit? The Chicago 2016 Applicant File offers a very general, preliminary look at the games. On the opposite end of the spectrum from real capital improvements, the document describes temporary dedicated lanes and other short-term capacity adjustments:
Is existing transit sufficient, even for residents today?
But the plan does also touch on long-term projects. Proposed permanent transit improvements mentioned in the document include the CTA's express airport service via Block 37, the purchase of new railcars, the Brown Line capacity expansion project, the CTA's Circle Line and Metra's STAR line. Rather than just accepting the idea that these projects mean the Olympics will be great for our city, I'd suggest a few questions to test whether these really are Olympic legacies. Can they be completed? Would they be completed regardless of whether the Olympics comes to Chicago? Are they the smartest investments for our city? If they don't stand up to these tests, that kind of changes the equation for whether the Olympics are worth the risk to the city's future financial security.
What most caught my eye on this list is the CTA's express airport service, which not only had major budget overruns, but also stalled completely and resulted in the loss of a major train station -- the Washington Red Line stop. Mike Doyle (of Chicago Carless fame) recently covered this latest development for Huffington Post: Who Stole the 'L' Stop at Washington/State?. The Applicant File cites a 2008 completion date for this project, which is just plain fallacy, and exposes the Olympic committee's lack of familiarity with our transit system. This project should serve as a warning for the Chicago Olympics -- the proposed infrastructure projects could turn into major budget problems that may leave our infrastructure more scarred than improved.
The purchase of additional railcars is already a done deal as far as I understand. The Brown Line capacity expansion project is also a done deal and is almost complete. Neither of these are Olympic legacies since they'd be completed regardless and likely will receive no additional funding.
Then there's the Circle Line and the STAR line, and the jury's still out on whether these are the best investment decisions for us considering other options out there (Bus Rapid Transit, Red Line Extension, Ogden Streetcar, etc.). All of these projects could potentially benefit from the increased attention and federal funding the Olympics could bring (though Bus Rapid Transit may happen regardless). Let's just hope that federal funding would be invested wisely.
I'll look forward to learning more in the final Bid Book when it's released next week.