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Why high-speed rail advocates should care about Chicago’s next mayor

October 16, 2018

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he would not run for re-election took the city—and Illinois and even the nation—by surprise. Traditionally, mayor of Chicago is a job for life.

High-speed rail advocates all around the Midwest should be interested in who will become the next mayor of Chicago. As the hub of the Midwest’s rail network, a regional high-speed system can’t exist without major investments from Chicago and Illinois.

On the up side, The Emanuel administration reversed a long trend of declining investment in transit and trains. Chicago attracted billions of federal dollars to rebuild transit lines, fix freight and passenger rail bottlenecks and improve Union Station. The city also added a bike-sharing system and many miles of protected bike lanes, which make transit and trains more accessible and convenient.

On the other hand, Mayor Emanuel could have chosen to create direct access to O’Hare from around the Chicago region and Midwest by upgrading existing rail infrastructure. (Our CrossRail Chicago proposal is the first step in our Illinois Fast Track Initiative and the starting point for a Midwest high-speed network.) Instead, he made the disappointing decision to let controversial tech entrepreneur Elon Musk experiment with unproven technology to build a single-purpose, narrow-market link between downtown and the airport. (Many expect the new mayor to cancel this plan.)

These ups and downs illustrate how the power of Chicago’s mayor radiates beyond the city limits to extend across the Midwest.

With five months until the election, the field of mayoral contenders is crowded, and their policies toward transportation are largely undefined. To bring transportation into the debate, three advocates have created a Sustainable Transportation Platform for mayoral candidates. With an eye toward equity, sustainability and livability, the platform has ideas that would advance our mission of bringing fast, frequent and reliable trains to the Midwest:

  • Building new transit service, particularly by upgrading an existing Metra line to offer frequent, all-day service. The platform specifically mentions CrossRail Chicago, which would benefit travelers from around the Midwest, not just Chicagoland commuters.
  • An integrated transit fare structure, which would put Metra fares on par with CTA fares for comparable trips. Trains and transit are easier and more convenient when you can simply take whatever service is fastest or closet, without worrying about price differences or who operates what train. The platform also mentions improving Metra service by improving service to stations in the city, many of which Metra seems to overlook in favor of suburban riders.

With a train and transit-unfriendly administration in the White House, we need to rely on state and local elected officials to help us bring more fast, frequent and reliable trains to the Midwest. The next mayor of Chicago could be one of the most important people in this group, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on the race.

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