Stagnation, progress in Chicago trigger ideas for President Obama's second term
In the weeks since the election, I've been pondering how the outcome will affect my world. On a personal level, will I ever again experience the pride of a U.S. president who hails from Chicago and who I have the pleasure of knowing? Doubtful.
Professionally, I heave a sigh of relief that the combativeness of election season is behind us, but brace myself for the year-end fiscal cliff debate in Washington and the pension fix that absolutely must be brokered in Springfield in January. These issues are critical to resolve, both for metropolitan Chicago's immediate and long-term fiscal health, but also because their shadows cast a gloomy pall over every future-focused initiative in which MPC and our partners in policy change are engaged.
To further underscore the severity of these challenges, due in large part to Illinois' reckless fiscal actions, our state is at the bottom of the heap on economic indicators. Among the nation's 15 largest metropolitan areas, we rank 14th for growth in gross regional product, only beating out Detroit. And in a similar ranking among states, Illinois rates 47th, barely ahead of Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan. This stagnation is a pivotal problem -- both for our region, which is hungry for growth, and for MPC, which is in the business of changing policies to unleash that growth.
Yet, like President Obama, I'm tired of the "nattering nabobs of negativism" and eager to get to work. Around the office, we often reflect on how achieving policy change -- the "art of the possible" -- not only requires compelling ideas, convincing data, and persuasive champions, but also a steady focus and a dash of optimism. So we'll take the President at his word that the promising rhetoric and modest experiments of his first term can now be brought to scale. We'll also continue to take the Administration up on its call for national models, by promoting the successes of our on-the-ground partnerships across Chicagoland, identifying federal barriers that constrain regional success, and working with partners across the country to secure the tools we need to innovate and compete.
Here are a few ways local success stories can have a national impact during President Obama's second term:
THE 70’s ARE NO LONGER COOL. For decades, innovative municipalities have joined forces with their neighbors to deliver services like paramedic response. Smaller communities realized it was the only cost-effective way to go. In metropolitan Chicago, this streamlined approach is now being applied to achieve high-impact housing and community development that benefits multiple communities. MPC has learned a great deal from three clusters of suburban Cook County communities that banded together starting in 2009 to battle the foreclosure crisis. They range from five to 22 towns per cluster, and together are achieving big wins, including hundreds of homes and apartments demolished or rehabilitated near job centers and transit stations. The problem is that 1970's era federal program regulations don't know what to do with such clusters and often require communities to go it alone. It's long past time to revisit outdated requirements, remove barriers to community coordination, challenge clusters of communities to apply for federal funding together, and reward them when they take this cost-effective approach.
METROS MATTER, SO INVEST IN THEIR SUCCESS -- Seven years ago, this region took a gigantic step and created the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), our region's first combined transportation and land use planning agency. Hard to believe that at the time, even using the word "Chicago" in the name was controversial for some. Today, CMAP is delivering real value for local communities, helping them devise game plans for growth, and keeping all of us focused on the same metrics, such as reducing below 50 percent the amount families spend on housing and transportation. Regions operate in an integrated world, but CMAP's primary funding comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Those dollars can't be invested in related regional priorities like workforce or water resources. The near-term solution is to shift formula funding in other federal departments to discretionary funding, so that metropolitan planning organizations like CMAP can invest flexibly where it will make the biggest impact.
LISTEN TO THE ECONOMISTS -- With impressively broad agreement that significant infrastructure investments will stimulate the economy, we may actually be ready to move past the partisan "gotcha" game. A federal infrastructure bank, regional infrastructure trusts, expanded federal loan guarantees, tax-exempt financing, and other emerging tools all can make an impact. Let's do something big here in the Chicagoland region; the CTA's Red Line extension, O'Hare Western Bypass, the modernization of Union Station, and a citywide Bus Rapid Transit network are all ready for prime time. Each of these major investments would achieve multiple regional goals: reducing traffic congestion, mitigating air pollution, connecting people to vital destinations, and sparking economic development. That’s the essence of performance-based transportation planning, and MPC is supporting the Illinois Dept. of Transportation to move in this direction as it revises its strategic planning process to be consistently goal-driven and coordinated with regional planning efforts. Through our partnership with Transportation for America, we will take lessons learned in the Chicago region to inform similar federal reforms as the U.S. prepares to reauthorize transportation investment in 2014.
It's almost impossible to overstate the urgent need to resolve fiscal impasses in Washington and Springfield. MPC will continue to lend our voice to reasonable solutions like those advanced by the Brookings Institution Metro program and the Civic Federation. When those solutions ultimately are brokered, there still will be an anemic economy to get back on track. And this is where MPC's unique blend of research, advocacy, and demonstration projects is just what the doctor ordered.