Gov. Ryan builds his vision - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Gov. Ryan builds his vision

His State-of-the-State speech plotted the future "one by one," including several sensible growth initiatives.

In the planning business, there are visions and there are VISIONS.

Neither approach to the future is necessarily better. Masters like Chicago's Daniel Burnham pulled off big-picture planning to beautiful and lasting effect. New York's controversial Robert Moses stealthily rebuilt Gotham one public works project at a time.

We now have a good idea into which category falls Gov. George Ryan.

The most frequently repeated phrase in his recent (01/31/01) State-of-the-State speech was "one by one, we're getting things done."

That's understandable. Considering what Ryan has been up against during his first two years in office-a hyper-partisan legislature split down the middle, a nagging bribery scandal from his previous gig as Secretary of State-it's no wonder he has tended to plan and govern one step at a time.

Still, there was plenty of the "vision thing" embedded in the governor's 50-minute oration to the newly-seated 92nd General Assembly. And that vision embraces several sensible growth matters on the agenda of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC).

High on his list of cited accomplishments (credit for which he rightly shared with the legislature) was Illinois FIRST, the $12 billion, 5-year program to repair and improve public infrastructure from Rockford to Cairo. Those of us who worked for its passage, as individuals or in coalitions such as Business Leaders for Transportation, breathed a private "amen" when Ryan chided armchair critics who insisted on calling these investments "pork."

Maybe the critics liked creeping though "slow zones" on the CTA's creaky Douglas/Blue Line or idling in rush hour traffic at the "hillside strangler" on Eisenhower Expressway. Most Illinoians, I suspect, know such messes need fixing and are willing to pay for it.

Other, smaller Ryan accomplishments also fit his one-at-a-time vision. There's the Open Lands Trust initiative, a 4-year, $160 million bond program that already has enabled the public purchase of 28,000 acres of forest, prairie and wetlands. And there's Illinois Tomorrow, a series of state incentives and policies aimed as encouraging infill development and reclamation of brownfields while discouraging wasteful, haphazard sprawl.

There is a hunger in Illinois for more balanced development. Example: A new state pilot program offering small grants to local governments for planning smarter growth drew 10 times more applications than the amount of funding available.

Here is where Gov. Ryan may be short-weighing himself on the vision scale.

Ryan did promise some heavy lifting this year, not the least being his pledge to "begin serious discussions" toward resolving the Peotone and O'Hare airport stalemate. Expanding the Chicago region's aviation capacity, he correctly observed, is "a growth opportunity for the entire state" not "a line in the sand or a political tug of war."

How true. But our region and its communities need to grow sensibly, not helter-skelter along yet another "big box" strip heading over the horizon.

Illinois communities need more and stronger tools to do this type of planning. That's why MPC and its partners, like the Campaign for Sensible Growth, are looking forward to some measure that didn't make the governor's speech. We want enactment of planning incentives recommended by members of the Illinois Growth Task Force, a bi-partisan legislative panel asked last year to find ways to foster both economic growth and quality of life.

Those incentives should include more money for those over-subscribed planning grants, a new state planning law (as opposed to the Roaring '20s version on the books) that lets communities plan for newfangled things like digital broadband, and a program to help average workers purchase homes closer to suburban business parks (as opposed to driving from the far side of the region.)

Considered separately these are small things. Woven into what George Ryan already has accomplished, they would form a vision—if not a VISION—of a better Illinois.

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