On the eve of Election Day, Illinois voters are deciding which candidates they trust to calm our economic storms. Whether green or seasoned, tomorrow’s winners will confront historic budget deficits and cloudy fiscal forecasts at all levels of government, and most policy experts agree they will need to consider both service cuts and tax and fee increases – neither a popular choice.
In the face of economic austerity, great progress is possible. Our new and incumbent leaders must have the ingenuity to make smarter use of limited resources, the courage to try innovative policies, programs and financing methods, and the wisdom to build upon regional strengths – a daunting to do list. In some cases, their predecessors have laid the groundwork with successful efforts that must continue to grow. Equally important are the items that need nurturing for metropolitan Chicago and Illinois to be competitive in the future.
Among the “keepers” is the Chicago Central Area Action Plan. While its name mistakenly conjures up something that is solely about the Loop, it’s an inspiring blueprint for the transportation, open-space and waterfront projects that will keep Chicago’s neighborhoods and suburbs prosperous. One of the most promising is the West Loop Transportation Center, which would be the Midwest hub for expanded and high-speed commuter rail. If done well, this investment – which would require support from city, county, state and federal leaders, as well as the private sector – would grow the commercial, retail and residential sectors, as well as Chicagoland’s GDP.
It’s the sort of project that inspires regional cooperation. Mayor Richard M. Daley took office in 1989 and weathered the economic doldrums of the mid ’90s. As the economy began to rebound late that decade, he brought city and suburban officials together to make mutually beneficial decisions. The next class of elected leaders should take a cue from Mayor Daley by supporting stronger regional decision-making through the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Regional Transportation Authority.
For regional transit to support 2 million trips each weekday—let alone increase its capacity—the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace need nearly $10 billion in capital funding. To build on this regional powerhouse – the nation’s second-largest transit network – elected officials need to be quick students of transit-oriented development and public-private partnership funding. And we need something to excite us about transit, such as bus rapid transit, an express bus service that acts like a train by traveling on dedicated lanes and signaling lights to stay green to speed through intersections, along with street-level stations that will spark nearby economic development. Even one well-executed pilot route could demonstrate an impressive return on investment and attract additional public and private dollars to support more routes and development around new stations.
Inspiring investments and inspired leadership – both are essential to building a regional economy that can weather future economic storms.
This op-ed first appeared in Crain's Chicago Business.