Recalling the trolley line that wasn't built in Chicago | Bleader

Friday, December 6, 2013

Recalling the trolley line that wasn't built in Chicago

Posted By on 12.06.13 at 09:00 AM

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Howard McKee
Grazing the Internet, I just came across this story in my hometown Saint Louis Post-Dispatch: "St. Louis is not alone in resurgence of streetcars."

It's certainly not alone in talking the talk about streetcars but getting nowhere. For that, it's got the example of Chicago.

Saint Louis has no streetcars. They used to crisscross the city. Back in the early 30s my mother walked down the hill each morning to catch the "car" from sparsely settled Kirkwood, then a distant suburb, to Washington University just west of the city limits. But one after another, Saint Louis shut down and uprooted its streetcar lines and by 1966 they were all gone. The same thing happened in cities across America, and Chicago was no exception.

Now there's a plan in Saint Louis to stir tourism with the stick of nostalgia by building a line through the Loop, a popular area of clubs and shops just north of Washington U. The line would end, fittingly, at the Missouri History Museum. More than $20 million in federal funds is available to build this trolley, though there's been so little movement Washington has threatened to take the money back.

A second, much longer and more modern, and as yet unfunded trolley line would connect downtown Saint Louis with the city's Central West End.

The point being made in the Post article I just read is not that Saint Louis needs to step lively and get in on a good thing. It's that these new trolleys might not be such a good thing. Arguments cut both way. The mayor of Cincinnati has said he wants to pull the plug on that city's project. Ridership of Tampa's trolleys has dropped about 35 percent in the past four years.

All of which made me remember how close Chicago came to resurrecting streetcar transportation in the 1990s. Nostalgia is inevitably part of the appeal of anything that runs on rails. But Chicago's Central Area Circulator Project was designed to meet a serious need, and it was designed meticulously. The need was to move people quickly, economically—and even enjoyably—between the commuter stations west of the river on Clinton and Michigan Avenue.

To avoid political gamesmanship as long as it could, the Regional Transportation Authority shrewdly commissioned the Metropolitan Planning Council—"privately funded neutral turf with expertise in transportation," as I put it in a 1990 column—to do a study. The MPC turned to Howard McKee, who by the time of his death in 2007 would surely have been the least likely person on earth to call Chicago "the city that works."

McKee had a big hand in important projects in other cities, including Portland's light rail system. Chicago was different. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had brought him here in 1983 to head the design team for the 1992 World's Fair that Chicagoans of a certain age might remember was supposed to gain our city global glory. McKee watched that grandiose project go up in flames, and given the blundering arrogance of its champions he didn't think that was necessarily the wrong outcome.

The central circulator would be different. My column described the initial planning.

There were three alternatives to look at: buses, automated guideway transit (AGT)—also known as people movers—and light rail, also known as trolleys or streetcars. The weeding-out process was ruthless. McKee saw no reason to spend time and money on an alternative once the case for it started to fall apart. AGT met an early death. It was too expensive to build, not hardy enough, and would have to cross above the el, putting its tracks up there at the fourth or fifth floor level.

The trouble with buses is that meeting the need would require so many of them (each with its own expensive driver) that they'd flood the streets. "You would need State Streets running all through downtown," said McKee.

That left light rail. The working group set up what McKee calls a "fatal flaw analysis"—a search for anything that would make the system not work. "We had a whole list of questions," McKee said. "Things like getting over the rivers, operating in mixed traffic, questions of which street is it feasible on given the access requirements of adjacent properties.

"So you had sitting in one room in a problem-solving mode people from the CTA, Public Works, Planning, the RTA, Metra even, two or three other technical groups. . . . We orchestrated virtually weekly work sessions with all these agencies. We had a very clearly defined work program. Where the answers could be discovered through internal resources they would be. For example, the bridge people could render opinions about which bridge had to be replaced when, and whether it had the bearing capacity for these kinds of loads.

"Where we could not easily find it within the city, then we got outside experts. In individuals, not firms. We got people who had a great deal of experience about that specific thing."

McKee went on, "There began to be a realization that a solution was possible. I think as this confidence level began to occur, turf issues began to erode away." Individual conclusions became everyone's conclusions "because they emerged through an open process. It was apparent it wasn't anybody selling anybody anything."

The light rail system that the working group came up with would run north and south along Canal Street and Columbus Drive and east and west along Monroe and the right-of-way behind the buildings that line the north side of the river. It would go as far north as Chicago Avenue and as far east as Navy Pier. A line down to McCormick Place also would be built, later or probably sooner.

Tragically, even the best laid plans eventually pass from the hands of the planners. McKee worried that with the MPC and himself out of the picture, the circulator "will begin to unravel"—which it did. Because I knew McKee and admired him I believed that once the trolley was up and running no one would be sorry we'd built it, and I was willing to see young Mayor Daley II shove it down Chicago's throat. Alas, tyranny did not prevail; carpers carped, axes were ground, details were tweaked and tweaked some more, and eventually the project was abandoned.

Writing a postmortem in 1997, the Reader's Ben Joravsky, whose own feelings were clearly mixed, described death by a thousand cuts.

Moreover, the timing was wretched. Daley was advancing the circulator even as his CTA appointees were raising fares and cutting services in order to save money. "I remember [former CTA president] Bob Belcaster talking about shutting down the Lake Street el and then getting rid of the monthly CTA pass, after accusing loyal CTA riders of abusing it by passing it around," says [Jackie Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group]. "And at the same time they're pushing the circulator. It was so bizarre, as if they didn't care if they alienated the neighborhoods or the people who used the CTA. We all love the downtown, but where's the fair play? Where's the balance?"

The critics began attending circulator board meetings and other forums, emphatically pressing their point of view to the press. There must be, they said, less expensive, more efficient ways to shuttle commuters and tourists across the Loop.

There must be? I don't get over to Clinton much anymore. Is that problem all taken care of?

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