Dec. 4, 2017

Chicago Tribune

O'Hare express rail: Vision or mirage?

You have to admire Mayor Rahm Emanuel's pluck. The vision of a downtown to O'Hare express rail link has been a mirage for decades. His predecessor, Richard M. Daley, pushed the idea as far back as 2001, and revived it after riding a 267-mph bullet train in Shanghai in 2010. The outcome? Zip. Daley's downtown terminus for the project, a CTA superstation at Block 37, remains abandoned.

The current mayor is mounting his own push for downtown-to-O'Hare express rail, and chose Daley's mothballed station to announce the initiative. "More than a century ago, Daniel Burnham encouraged Chicago to 'make no little plans' and today Chicagoans continue to make big and bold plans with an eye toward the future," Emanuel told reporters.

We too like big, bold plans. But from the time Emanuel first dangled this notion in February, we've been skeptical. Why is this needed, especially if the CTA is planning upgrades along the existing Blue Line to O'Hare? How much faster would it move passengers? Would there be demand for a comparatively high-fare ride? What route would it take, and for how long would construction disrupt neighborhoods?

And, of course, how much would it cost, and how much would be shouldered by taxpayers?

The mayor's doubling down, so we'll play along. He envisions a line that would take riders from downtown to O'Hare in 20 minutes or less. Trains would run at least every 15 minutes for much of the day. Fares would cost less than a taxi or Uber ride. Chicago's aviation chief, Ginger Evans, told the Sun-Times she believed business travelers would be willing to pay fares of $25 to $35, a price that would include baggage check at a downtown station, a seat reservation, on-board Wi-Fi and drinks.

The city envisions three potential routes: either above or below the existing Blue Line; along a freight rail right-of-way that begins at Clinton and Congress and runs through western suburbs before reaching O'Hare; and Metra's North Central commuter line that goes from Union Station to just east of O'Hare before continuing on to Antioch. Possibilities for the downtown station include the shuttered Block 37 station, Union Station, and sites at Clinton/Congress and Canal/Clinton.

The mayor has addressed one of our biggest concerns — putting this on the backs of taxpayers. He says not a penny of taxpayer money will be spent on design, construction or operation. We'll hold him to that. City projects touted as private-sector-paid endeavors often find a way to slip a hand into taxpayers' pockets. We remember Daley's pledge to Chicagoans in 2001 that they wouldn't pay a dime for the ugly rebuild of Soldier Field. A decade later, taxpayers learned they would have to make up for a shortfall created when hotel tax revenue earmarked for the project proved insufficient. Emanuel huffed, "I don't want the taxpayers of the city of Chicago to be treated as if they're just an ATM machine." Words to remember, Mayor.

Emanuel has issued a "Request for Qualifications" seeking enterprises that could design, build and operate the rail link. One billionaire innovator, Elon Musk, on Thursday tweeted that he's all in. One of his companies, SpaceX, launched the first orbital rocket to safely land back on Earth, and has sent several cargo missions to the International Space Station. His electric vehicle startup, Tesla, tops Ford and GM in market capitalization. The vision for a downtown-to-O'Hare link that Musk touted earlier this year is just as ambitious. His idea is to bore a tunnel to carry minibus-like vehicles on electric-powered sleds, which would zip at speeds of 125 mph. A subterranean superhighway.

In the meantime, the CTA is moving forward with the five-year Blue Line revamp to upgrade stations and rebuild aging stretches that delay trains. A downtown-to-O'Hare trip that now takes as long as 45 minutes would take about 38 minutes with the revamp and still cost just $5. You won't be able to get a Rob Roy on the Blue Line, though. You'll still have your bags with you. And maybe you'll be standing in a crowd.

Emanuel's plan for classier service might be a good alternative, if: If the right route emerges. If the right builder/operator comes along. If the service proves popular enough to be self-sustaining. And if taxpayers aren't the project's ATM machine.

Mr. Mayor, may your vision be more than the last guy's mirage.

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Dec. 4, 2017

(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald

Be an educated voter and build a better government

Decorations, Christmas shopping, and planning for the March 20 primary election.

The thought of gearing up for months of candidate mailers and appearances seems at odds with holiday festivities, but the campaign season got under way officially on Monday when petition filing closed and hopefuls reserved spots on party ballots for federal, state and county races. The primary will set the stage for the November general election.

What that means is the candidates have taken the first step in the election process. Soon, it will be up to you, the voters, to get involved.

What that should underscore to all of us who care about issues in Washington, Springfield and the county where we live is the gravity of our choices. Every vote counts. You don't have to look further than the many close races -- some decided by razor-thin margins -- at all levels of the ballot a year ago.

What counts even more than simply casting a vote is casting an educated vote. Rather than based on a political party, a label or an ideology, an educated vote is the chance to elect statesmen who will thoughtfully represent us in deciding serious issues. That takes some effort.

In the coming weeks, candidates may stop by your house or send brochures through the mail. There will be television and radio ads. Candidates will likely reach out to you by email, websites and through social media in hopes of winning your support with a catchy sound bite or a few talking points.

Much more is needed to be a truly educated voter. During this campaign and the one that follows in November, we urge you to be engaged by attending forums to see candidates in action, and by searching out and comparing details and positions on important and complex issues. Do your homework as you would for any major purchase. For, just as making a bad decision on a car could result in overpaying as well as years of disappointment, an uninformed decision in the voter's booth carries risk.

Risk of a worsening mess in Springfield, where three years without an approved budget led to a big tax increase and a backlog of unpaid bills.

Risk of more bitter partisan politics in Washington driving discussion of important life-changing issues, such as taxes, health care and immigration.

Risk that property taxes continue to rise, threatening the ability of many to stay in their homes.

We pledge to help. We are building an online database that will include personal information on candidates and their responses to questionnaires. Our election coverage online and in print will focus on the candidates -- their backgrounds, experiences and ideas for solving tough problems.

Finding the best one is never easy, but there is a payoff to making informed decisions about the people who representative us. It's the first step in building better government.

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Dec. 1, 2017

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Painful change

With his campus in what he calls a "free fall," Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Chancellor Carlo Montemagno is asking his faculty and staff to embrace that which they hate the most — real change.

Contending that Southern Illinois University at Carbondale is spending way to much time and money on administration, Chancellor Carlo Montemagno insists change is necessary — big change to be implemented by next fall. To do otherwise, he said, is to risk "the health of the institution."

"We are not offering programs that are distinctive and relevant to today's students. As we try to correct it, we face limited resources, declining faculty numbers and no help from the state," he said recently in a State of the University speech.

Many university officials throughout Illinois probably feel the same way as it relates to monetary support from our financially failing state. But SIUC has been particularly hard hit, and not just during the two-year budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders.

It has 6,000 fewer students than it did 10 years ago. Over the past year, SIUC suffered a 9 percent enrollment drop, costing it roughly $10 million in revenue. Since 2015, the number of freshman enrollees has fallen from 2,177 to 1,319.

SIUC is vital to and located in an economically challenged region of the state, one more reason why state legislators should not continue to resist the policy changes needed to boost Illinois' economy. Further, it has competing universities just across its Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky borders.

Since something has to give, Chancellor Montemagno wants to eliminate 42 academic departments by folding them into 18 separate schools overseen by five (reduced from eight) colleges. He estimates it would save $2.3 million a year.

Just think how many people would be affected by that kind of seismic change, how many fiefdoms will be roiled and how much anger will be generated.

But then, what is the alternative when academic institutions — or states like Illinois — simply don't have enough revenue to finance business as usual?

It remains to be seen whether change on the scale Montemagno has proposed will become reality. SIUC's faculty senate already has expressed its opposition by a 19-11 vote, a narrow enough margin to suggest many there understand the problem and are prepared to address it in a realistic way.