Planes, trains and automobiles

Planes, trains and automobiles

By David Lindberg

By David Lindberg

Planes, trains and automobiles

For more than three decades, this region’s lack of a transportation infrastructure has simmered on the back burner, while planes landed elsewhere and trains only carried freight. Now, due to a unique window of opportunity, the issue has become the topic of choice.

As we enter the month of April, all four mayoral candidates have pledged to make transportation a key policy issue, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation will consider Rockford in the mix when making a decision on a new airport at Peotone, and even the governor now supports utilizing Rockford for overflow relief from O’Hare.

Despite all this positive news, three issues still need to be addressed. First, the reason the whole issue has been on the back burner for decades is that there has been no regional planning done to address the current and future transportation needs in the northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin area. The Greater Rockford Airport has been searching for airline service, the city of Belvidere has been courting METRA, and others have been pushing for the return of Amtrak service. However, there is no vehicle for bringing all of these issues together. The time has come for the development of a long-term transportation plan for the region, addressing air, rail and surface issues. A solid infrastructure does not just happen; it is carefully planned and developed. Further, the residents of the area need to be incorporated into the planning structure. Too often, the only time the public is made aware of a project is when it is about to be implemented. Case in point, the Perryville extension.

Second, if Rockford does begin to absorb the overflow from O’Hare, an efficient, fast and cost-effective method to move people between the two cities and airports must be developed. Most of Europe and Japan have known for years that the most effective way to move large numbers of people over relatively short distances is via rail. With the potential for rising fuel cost as well as rising tolls on I-90, rail is the only alternative that makes good sense from both an operational and financial standpoint. Recent congressional hearings disclosed that the cost of building interstate highways is three to four times more expensive than adding rail. For example, in Connecticut, the cost for adding a one lane mile to I-95 was estimated to be $50 million. The cost of adding a track mile with high-density signaling and electrification was $8 to $11 million. It is time to make wiser use of our tax dollars and learn the lesson that most of the rest of the world already knows—rail is the answer.

Last but not least is the political poker game, Illinois style, that has developed. The game began in 1995. Play #1: Governor Edgar announced plans to consider transferring control of O’Hare and Midway to the State of Illinois. Counterplay #1: Mayor Daley digs in and talks about expanding O’Hare. At the same time, the mayor develops Plan B as he designates the Gary Municipal Airport as Gary/Chicago Airport and begins funneling over $9 million into the facility. Play #2: Governor Ryan announces plans to reconsider the Peotone plan. Counterplay #2: Daley unveils expansion plans for O’Hare. Subcounterplay #2: The suburbs surrounding O’Hare dig in to oppose expansion. Play #3: Ryan asks the state and federal governments for funds to build Peotone. Counterplay #3: Daley plays the “Gary Card” stating that we do not need Peotone since the Gary Airport is close to Chicago and can be expanded. Play #4: The governor, facing the possibility of a third airport in another state, plays the “Rockford Card,” advocating the use of RFD to alleviate overcrowding at O’Hare. So much for the thought that this is not a political issue.

What happens next? The Greater Rockford Transportation Coalition, a grassroots organization developed to advocate transportation and transportation planning for the region, was created to try to take advantage of the window of opportunity that has opened for the area. Advocating a public/private partnership in developing a truly regional transportation infrastructure, it plans to make sure that the issue stays in the forefront. The ball is now in your court, Mr. Mayor, whether your name be Johnson, Morrissey, Scott or Spinello. Without an integrated transportation system, the continued economic growth of the region will be threatened. We are at a crossroads. Do we become the western anchor of the expanding Chicago Metroplex or just another big suburb? Windows of opportunity like we now have open don’t come along every day. Let’s all get on the same page and set a plan in motion that insures that the region will continue to thrive for our children and grandchildren.

Anyone interested in these issues is invited to attend the April meeting of the Greater Rockford Transportation Coalition. The meeting will be held April 17, 2001, at 7 p.m. in the downtown office of Trekk Cross Media on the corner of Main and Mulberry. The GRTC can be contacted through our web site at www.rockfordtransportation.org or through conventional mail at 2815 N. Rockton Avenue, Rockford, IL 61103.

David Lindberg is chairman of the Greater Rockford Transportation Coalition (GRTC).

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