Congress Brakes for Progress

Editorial News

A map shows planned efficiency improvements to Chicago’s rail infrastructure.
Courtesy CREATE

This spring, two reports in the New York Times spotlighted major infrastructure projects in Chicago with national implications: the upgrades and runway expansions at O’Hare airport and the coordinated improvement of Chicago’s interconnected freight and passenger rail network. O’Hare, one of the nation’s busiest airports, has seen improved service and vastly reduced delays for business people and tourists (one need only to compare the miserable experience of traveling through New York’s JFK or LaGuardia airports, which O’Hare used to rival in terms of delays and missed connections). Chicago has again demonstrated that it can be the City that Works.

The second even more bracing article showcased the array of coordinated regional rail improvements and also crossings and switching upgrades known as the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE). Nearly a quarter of all freight traffic passes through Chicagoland, a legacy of the city’s economic might in the age of the railroad. For freight companies—as well as for Amtrak—the trip across the city is not an easy one. It can take as long to travel from the west coast as it can to cross Chicago, due to outmoded and uncoordinated systems and infrastructure. Commuter trains, rightly, are given priority over freight where their lines cross at grade, so new grade separated crossings, for example, would eliminate delays and improve economic competitiveness nationwide. Goods and commodities could cross the continent in a third less time, saving energy and boosting growth and exports. CREATE is well underway, with local, state, and federal funding, as well as significant funding from freight rail companies. The report ends on a gloomy, if predictable, note: the project’s fate hangs on Congress, which has been unwilling to pass a comprehensive transportation bill.

Architects have become increasingly interested in infrastructure in recent years, an encouraging development after more than a decade of object and spectacle worship. Ideas competitions, and real work—often tied to the Recovery Act—have shown that architects have a vital role to play in planning and designing a more efficient and competitive national landscape. But has this interest translated into public engagement?

Difficult times call for strange bedfellows. The AIA, APA, and ASLA should join with other groups, like the ULI, real estate, homebuilder, road building, transit, and even energy groups to articulate a forceful economic message about the need for balanced infrastructure investment. With hiring beginning to pick up in a variety of private sector areas, architecture, engineering, and construction jobs still lag far behind. Have architects been loud enough about their plight? And have they thought broadly about how to turn things around? Or are architects, and the professional groups that represent them before legislative bodies, waiting for an economic normality that is unlikely to return anytime soon, if ever?

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