In the next few days, mayoral candidate Patricia Van Pelt Watkins will unveil a comprehensive transportation plan for Chicago that includes a model for seeking more state and federal funds, expansion of rail service, integrating greater bike usage and incentives for car sharing. Most importantly, it seeks to create an integrated approach to railroad freight traffic through Chicago.
“Right now, it takes about two days from almost any point in the country to get to Chicago,” says Watkins. “But it takes almost as much time – sometimes even three days – to get through Chicago.”
Her proposal is far reaching: to redirect railroad lines currently on the street above or below ground, freeing both street traffic that will no longer have to wait for the trains to pass, and allowing the trains to go faster because they’re no longer running through business and residential arteries.
“Currently, Chicago remains the busiest rail gateway in the U.S.,” says Watkins, “accounting for one-third of the nation’s rail traffic and resulting in 38,000 jobs and $22 billion in economic value to the region. But if our infrastructure isn’t addressed, we’ll lose as many as 17,000 of those jobs and millions in revenue.”
Watkins’ plan isn’t just about preserving but about creating new jobs. “Not $10.35 an hour jobs but $35-$40 an hour jobs,” she says.
She’s a big subscriber to the CREATE program, a partnership between the state, U.S. Department of Transportation, Metra, Amtrak, the big railroads and the city.
“We’re talking about creating more than two thousand full-time construction jobs,” she said.
Watkins is running a shoestring campaign for mayor, fueled by a grassroots network and personal contributions. One in particular is startling: Apostle Joseph Stanford gave her more than $296,000 – a good chunk of his retirement account.
“I’ve been struggling for years to improve the lives of families in Chicago, and the Reverend Stanford has too,” she says. “He grew up in Rockwell, I grew up in Cabrini. The reverend’s organization is about bringing voices together to organize people. As a community organizer, I know how to bring in people. I will support and affirm organized communities – and that will help bring crime down, better schools, increase job opportunities, and give people a sense of belonging.”
She’s running, she explains, because of her own lived experience.
“I believe there’s not another candidate that understands the 77 communities that I’ve been working in,” she says. “Except (Miguel) del Valle – he understands – he’s a friend – but he’s not going to attract the black vote. I wanted to see what would happen. I believe we need new leadership.”
Her first task as mayor?
“Comb those books,” says Watkins about Chicago’s finances. “I’m a certified public accountant, and I would bring in accountants, including forensic accountants, to figure out how to improve the outcome.”
And then, she says with a laugh, “we’ll have a big celebration because tax payers will finally have a voice.”