A Sprawling Plan for Cook-DuPage Transit

May 13, 2008

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The area between Cook and DuPage counties is infamous for finger-flipping traffic congestion. Road project after road project promised to nip it in the bud, but many of them failed, roads just filled up with more cars. Well, transit officials are trying something new. It's called the Cook-DuPage Corridor transit plan. It would add bus and train lines to move workers past the congestion and cut energy use. As part of Chicago Matters, Growing Forward, we meet people who might be affected.

WEB EXTRAS: The Case for Bus Rapid Transit and Location is Everything

I'm gonna introduce you to a few businesses and people who have a stake in public transit in the Cook-DuPage corridor. There's little doubt how the first guy gets to work:

ALFORD: I'm a bus rider, I naturally take the bus.

Sean Alford preps dishes and food for a hotel. Alford lives in Maywood and works in west-suburban Lombard. To get to his job, he takes a PACE bus.

ALLEE: Is that it?
ALFORD: Yeah, this is us. Grab a spot and just, snore.

He often sleeps because his ride takes an hour, even though it's only eleven miles to his hotel at the Yorktown Mall center. He says a bus map shows why.

ALFORD: It's almost like a zigzag, that's what kind of makes this bus ride a lot longer. Due to the fact that we go through different residential areas and pick up and drop off before we end up in Yorktown.

ALLEE: Well, let me show you a map of mine. I got a map to show you.

My map shows what transit officials want for western Cook and DuPage Counties. If planners get their way, the Blue Line would extend westward.

ALFORD: The Blue Line would probably take you there a lot faster than the bus, because, given the route you've shown on your map, it's more of a straight line than what's going on right here. Look, I'm all for it. Now for our stop, the Westin Lombard.

Alford and I part ways, but I stick around the hotel. I'm curious how transit riders like Alford fit into suburban businesses.

I find HR director Dianne Wnek in her hotel office. She is ready to decompress. Wnek started her day with a conference call, while she was in traffic.

WNEK: I had to dial in from the car and find my earpiece and switch it out. ALLEE: So you drive, right?
WNEK: I drive, right. I don't take the bus. So I can't tell you a lot about the bus.

Wnek has no personal connection with the bus, but she does professionally. She says during interviews…

WNEK: We do ask everyone if they have reliable transportation to work. Obviously, if they don't, then the next question we face is, what time's they're available. They have to be out of here at a certain time. Everything here is based on our business needs and if we have a night where room service gets hit really hard, and they can't finish up their closing duties on time, a lot of times a manager will stay so they can fill in so the staff can leave to get on the last bus.

ALLEE: Have you heard of the possibility that the Blue Line might be extended right to the mall?

WNEK: I have just recently heard that and I'm very happy to hear that. One of my former properties that I was at was the Westin O'hare and the Blue Line station was directly down the block, and we had a phenomenal amount of staff that took the Blue Line to work.

Wnek says a third hotel she worked at was nowhere near a public transit line.

WNEK: It was very difficult in that location to get staff. Anyone that did not have a car had a problem to get there.

Businesses near Lombard welcome a new Blue Line train station. It makes sense – the area needs transit to attract retail, hospitality, and service workers. Lombard's just one employment hot-spot that could get new transit projects. Another is close to a familiar land-mark.

ambi: airplanes

ALLEE: You guys are pretty darn close to O'Hare out here.
VILLALOBOS: We're only a few miles away.

I'm in a parking lot with Hector VillaLobos. VillaLobos supervises workers at a filter factory in Elk Grove Village. He drives to work.

VILLALOBOS: Well, I drove in my Land Rover that I have here. It's comfortable and it gets me to where I want to go. That's why I enjoy the ride in my vehicle, otherwise I'd be in trouble.

VillaLobos drives forty minutes each morning. In the evening he drives ninety minutes.

VILLALOBOS: Going home everyone filters out about the same time and it gets congested, especially in the winter time. It can take me as much as five hours to get home.
ALLEE: Why do you choose to drive as opposed to get here some other way?
VILLALOBOS: Well, there's no direct public transportation coming here in this direction.
ALLEE: I have a map in my pocket of what some transportation experts might be proposing for this area, want to see? Can I lay it out on your Land Rover.

It's the same map I showed that hotel worker. In addition to a Blue Line extension, it shows a new kind of bus-lane that would run between O'Hare and I-88. Transit officials hope this so-called bus rapid transit system will be cheaper to build than rail, but still move people quickly.

ALLEE: Would you be interested in some day trying that out or would even that not work for you, you think?
VILLALOBOS: I mean I could not use it every day but in times of high traffic or having commute problems with my vehicle, I could definitely take it, it's the way I take everyday.

Again, VillaLobos says the bus line would only be a back up … because it would start eight miles from his house.

The proposed transit projects would criss-cross the Cook-DuPage corridor.

Public comments have mostly been positive, but that guarantees nothing. The price tag could be between $5 and 7 billion, and there's no firm funding source.

But if the Cook DuPage plan does come through, would it be worth it? To get one answer, I visit Ian Savage at Northwestern University.

ambi: knock,, knock

ALLEE: Hi, Mister Savage, how are you?
SAVAGE: Nice to meet you.

Savage is a…

SAVAGE: Professor of Economics and Transportation.

He says the transit proposal is ambitious, and in one way, misguided.

SAVAGE: The problem you have in the western suburbs is that many workplaces and homes are in places where getting people to get on transit line and be able to walk from the transit line to their workplace is kind of tough.

He says the hassle could be enough to shoo people away from new suburban transit projects.

SAVAGE: You're still going to have to maybe walk across several parking lots, navigate six-lane roads, walk to some places where there are no side walks to actually get to where your workplace is.

Savage says the same money could be spent in towns just south of Chicago, where there's high demand for transit. But he doesn't blame DuPage mayors and businesses for asking for transit dollars.

SAVAGE: They look immediately to the West and they see Kane County, and they may think, Wow, what happened fifty years ago to the near-in West Suburbs, where all the economic activity moved from there to DuPage County, maybe in another twenty or thirty years, it goes way beyond Aurora somewhere, so I'm not surprised that they're somewhat on the defensive.

So, the Western Suburbs hope future transit projects will secure their future. Actually, that reminds me of something that hotel worker, Sean Alford, said. He's counting on transit for a future, too. Alford says he doesn't apply for jobs where there's no public transit. He won't risk taking a job first, then saving for a car to get there. He'd likely be late some day, and get fired before paying off the car. He's passed up some good opportunities.

Alford says maybe if the whole region had more public transit, transit riders and car-drivers would be on the same footing to pursue a better life.