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Stopped in its tracks

What the city can learn from the late, great circulator project

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In a week, maybe two, the tax-refund forms will be mailed out of City Hall, and the first of the last official acts in the life of Mayor Daley's great circulator will have commenced.

You must remember the circulator. It was to be Daley's great initiative for downtown transportation: an electrically run trolley winding into and out of the Loop, linking commuter stations on the west with museums, stores, and offices on the east.

But by 1995 the circulator had died, after the city had spent about $59 million on architects, engineers, lawyers, and publicists. Now all that's left to do is refund the unspent money (about $8 million, which will be distributed among commercial property owners taxed to build the circulator) and search for lessons in a project that almost everyone but its most loyal boosters views as a waste of money, talent, and time.

"We have nothing to show for all that money, not even a single rail," says Jackie Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a city watchdog organization. "When I think about that waste, it makes me sad. The main lesson we should learn from the circulator is not to try it again."

The circulator was so closely linked to Daley it's hard to remember that the idea was born in the early 80s, years before he took office. Wouldn't it make sense, boosters conjectured, to link the Metra and Amtrak stations along Canal Street to the eastern portions of the city's rapidly expanding business and shopping district? Wouldn't it make sense to provide tourists and downtown workers a fast, convenient way to cross town without walking or taking a cab? Wouldn't it boost tourism to be able to zip out-of-towners around the Loop in sleek new trolleys?

To Daley, the answer to these questions was an obvious yes. And by the early 1990s he had thrown his political muscle behind the plan, winning support from the Tribune, Crain's, Congress, the state legislature, and the downtown business community, which loved the circulator so much it was willing to pay a special real estate tax to help cover its cost. It would be, Daley said, a textbook example of public-private cooperation--a $775 million project, evenly shouldered by state, federal, and local taxpayers.

All in all, the circulator was an impressive display of the new mayor's ability to get things done. The City Council did as it was told, approving the special tax district. A Central Area Circulator Board was created, and transportation planner Stephen Schlickman was named executive director. By 1993, the mayor had put together his dream team of project coordinators, which reads like a who's who of Daley's closest advisers, contributors, and supporters. The general engineers were McDonough Associates and DeLeuw Cather; the management consultants were Stein & Company and U.S. Equities (two of the biggest developers in town). Julie Hamos and Marilyn Katz (two of Daley's closest north-side political allies and strategists) were brought in to oversee lobbying and public relations.

They were exhaustive in their efforts, designing brochures and slide shows and pitching groups all over the city. Within a few years they had spent millions on plans and presentations. They were hoping to start construction by 1996; if all went well, the circulator would be operating by 1998.

And yet, as the years moved on opposition grew, or at least never subsided. For starters there were local residents--the well-to-do bunch that lives in and around the Gold Coast--who couldn't understand what was to be gained by tearing up their streets. "There would be thousands of conflicts between pedestrians and the trolley, as every corner would be a grade crossing, so to speak," says Walter Larkin, a Streeterville resident. "Logistically it was a nightmare."

For many critics, the circulator bore the flaws of a plan devised by a mayor who was used to getting his way. As Daley saw it, the city had no need to build consensus beyond the narrow confines of mainstream corporate and commercial interests. It was presented to the wider community not so much as a proposal or a work in progress but as a fait accompli. Those who dared to criticize--no matter how extensive their training in transportation--were disregarded or marginalized.

"You would think that the mayor would have met with residents in the community before he approved all his plans, to make sure we supported him," says Larkin. "But with the circulator they came to us after they had decided what they were going to do and said, 'Here, we're doing this. We want your support.'"

Larkin, a banker and amateur student of transit systems all over the world, could never see the plan's logic. To him, the routes were always too circuitous and the trains too poky. "The basic point of transportation is to get people from point A to point B and get them there fast. In that regard, the circulator was a step backwards. The commercial people who supported it were interested in bells and whistles and having people coming by their windows."

Opposition soon spread to community and senior citizen activists. "We couldn't understand why the mayor would want to devote so much money to a project that was going to cater to tourists and people in the downtown area," says Amanda Solon, executive director of Metro Seniors in Action. "Not only was it going to cost money, but it would cut off bus lines, forcing seniors to transfer off the buses they take downtown."

Moreover, the timing was wretched. Daley was advancing the circulator even as his CTA appointees were raising fares and cutting services in order to save money. "I remember [former CTA president] Bob Belcaster talking about shutting down the Lake Street el and then getting rid of the monthly CTA pass, after accusing loyal CTA riders of abusing it by passing it around," says Leavy. "And at the same time they're pushing the circulator. It was so bizarre, as if they didn't care if they alienated the neighborhoods or the people who used the CTA. We all love the downtown, but where's the fair play? Where's the balance?"

The critics began attending circulator board meetings and other forums, emphatically pressing their point of view to the press. There must be, they said, less expensive, more efficient ways to shuttle commuters and tourists across the Loop. By 1995 opponents were holding protest rallies, including one well-covered affair where 50 or so senior citizens, led by Metro Seniors' Lucy Marshall, marched on City Hall carrying placards and chanting, "Two, four, six, eight-er, we don't need a circulator."

By the fall of 1995, Republican legislators in Washington and Springfield had turned against the circulator. There was no point in funding a project that faced so much local opposition, some legislators said. And it didn't help that Daley was opposing the Peotone airport, Governor Edgar's pet project. (After the circulator lost its funding, Katz, the program's chief publicist, told the Sun-Times that it "wasn't killed because it lacked merit. It was a political casualty killed by Republicans at the last minute, just when construction was about to begin.") The circulator board went out of business a few months later.

"By the end all civility was gone," says Solon. "I remember one scene at the U.S. Congress where we had come to testify against funding the circulator. This publicist for the circulator was screaming at Addie Watts, chair of our transportation committee, 'You don't understand.' It was very upsetting and disrespectful."

To this day, many of the circulator's supporters say their critics were misguided. "This particular pot of money for the circulator was only available for a new system, so I didn't see it directly competing with the CTA or Metra. Unfortunately, [funding's] a very complex area and not everyone apparently understood that," says Hamos. "I don't think it was the opposition that beat the circulator. It was very pricey at a time when Congress was focused on balancing the budget. To this day it continues to be difficult to get public transit funding.

"Our opposition was mostly acting out of that not-in-our-backyard concern and anxiety. Almost everyone who expressed opposition at one point or another was in support of the system but not on their street. I think for the most part we were successful for building a strong base of support. You know, I was in Washington when their metro was being built and I remember how everyone groaned and grumbled about tearing up the streets. Now everyone who groaned is using it. I think you would have seen that with the circulator."

In many ways bitterness over the circulator lingers, particularly as activists and riders contemplate the latest round of CTA service cuts, which, among other things, will eliminate as of March 1 weekend el service in most of Pilsen and Little Village. "I don't know anyone who says, 'I miss the circulator,'" says Leavy. "But a lot of people think we wasted political will in Springfield and Washington on it. We should have used those efforts to shore up and modernize the CTA. The circulator's supporters kept saying, 'You don't understand. This money can't be spent elsewhere.' But they never understood that if you spend so much money and time on one aspect of the system, you'll pay for it everywhere else." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jackie Leavy, Lucy Marshall photo by Jon Randolph.

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