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Circuit Rider

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Taking the bus was Bill Wendt's only way to get to Schaumburg on a recent Tuesday night. This near-west-sider is car-free and didn't think it made sense to traverse the 25 miles on his one-speed bicycle.

Wendt had called me the previous week and, in his usual style, gotten right to the point: the Schaumburg village board's transportation committee was entertaining a proposal to build a monorail. No hello, no how are you, just the facts in that gravelly voice renowned for inspiring interruptions, cut-off microphones, and not-him-again looks of despair. Chicago's one-man monorail lobby was about to take a trip to the global epicenter of nowhere in hopes of persuading someone to finally appreciate what he regards as the technological fix for much of what ails the metropolitan area.

Surviving on a subsistence income--the source of which he won't divulge--this 48-year-old full-time citizen attends four or five public meetings each week. He's been called a crackpot by both developers and community organizers. Yet he often has a point.

Espousing a libertarian philosophy and believing Chicago to be "a cesspool of welfare for rich, poor, and middle class alike," Wendt argues against "spend-ourselves-rich nonsense" in which the politically connected harness the democratic process to their boondoggles. He calls unemployment Chicago's "most desperate single problem" and says the Stockyards industrial district is the city's best model for job creation. And of course the monorail is the transportation technology that could help save our endangered "industrial habitat."

Wendt takes on numerous causes. The Maxwell Street Market, for instance. A letter to the editor that recently appeared in the UIC Flame blamed the death of the market on a land-grabbing UIC administration's "monomania: everything for the university, nothing else counts." Or the RTA and the CTA: He blames the demise of monthly passes on the inefficiency of a transit system serving downtown at the expense of crosstown riders. The current edition of Cornerstone, the newsletter of the near west side's Central West Community Organization, includes his "somewhat edited" statement from a 1992 CTA hearing, which condemned the $300 million redevelopment of the Lake Street portion of the Green Line, calling it the "Greed Line" and "an antique elevated to nowhere"; he also blasted community activists who, he claimed, went along with the project just because Oak Park and downtown interests wanted it. He believes that if the CTA wanted to spend $300 million it should have put $30 million into rerouting the el to the Congress line and $270 million into a monorail system that would take west-siders to jobs in the suburbs.

He also believes a monorail should replace the proposed 10-mile, $775-million downtown trolley, or circulator (which he says is riding the fast track instead of the 20-mile, $550-million trolley that would run along Cicero and 75th from Jefferson Park to Midway to Chatham because the downtown interests sold the mayor on it). He claims a monorail could do what the circulator wouldn't: link Soldier Field, the museums, and the LaSalle Street station; improve connections between Near North hotels and McCormick Place; and alleviate traffic congestion--all for about a third the cost. "Instead of marking off the downtown from the rest of the city, as the trolley would, it would instead pull the entire city much closer together," he wrote in one of his innumerable handouts. "For the past 40 years, the prime goal of Chicago city planning has been to insulate the downtown from the rest of the city....The downtown trolley is not so much a transportation project as it is a gimmick to continue downtown development in this objectionable pattern."

He also puts out a journal called Chicago Preconscious; the motto is "What Chicagoans already know--but now know they know!" At $5 a copy, each issue includes generous portions of history, political analysis, and book reviews, all written by him. During conversation he often pulls out past editions from a seemingly bottomless shoulder bag as though his point will become instantly evident when his listener holds it. The blend of research, erudition, and wit can be enlightening, but the prose can be dense, as incomprehensible as the title of the engineering text I once found him reading at the library.

The mind may be in the stratosphere, but the body is grounded. Wendt rides his bicycle all over town, day or night, summer or winter. Pedaling through the ghetto doesn't bother him. He says he's been doing it for years. One winter night after a meeting at a Lawndale church he put his clunker in my trunk and secured it with a bungee cord he pulled from his bag, but he wanted the ride only because he had to catch the end of another community meeting.

The day he went to Schaumburg he looked like a modern-day John the Baptist with his long, dirty hair, unkempt beard, and greasy jacket. Setting out alone in the twilight, he caught the el, missed one bus, caught the next to Woodfield Mall, then continued his journey on foot. "They did have some sidewalks out there, but they weren't shoveled," he later reported. "There was a lot of traffic, and I walked past a bunch of gates to whatchamacall-its." He meant subdivisions. He trekked two miles and arrived at the village hall at eight o'clock.

"Bill made a big entrance in this small meeting room," recalls Schaumburg transportation planner Tom Dabareiner, who recognized Wendt from the public-meeting circuit. "As he took off his coat, I thought to myself, 'Geez, did he bike here?' He had this windswept look about him."

Only about ten people remained in the room, none of them members of the general public. A representative of the San Diego-based Land Eagle Development Company had just started his presentation, a proposal to build a six-mile personal rapid transit (PRT) monorail system linking the high-density parts of town-- shopping areas, employment centers, and the proposed Roosevelt University campus.

"They're all hot to trot out there," Wendt later told me, sounding vindicated because somebody else saw the potential of monorails. "This isn't pie in the sky or Buck Rogers. It's a concrete reality. There's some apprehension because it's never been tried in the cold climate. So I told them you start with a test. It would take a 20-foot snowfall to block the cars because that's how high in the air they are. Ice on the rail shouldn't be a problem because it's propelled by magnetic force and doesn't need a wheel."

Wendt also offered the people at the meeting documentation that suggests that in 1990 the RTA board subverted its own selection process when it accepted a bid from a friend of board chairman Gayle Franzen (now chairman of the Du Page County Board) for a $1.5 million pilot PRT project. Rosemont and Schaumburg had been among the suburbs competing for the project.

"I was saying Schaumburg would be a much better place than Rosemont to prove this as far as the suburbs are concerned when the guy cut me off," Wendt told me. But the committee chairman's reason was unusual: "He said I was preaching to the choir--they agreed with me."

After the meeting Wendt distributed some handouts, then asked if anybody could drive him to his bus stop. Dabareiner dropped him off, and Wendt just made the last Pace bus. He caught the el at Harlem, got off at Logan Square, retrieved his wheels, and pedaled east. He stopped for a hamburger and arrived home around 11.

The next morning Dabareiner's colleagues couldn't believe he'd given Wendt a ride. "I explained that I've seen Bill at meetings for years. People who don't know him might be put off by how he presents himself. He looks a little different, but you have to pay attention to what he says because he lays it out as it is."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/J.B. Spector.

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