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Thursday, April 7, 2011 03:19 pm

Relying on Senator Santa

Wishing won’t get a new rail corridor built

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Senator Dick Durbin
PHOTO BY RAFAEL SUANES

The prospect of free money leaves even a Republican Chamber of Commerce stalwart like Mike Houston sounding like a spoils-oriented ward alderman. “Sen. [Dick] Durbin is a very powerful senator,” said former mayor Houston to the State Journal-Register the other day. “I think that he will eventually be able to provide the federal funds to run that down 10th Street.” “That” is the increased traffic in freight and passenger trains through Springfield promised by the state’s Slightly Faster Rail project.

Houston’s trust that our guy in Washington will take care of us reminded me of another generation’s very powerful guy. Illinoisan Harold Ickes was a reform-minded progressive Republican who backed Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 Presidential race. Roosevelt repaid him by naming him Secretary of the Interior, in which post Ickes ended up serving longer than any head of any cabinet department in U.S. history. Ickes thus oversaw socialist deficit-financed stimulus spending that left central Illinois such tainted legacies as New Salem and Lake Springfield.

Ickes had ensured his own legacy by marrying a wealthy woman, which enabled him to live for some 20 years in Winnetka, one of Chicago’s posh northern suburbs and as pleasant a place as there is on this green earth. As DoI head Ickes had a chance to eradicate the only weed in Winnetka’s garden: trains. The commuter lines that busily ferried people to and from the city ran right through town, and caused problems long familiar to Springfieldians in the form of noise, long waits for trains and crossing collisions.

The obvious way to solve all three of these problems was to separate the city streets from the train tracks. In Evanston, Winnetka’s neighbor to the south, the track had been laid atop a berm and carried over cross streets via overpasses. That eliminated collisions and traffic delays but left an earthen dike running through the middle of the city.

Rather than lift the trains above the streets, planners in Winnetka opted to bury them below them by submerging most of the line in a trench with key cross streets carried across it at grade. The idea for what became known as the “Big Ditch” was contained in a city plan adopted in the 1920s that was very like the one adopted by the City of Springfield in 1925, which also took up the problem of rail crossings. The difference between the two projects was that Winnetka implemented most of its plan while Springfield seems not to even have read its plan. Work began on the Big Ditch in 1938, tracks were ready to carry trains by 1940 and by 1943 all the new stations and road crossings were opened to grateful commuters, as they remain today.

Running a bunch of trains up and down 10th Street will leave Springfild in the same pickle as Winnetka a century ago. Building a berm would seem to be out of the question for political reasons; even upgrading the existing tracks at grade for more traffic has people taking about Berlin Walls and travesties of justice. Burying them would seem equally impossible for financial reasons. Paying even the local share for such work seems to be beyond a city government that at the moment can’t afford to re-stripe the parking lots at city hall.

How then did a town about the size of Chatham afford such an extravagant piece of civil engineering? Ickes clouted a federal grant for his hometown, but that paid for only 45 percent of the cost. Winnetka backed the rest. It helped that Winnetka was rich, but it helped even more that the offending tracks separated its downtown from the posh part of town, not the poor part. The project thus enjoyed the support of the town’s movers and shakers.

In Springfield, in contrast, even proponents do not seem keen enough on the idea to mortgage city government to pay for the proposed new rail corridor. (Pity it doesn’t run down Chatham Road; we’d hear the drums beating for a bond issue soon enough.) In fact, the idea of a wall between east side and the rest rather appeals to a great many people.

I’ve heard no serious talk about how the city might pay for its share of the cost of even a two-track corridor at grade capable of handling as many as 75 trains a day. Which brings us back to Mr. Houston. He is far from the only Springfield leader who sounds like the kid before Christmas, convinced that Santa is sure to bring him what he wants, if only he wishes for it hard enough. That may be a way to get a new toy railroad. It won’t get Springfield a real one.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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