When it comes to transportation, there's a lot riding on Chicago's new mayor
When he's not working to reduce violence, fix schools and ease poverty, new Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson can take a break and pivot to transportation.
That only entails piloting O'Hare International Airport, bailing out public transit and keeping the CTA on time and crime-free.
Those are just a few of myriad transportation challenges facing Johnson, who will be sworn in today.
Inexplicably to those of us obsessed with things that move, the O'Hare 21 expansion, which involves building a new Global Terminal plus two concourses costing $7 billion, was a nonfactor in the mayoral election.
But aviation expert Joseph Schwieterman expects Johnson will support the plan. "The need for a better O'Hare is pretty obvious," he said.
"The new mayor will need to champion O'Hare 21 to keep the mega-project moving at maximum speed. Delays will both hamper the airport's revenue potential and hurt our image as a premier convention town."
In just a few years, the Illinois tollway should complete the eastward extension of the former Elgin-O'Hare Expressway (Route 390) to the west side of the airport, a game-changer for surrounding suburbs.
The actualization of the longtime project "is going to be a remarkable economic boon for the entire region," Elgin native Johnson told the Daily Herald in March.
"That's why it's important for us to collaborate."
Meanwhile, frustration over excessive jet noise is resurfacing in the suburbs and city.
"The mayor's diplomacy skills will be put to the test due to rising concerns over noise," said Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor.
Another bump in the road is a $730 million "fiscal cliff" projected in 2026 for Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority.
The Regional Transportation Authority is proposing solutions such as raising the gas tax and eliminating a rule requiring 50% of revenues to come from fares.
"No other city in America has that," said RTA Chairman Kirk Dillard, co-chair of Johnson's transition transportation subcommittee.
Persuading state legislators and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to dump the 50% requirement and possibly pony up replacement funding won't be easy. Could Johnson, whose tough-fought victory over Paul Vallas propelled him to rising-star status in the Democratic Party, deliver votes?
"The mayor will be a great advocate for mass transit," predicted Dillard.
Johnson grew up in the suburbs in a working-class family. He's familiar with public transit and recalls relying on Metra when he obtained his master's degree from Aurora University.
"Mayor-elect Johnson understands that mass transit is the great economic equalizer as well as anybody who has held that office," said Dillard, a former GOP state senator from Hinsdale.
Along with transit funding, Johnson will have to tackle violent crime on the CTA, which in 2021 and 2022 was the highest it's been in a decade, according to the Chicago Tribune.
As part of the solution, Johnson intends to hire more bus drivers and train operators. Increased staffing will reduce delays and restore service because when riders are left waiting "on empty platforms or at unlit bus stops, they are more vulnerable to potential crime," according to his transportation plan.
Next year, Chicago will host thousands at the Democratic National Convention, which raises the stakes for safer buses and trains. It also coincides with IDOT's Kennedy Expressway rehab, opening the possibilities of delegates fuming in gridlock or worried about safety on the CTA.
Johnson can't control the Kennedy work, but he does appoint the majority of the CTA board and the next Chicago police chief.
The convention, Schwieterman said, "can become a focal point for a heightened push to increase the quality and predictability of CTA trips."