Saturday, October 15, 2011

Whether water or transit, ‘city v. suburb’ always (sarcasm intended) a treat

Looking over the news emanating from Chicago, I can’t help but see two new fronts in the perpetual battle of ‘city vs. suburb.’

Metra commuter railroad officials are boosting the rates they charge for the trains that take people from points ranging from Kenosha, Wis., and Joliet into downtown Chicago. But those people who live in the city proper will not have to pay as much of an increase.

MEANWHILE, MAYOR RAHM Emanuel talked of how he wants to raise the rates people pay to the city for fresh water from Lake Michigan. And one of his justifications is that it won’t just be city residents who get stuck with larger water bills.

The various suburbs that rely on Chicago’s infrastructure to get water from the Great Lakes will also have to pay more, with Emanuel going so far as to say that the city increase will justify the big increase he’s going to demand of suburbs that don’t want to resort to the days of old – when their residents had to drink well water that had a funky taste to it, compared to what comes from Lake Michigan.

You can just tell that we’re going to hear a lot of griping between the residents of Chicago and the roughly two-thirds majority of metropolitan area residents who prefer to live in one of the city’s nearly 260 suburbs.

How many local suburban government officials in coming months are going to have to jerk up their own water rates, and will tell their taxpayers, “It’s Rahm’s fault.”

THEY WOULDN’T HAVE even dreamed of boosting the water bill, had it not been for the city feeling greed and trying to resolve their own financial problems by squeezing a few more dimes from the suburbs.

That last paragraph leaves me feeling dizzy, what with all the political spin it contains. Then again, it probably won’t be any more ridiculous than the rhetoric we’re going to get from city officials.

We’ve already got some earlier this month in the form of Emanuel implying that it’s the fault of the suburbs for not paying their water bills in a timely fashion that the city is lacking in revenue. Seriously, part of the Chicago efforts will be turning up the collection efforts against those suburbs that are behind on paying the city for access to water.

This is going to get ugly before it gets resolved. Perhaps we should get into some serious sort of debate over just who “owns” the water supply from Lake Michigan.

WHICH IS WHY Chicago is the focal point of the metropolitan area, and why it is the pre-eminent city of the Midwestern United States. Having a reliable fresh water supply is such an advantage, and those inland municipalities that have to rely on the city to get their water are paying for their locations.

Which is also why whenever the Asian Carp debate comes up, it is scary that some people seriously want to undo the late 19th Century effort that reversed the flow of the Chicago River toward the south (and away from Lake Michigan).

I always wonder if they really want to taint the fresh water supply of a major city with the garbage from the rest of Illinois. Or have they just not thought this issue out far enough to realize the potential for a real mess?

As one who was born in Chicago and has lived both city and suburban (as well as downstate Illinois and even a little stint in the District of Columbia), it always amuses me the degree to which these ‘city vs. suburb’ fights can escalate. Because in the end, they always come across as trivial.

JUST LIKE THE debate we’re hearing over Metra rates. The commuter railroad’s officials on Friday reviewed a $0.75 increase in the price of tickets for people who catch the trains in the suburbs, but only a $0.50 increase for those who catch Metra trains at city-based stations. Final approval could come next month, with new rates taking effect in February 2012.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the lower rate was justified on the grounds that charging the same amount for both city and suburbs would have meant a larger percentage increase for city-based riders – since Metra charges people for their tickets based on how long a ride they take on one of their trains. Meaning that the person who catches a Metra Electric train at 57th Street in the Hyde Park neighborhood pays far less ($2.50, one-way) than the person who rides a Southwest Line train from Manhattan, Ill. ($6.50).

Of course, that has suburban residents now claiming they’re getting hit with the bulk of Metra’s attempts to balance its budget, while some city residents claim that getting an increase for what they see as limited transit opportunities amounts to communities with significant racial minority populations getting slighted.

And both sides are more than willing to say the other side is spewing trash talk – regardless of whether the issue is commuter train fares or water rates.


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