Daley's Chinese Transit Authority
Last Wednesday in Washington, Chicago's Richard M. Daley was smiling and gracious as he became only the 19th American mayor in nearly 80 years to receive the U.S. Conference of Mayor's Distinguished Public Service Award.
Later, Daley would admit that during the ceremony, his thoughts wandered to other places:
The White House. China. Chicago.
That evening, the Mayor and wife Maggie Daley would join other guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a state dinner honoring Hu Jintao, the President of China.
The next day, Thursday, Daley would become the only American elected official other than President Barack Obama to host Hu when the leader of the planet's most populous country arrived for an overnight visit to Chicago.
In fact, Daley--a longtime proponent of increased economic ties between the U.S. and China-- would have considerably more face time with Hu last week than Obama.
But to the point of this post:
Daley told me during our interview--eavesdropped upon exclusively by the Chicago Suntimes Lynn Sweet--that he's pressing his case for Chinese investors to underwrite the construction of a high-speed rail line from O'Hare International Airport to the Loop.
As widely reported during Hu's visit, the Chinese--with the world's fastest-growing economy--are poised to invest tens of billions of dollars in the U.S. and around the world. Mayor Daley is selling the idea that public infrastructure projects in the U.S. should be included among the prime investment targets.
Remember how last fall, during and after his trip to Chicago's sister city of Shanghai, hizzoner raved about the high speed train that whisked passengers in seven minutes from the airport to the center of China's largest city.
A construction project of such magnitude in Chicago would be a jobs generator the likes of which the region has not seen since the "deep tunnel".
While Daley's vision continues to be a work in progress, there are major questions: Would all or part of the CTA's Blue Line to and from O'Hare need to be ceded to the developers? What happens to the local El on the Northwest side during and after construction? Would the privateers raise the high-speed train's ticket price as high as a one-way cab ride between the airport and the Loop ($35-40)? And finally, what amount of disruption would happen to traffic and neighborhoods along the right-of-way?
After the deal to lease the parking meter system, any discussion of transferring control of public assets to private hands ignites political fires at Chicago City Hall.
But lame duck Daley remains steadfast in his belief that private ownership of certain infrastructure will lower the city's bonded indebtedness and provide a longterm shield for homeowners against property tax increases.
After Chicago's failure to land the 2016 Olympics, a worsening city budget deficit and a school system in disarray, Mayor Daley's legacy could use some fine-tuning during the last few months of his 22 years in office.
A billion or so Chinese dollars for a high-speed rail system to and from the airport could do the trick.
And Chicagoans could still refer to it as "The C.T.A."