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Assessing a Transportation Secretary Rahm

Nobody in Chicago seems to like the idea. But as DOT boss, Emanuel would occupy a post so far removed from ideological policymaking that Obama filled it with a Republican.

Emanuel rides a Divvy bike in 2013   PHOTO: TERRENCE ANTONIO JAMES/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Rahm Emanuel really needs a job, if only to get him off our television screens.

Last week, TV’s worst Democratic pundit added to his litany of obtuseness by suggesting that J.C. Penney’s floorwalkers, who lost their jobs as a result of the COVID recession, can be re-trained as computer coders.

Fortunately for Emanuel — and for the American Broadcasting Company — a Democrat just won the presidential election, and Emanuel is supposedly on the short list for the cabinet post of Transportation Secretary.

That would be good for Rahm — and it may not be terrible for American transportation, either. For all his faults as mayor, Emanuel had a progressive record on transit — probably the most progressive aspect of his administration — and he’s at least adequately credentialed to usher the nation into the coming car-free future. 

Emanuel’s first high-profile hire as mayor was Gabe Klein as director of the city’s Department of Transportation. Klein had successfully launched a bike sharing system in Washington, D.C. Emanuel wanted him to do the same here, as part of his vision of making Chicago the “bike-friendliest city in the country.” Thirty days after Emanuel took office in 2011, the city installed its first protected bike lane, on Kinzie Street. (Chicago now has more than 200 miles of protected lanes.) The first Divvy bike-share stations were installed in June 2013.

Sure, it was all part of Emanuel’s gentry liberalism strategy — turning the Loop into a playground for young tech professionals. In December 2012, when Emanuel dedicated the Dearborn Street bike lane, he gloated that his bike-friendly city would steal IT talent from Seattle and Portland.

“I expect not only to take all their bikers, but I also want all the jobs that come with this, all the economic growth that comes with this, all the opportunities of the future that come with this,” Emanuel said.

And, of course, there were criticisms that Divvy originally serviced only the Loop and the wealthy lakefront. “When you launch [bike sharing in] a city, you’re going to the densest part of the city, where it’s the most painful to park, and where you have the maximum number of people that are looking for alternative transportation options,” Klein explained at the time. Divvy today has a much broader citywide footprint, although certain far-flung neighborhoods are still left out.

In 2016, Bicycling magazine put Chicago at the top of its list of America’s Best Bike Cities for “its embrace of bike share and its beginnings of a protected network.” When I spoke to the former director of the Active Transportation Alliance for a story on Emanuel’s legacy, he had nothing but praise for the mayor’s cycling policies.

Emanuel is also a strong proponent of high-speed rail, says Richard Harnish, executive director of the Chicago-based High Speed Rail Alliance. As White House chief of staff, he lobbied for $8 billion in high-speed rail funding as part of the 2009 stimulus package, which Illinois used to rebuild the line between Chicago and St. Louis. Meanwhile, California is working on the first stretch of a high-speed line that it hopes will run at 220 miles per hour between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours.

As transportation secretary, “I think that Rahm would be a proponent of high-speed rail,” Harnish said. It helps that this is a priority for Biden, whose transition website promises "every American city with 100,000 or more residents high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options … ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Emanuel was ridiculed for giving Tesla founder Elon Musk permission to dig a tunnel for a 150-mile-an-hour train from O’Hare Airport to the Loop. Musk promised to pay for the $1 billion project himself, hoping to recoup his investment with $25 fares — ten times the cost of the Blue Line. The project died with the Emanuel Administration. Mayor Lori Lightfoot doesn’t want an airport express.

“I really appreciate that Rahm was looking at a very important transportation need for the city,” Harnish said, although he added, “Musk represented that the city wouldn’t have to pay for it. I’m not sure that should be believed.” And of course, many argued tat a second train to O’Hare was not a very important transportation need.

The prospect of Emanuel in the Biden Cabinet has lit a fire under the left, sparked by his handling of the Laquan McDonald killing. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted, “We must govern with accountability. Laquan McDonald’s life mattered,” following a New York Times story that portrayed herself and Emanuel as two poles of a Democratic Party that Biden must now unite. 47th Ward Ald. Matt Martin joined in: “Rahm’s Alderman here. Also the guy who helped write the consent decree after the murder of Laquan McDonald. Chicagoans already retired Rahm. Let’s keep it that way.”

As transportation secretary, though, Emanuel would occupy a ministerial post so far removed from ideological policymaking that Barack Obama filled it with a Republican: former congressman Ray LaHood of Peoria.

Chicago is the nation’s transportation hub. O’Hare is its busiest airport. Twenty-five percent of all freight train traffic passes through this city. And yet, we haven’t had a Chicagoan running DOT since Samuel Skinner, George H.W. Bush’s transportation secretary from 1989 to 1991. Plus: Chicago has been trying for decades to obtain federal funding for a $2.3 billion Red Line extension to 130th Street. Putting a Chicagoan in charge of that funding could only improve our chances.

The job would also get Emanuel’s mug off the TV, except when he’s cutting the ribbon for a new highway spur or an intermodal center on some local news report. Emanuel might not appreciate the obscurity of the job, but I think a lot of other people would.

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