Always on the lookout for new sources of information about electric railway history, I recently stumbled on one in an unlikely place- a book about politics.
Political Influence by Edward C. Banfield, originally published in 1961 by the Free Press of Glencoe, “examines the structures and dynamics of influence in determining who actually makes the decisions on vital issues in a large metropolitan area.” The book takes an in-depth look at how political influence was applied in the Chicagoland area during the 1950s.
In his introduction to the 2003 edition, James Q. Wilson writes:
Banfield wanted to know how concrete issues were really decided, and so he studied six major controversies in Chicago and drew his conclusions about influence from his detailed account of who did what for (or to) whom.
Civic disputes in Chicago, he concluded, did not result from struggles for votes, competing ideologies, or the work of a shadowy power elite; they rose instead from the maintenance and enhancement needs of large organizations. One organization (say, a hospital) wanted something, another organization (say, a rival hospital) opposed it. The resulting conflict had to be managed by an outside authority if it were to be settled at all, and in Chicago, politicians did most of the managing. But that management was hardly dictatorial. Though Chicago politics was organized around a powerful political machine, the machine did not simply impose its will. Instead, the mayor let every interest get its say, postponed decisions until some common ground could be found, and then nudged the contestants in the right direction.
Banfield devotes chapter 4 (pages 91-125) to the Chicago Transit Authority and attempts to convince the state legislature to subsidize it circa 1956-57. According the the author, these efforts were intertwined with trying to save the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin interurban.
The CA&E lost both riders and money due to construction of the Congress (now Eisenhower) expressway, starting in 1953. The project was expected to take five years, and CTA service in the expressway median opened on June 22, 1958. But by 1956, the railroad’s management wanted out, and the choices were either to sell or abandon service and liquidate.
At the time, the only public agency that could have operated “The Great Third Rail” was the Chicago Transit Authority, itself only about a decade old. Formed by combining the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and the Chicago Surface Lines, the CTA had started out with high hopes that an aggressive program of modernization would yield cost savings that would eventually make it possible to lower fares for their so-called “OWNERiders.”
Unfortunately, things did not turn out that way. The new CTA bus routes in outlying areas lost money, and over its first decade, ridership declined by nearly 50%. There were various reasons for the decline, including the rise in automobile ownership, fewer people working on Saturdays, the effects of several fare increases, and service reductions.
Unlike the New York transit system, which received a government subsidy of $100m per year during the 1950s, Chicago got none, and had to sink or swim out of the farebox.
CTA fares had increased gradually, but this also brought ridership losses. The main way CTA saved money was through reductions in personnel, mainly by replacing two-man streetcars with buses. But the last of the old red cars ran on May 30, 1954, and the governing Chicago Transit Board did not expect to see any additional savings from the elimination of PCC streetcars.
The heads of CTA’s operating divisions reported to a general manager, who in turn reported to Gunlock. Gunlock and the general manager (Walter J. McCarter) together prepared the agenda for board meetings. Although the board played an active role in the determination of general policy, it was Gunlock and the manager who ran the organization.
CTA Chairman Virgil E. Gunlock realized that government subsidies were needed, or CTA would risk going into an irreversible decline. His opinions are summarized in Chicago’s Mass Transportation Dilemma, a presentation he gave to the Illinois Road Builders Association at the Palmer House in December 1957.
The CTA rapid transit system had contracted about 25% by the mid-1950s, and wanted to extend service through the medians of the planned Northwest (Kennedy) and South (Dan Ryan) expressways. Shortly after Mayor Richard J. Daley took office in 1955, he asked Gunlock to prepare a “wish list” of potential new projects, so they could be prioritized, in the hope that new ways could be found to pay for them.
Chicago’s four major daily newspapers were in favor of subsidies, and so were most civic leaders. But the CTA was not universally liked by the public, especially by those who used it, which tended to undermine prospects for government aid, since opinions were divided.
It was into this mix that CA&E threw in the towel and offered to put the entire railroad up for sale.
Daley and Gunlock hoped to use this to their advantage. If the CTA could take over CA&E service, it was thought, this could win over crucial suburban support, resulting in government funding that could help transit in both the city and suburbs.
As we now know, things did not work out this way.
Mayor Daley had a good working relationship with Republican Governor William Stratton. They tried to help each other out politically by supporting each others projects in their respective “spheres of influence.”
However, while Stratton supported state funding to purchase the CA&E (reported price: $6m), and was willing to exempt the CTA from paying certain taxes and fees, he backed off on additional tax revenues for CTA once it became clear that DuPage and Kane County officials did not support it.
So while Daley, Gunlock, Stratton and even County Board President Dan Ryan Jr. were all on friendly terms in their discussions on this issue, and generally agreed on what to do, in the political climate of 1957, nothing could be done.
Banfield cites four main reasons for this failure to act in time to save the “Roarin’ Elgin,” which I will list in brief:
1. The “country towns”– that part of Cook County which lay outside of Chicago proper– opposed being taxed to support a transportation system which did not serve them directly.
2. Organized highway users were another important class of opponents. They had been trying for years to establish the principle that gasoline tax receipts should never be used for other than highway purposes.
3. The commuters of Kane and DuPage counites, although favoring measures to keep CA&E running, were very much opposed to paying a tax for that purpose. Politicians from those counties met with Governor Stratton one evening in the Executive Mansion to tell him that their constituents “just won’t sit still for a tax increase of any kind.” The state, they said, would be responsible for any suspension of passenger service and, therefore, it should provide any subsidy that might be needed.
The Governor expressed surprise. He had supposed that continuing CA&E service was a matter of great importance to Kane and DuPage counties. If it were so important, he said, surely the local people would be willing to contribute one cent a gallon toward it.
CTA supporters had hoped that Kane and DuPage counties’ interest in CA&E would lead them to support a plan for the general improvement of CTA. It was clear now that this was not the case and that, in fact, if it cost them a few dollars, the western suburbs would not support even that part of the plan which would serve only them.
Some observers believed that the Governor had interested himself in CTA only because he wanted to help the CA&E commuters. If this was so, his interest would probably now cease since it was apparent that the commuters were not really vitally concerned.
4. Many weekly newspapers in the more than eighty communities into which Chicago was divided opposed any kind of subsidy for CTA.
As a result, these legislative efforts failed. As a result, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin was allowed to “temporarily” suspend passenger service at midday on July 3, 1957, stranding thousands of riders downtown, without a way to get home.
This served the short-term purposes of the railroad, the state, and the county, since it allowed quick removal of the CA&E tracks in the vicinity of the DesPlaines river, which was necessary for construction of a vital link in the Congress expressway connecting the city and suburban sections.
Within a short period of weeks, Cook County gave CA&E a check for $1.2m just for this short section of right-of-way between DesPlaines and First Avenues. Most probably, this amount was inflated to account for the $700k in losses from 1953 to 1957 that CA&E wanted to be reimbursed for.
Legislative efforts resumed in 1959, and again it seemed that CA&E was close to being saved. The railroad had been kept largely intact, and freight service continued. CTA anticipated a takeover, and even went so far as to put in a new track connection at the DesPlaines avenue terminal, where CA&E trains would exchange passengers with Congress “A” trains. You can see pictures of that unused connection here.
The 1961 CTA Annual Report includes an aerial view of the DesPlaines yard, and the completed track connection to what could have been a restored CA&E service is clearly visible– but never used. With the final abandonment of the railroad in 1961, all this was scrapped and removed, except for a short stretch of right-of-way that now serves CTA as a “tail track” for storing “L” cars.
All reminders of “what might have been.”
Mr. Banfield sums things up on page 271:
In the Transit Authority case, the Mayor, the Governor and the President of the County Board acted as agents of the affected interests in arranging the compromise; they did not try to impose a solution of their own upon these interests, and when the Governor found out that the compromise was not popular with his suburban supporters, he immediately dropped it.
In other words, even these notables could not muster enough “political influence” to save the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin. Much of the CA&E right-of-way west of Maywood has been preserved as the Illinois Prairie Path.
Fortunately, the lessons learned from its demise helped pave the way for saving the transit system we have today, which would not be possible without your tax dollars and mine.
PS- You will also find a very thorough and informative discussion of how McCormick Place came to be in this book. I recommend it.