Clear your plate

Nov. 16, 2007

One bite of fish stick. Maybe two.

One bite of fish stick. Maybe two.

My 2-year-old son likes to eat bread—that’s it. We sweat through the effort of providing a balanced meal for dinner, and he will sit there, press his face against a roll and convincingly say, “Done?” I am assuming he is taking bites, but it all looks pressed to me. So, fearing malnutrition—and parent abuse—we try to encourage more out of him. As a last-ditch effort, we try to deal. Now I know every page in every parenting magazine applies bold lettering to the whole bargaining process, but my son is not training for a marathon so loading up on carbs just does not get it done. So we make the pitch, “If you eat one more bite of fish stick, you can watch Elmo.” We get to about “El” before the bite is feverishly placed in his mouth and the mission is fast approaching accomplishment. For now, giving my son a number to shoot for works. Tomorrow he could go on a hunger strike.

The city of Chicago is looking at a big, steaming pile of fish sticks on its plate. Mayor Richard Daley has been pressing his face against a window display that contains the hope of hosting the 2016 Olympics for years now. Chicago is the U.S. finalist for the event and has laid out a thoughtful satellite strategy covering most of the city. The main colosseum will sit on the south end of town, with several other venues scattered throughout the urban map. Providing the prime satellite feed is mass transit, and right now Chicago’s system is about as effective as two rabbit ears on an old television. I will be the first to call it a world-class city, but limited train lines, disgusting train stops and clogged streets give it more of a Bangladesh-class feel.

But pouring a bucket of sand on this Olympic-hopeful torch is the fact that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and its Metra (suburban train line) partner are ready to implement infectious cuts in service. Due to a $226 million shortfall in the state’s General Assembly, the CTA rolled out its 2008 “doomsday” budget, which received more fanfare than a “booming day” budget ever would, and proceeded to announce it will cut 43 more bus routes and raise fares to as high as $3.25 per ride. Metra followed by offering up 10% ticket hikes. So much for the glory behind the five-ringed Olympics. By the way, how much does one of those rings go for? Never mind.

The International Olympic Committee was expected to meet with high-ranking city officials the last week of October, and one would hope they would ask for another bite or two of effort.

Holding individuals to a standard has extended well beyond my dinner table in recent weeks. At Intertraffic 2007 in Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 9-12, Jack Schenendorf from the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission provided an update on the next major highway bill in 2009. After vehemently calling for an end to the whole earmarking process, he discussed an interesting performance-based approach that would hold every state, city and county responsible for their own federal financial fate. For example, if the city of Chicago wanted full funding, the U.S. DOT would ask for a congestion strategy and proof that the city hit its targets. Perhaps if they did above and beyond, a bonus would be in order.

Under the current system, states match and donate money and most feel cheated. This approach would reward results, which in turn would help fight congestion, pollution and maintenance issues in the U.S. Now that’s a mouthful of solutions.

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