Can Metra handle the Olympics?

Question raised in Olympic committee evaluation
September 2, 2009 (CHICAGO) And, the report asks, Would Chicago's transit agencies be able to handle the Olympic crowds? The report comes exactly one month before the Olympic committee announces which city will host the Summer Games.

The 98-page International Olympic Committee report has plenty of praise for Chicago's bid team and its compact, city-focused plan for hosting the games. But money is one concern in the report. It notes the city has "not provided a full guarantee covering any potential economic shortfall."

Another issue: mass transit. The report says Metra's current trains couldn't handle the expected doubling of daily riders if the Games come to town. Metra says it will be able to accommodate Olympic demands.

The IOC report says Metra is expected to handle two-thirds of the overall Olympic traffic. The IOC called such an increase a major challenge for the system. Despite that, Metra issued a statement today saying it will be able to handle it. And, if it can't, the Chicago bid organizers say increased bus service will address the problem.

Historically, public transportation has been the pride of Chicago. When the city hosts big events, the advice is to take CTA or Metra. But, the International Olympic Committee says an event like the Olympics may be too much for the area's rail system to handle.

In its report the IOC singles out Metra. The IOC is concerned that Metra's current infrastructure would have a difficult time handling the amount of spectators coming to the games. Transportation experts are not surprised.

"The Metra system is something we're proud of, but on most routes, the schedules remain largely unchanged in the last decade or two. For something of this scale, there is going to need to be some renovation to get new services on line," said Joe Schwieterman, DePaul University.

Metra Executive Director Philip Pagano responded with this statement: "Metra will be coordinating its Olympic plans with the City of Chicago to address the issues raised in the report. We will also be reaching out to other rail systems throughout the country to address the need for the additional rolling stock to meet Olympic demand."

Experts say upgrading and expanding the system is doable, but easier said than done.

"It's very complex to expand commuter rail. You gotta order cars, you need equipment modifications, track work. All that needs to be done," said Schwieterman.

While the transportation issue raised a red flag, Chicago is far ahead of Rio de Janeiro, according to Olympic historian Carson Cunningham, who says the issue is not a deal breaker.

"I do think that the transportation issue is being overblown a bit in Chicago, because I think Chicago's primary rival here is Rio, and they used the term critical when it assesses the need for Rio's transportation. I don't think Chicago's doing that bad when you compare the transportation issues to Rio," said Carson Cunningham, Olympic historian.

Rio is addressing its critical transportation problem by building a brand new airport and new rail lines. Olympic experts believe Chicago and Rio are the top two contenders.

When it comes right down to it, many say specific issues are not as important as less tangible things, like politics.

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