If you like to ride in cars that move on rails as much as we do, you’re probably excited about the trolley system that Mayor Daley wants to build in downtown Chicago. Construction wouldn’t begin until 1993, and some crucial things must happen first. More detailed engineering and design studies still have to be made, and Washington must be convinced to chip in a third of the $600 million cost. We may never see the trolley. We hope we will.

Practical thinking of rare intensity produced the trolley idea that the mayor now embraces. Much of this practicality was furnished by someone we admire named Howard McKee, and we want to see McKee win one in Chicago. He came here six years ago to build the 1992 world’s fair.

What he got was an education in how a massive public-works project can go wrong. We got to know McKee soon after he arrived. We’d see him from time to time and find him talking sensibly–if ironically–about the good the fair could do for Chicago and the strange desire of so many people to destroy it. “There were so many agendas, and so many egos involved,” McKee remembers, “and a process that was so badly flawed because it never got people around the table in a problem-solving way.”

The basic flaw in the world’s fair, McKee told us the other day, “was that the financing was always shaky.” Nevertheless, “there was a perception that the idea would be so compelling that the powers that be would simply lay more and more money on it.”

You may recall not feeling compelled. The fair stirred up mostly its critics, who thought they sniffed a boondoggle of immense proportions. “The people who were charged with portraying the idea never got it off the ground,” said McKee. “It was seen as a kind of tinselly party lacking in substance and lacking initially–I don’t think this was true at the end–enough residuals to warrant the effort.

“And I think, frankly, that wasn’t a bad assessment of it.”

Howard McKee had done projects for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill all over the world before Skidmore brought him in at the end of ’83 to head up the fair’s design team. He discovered that the corps of business leaders that had done such a terrific job of selling Chicago to the Bureau of International Expositions a year earlier couldn’t sell the fair to Chicago.

“The landfill in the lake was a visionary idea in many ways–to create a park in an area where park is lacking–but it did rile the environmental people,” McKee went on. “No matter what a good idea that may have been, you already have alienated a significant group of people that are not flakes. So that was number one.

“Secondly, the terms of it were such that you could never recover the investment in that land. It just became parkland. So the financing became increasingly difficult.” And in the back of everyone’s mind were the debacles in New Orleans and Knoxville, recent fairs that had been financial fiascos. “This made the mayor and people in Springfield–it gave them the willies,” McKee said.

“So it meant that every decision about what you made an investment in had to be supported on some basis, and the fair planners–I’m talking about Skidmore, Owings & Merrill–refused to deal with that early on. I’ve heard Bruce [Graham, then the architectural firm’s partner in charge of design] comment on this–if you could wow ’em then people will buy it. He used the word ‘vision’ repeatedly. As he saw the world’s fair, he’d create and instill a vision, then people will be dazzled by it and will realize its benefits, and then they’ll pay for it because it’s worth it. Well, I don’t know.

“I saw it a little differently because I could see that they were not dealing with some fundamental problems that people had hoped to solve with this fair, and unless you structured it so it dealt with those problems . . . they weren’t even going to see your visionary plans, they weren’t going to give you any time. And in fact, that’s what happened.”

How should the fair have been structured? we asked McKee.

“You back into the fair by putting your year 2000 wish list together so that you make sure you use the fair simply as a means to achieve these things that you would do anyway. Then you take the hype of the fair, the six months when you’re going to have a surge of people, and you use that to accelerate the amortization of that investment.

“Had it been set up where people could see that, yeah, you had the thinkers and the cultural folk over here really working that out, you had the physical people doing what they had to do, and the financial people looking at the ways you can create it with financing, I think a much higher level of confidence would have been built. There should have been a period of a year where these things had their own somewhat independent definitions, because this would have allowed some time to gestate. But to rush in and try to create some kind of fantasy picture that didn’t have any substance and really wasn’t responsive I think really set it back.”

The fair died in 1987. At the end of that same year, McKee, now in business for himself, got a chance to see a major project done right. He was asked to help solve the public transit mess in central Chicago. Within the city’s now sprawling downtown–for example, Union Station is two miles from Water Tower Place–there is no convenient way of getting about. The Regional Transportation Authority knew something had to be done but wasn’t sure what. To avoid turf battles, the RTA didn’t ask Planning, or Public Works, or the CTA to do a study. Instead the RTA commissioned the Metropolitan Planning Council–privately funded neutral turf with expertise in transportation. A smart thing to do? we asked McKee.

“It was brilliant, I think,” he said.

When McKee was asked to get involved, he hesitated. “I was perhaps jaundiced by the fair,” he said. “And while I believed in this project, I also knew how the bureaucratic process could just squeeze the mortal life out of a good idea.”

Out of respect for Mary Decker, executive director of the MPC, “I said I would counsel her on what to do, but I probably would just deal myself out,” McKee told us. “But we had two or three sessions with the RTA and I began to see that these people were also committed to the idea–they wanted something to happen.”

So McKee proposed a swift, highly focused process that would produce a report in eight months’ time, and he signed on as technical director. “He was the one who helped us find our various technical consultants and helped develop their scope of work,” says project director Deborah Stone. “He chaired most of the committee meetings of the working group. He helped us think through the whole committee structure and how it was going to work. . . . The idea was to figure out everybody who really needed to be involved because they had any sort of stake in it and have them involved from the beginning.”

There were three alternatives to look at: buses, automated guideway transit (AGT)–also known as people movers–and light rail, also known as trolleys or streetcars. The weeding-out process was ruthless. McKee saw no reason to spend time and money on an alternative once the case for it started to fall apart. AGT met an early death. It was too expensive to build, not hardy enough, and would have to cross above the el, putting its tracks up there at the fourth or fifth floor level.

The trouble with buses is that meeting the need would require so many of them (each with its own expensive driver) that they’d flood the streets. “You would need State Streets running all through downtown,” said McKee.

That left light rail. The working group set up what McKee calls a “fatal flaw analysis”–a search for anything that would make the system not work. “We had a whole list of questions,” McKee said. “Things like getting over the rivers, operating in mixed traffic, questions of which street is it feasible on given the access requirements of adjacent properties.

“So you had sitting in one room in a problem-solving mode people from the CTA, Public Works, Planning, the RTA, Metra even, two or three other technical groups. . . . We orchestrated virtually weekly work sessions with all these agencies. We had a very clearly defined work program. Where the answers could be discovered through internal resources they would be. For example, the bridge people could render opinions about which bridge had to be replaced when, and whether it had the bearing capacity for these kinds of loads.

“Where we could not easily find it within the city, then we got outside experts. In individuals, not firms. We got people who had a great deal of experience about that specific thing.”

McKee went on, “There began to be a realization that a solution was possible. I think as this confidence level began to occur, turf issues began to erode away.” Individual conclusions became everyone’s conclusions “because they emerged through an open process. It was apparent it wasn’t anybody selling anybody anything.”

The light rail system that the working group came up with would run north and south along Canal Street and Columbus Drive and east and west along Monroe and the right-of-way behind the buildings that line the north side of the river. It would go as far north as Chicago Avenue and as far east as Navy Pier. A line down to McCormick Place also would be built, later or probably sooner.

Will it happen? we asked McKee, who’s gone on to other projects.

He thinks so; but he’s concerned that when bureaucrats begin worrying the details, the larger concept “will begin to unravel.” His own study “may not have developed all the answers thoroughly,” he said, but “it at least never lost sight of its mission. It never got redirected into areas that took time and created confusion. You’ve got to have clarity of thought in these things–they’re complex enough as they are. Unless somebody is in charge to keep the goal clear and to constantly reassert it, the mere studying of it will cause the trees to loom larger than the forest.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.