Monday, July 22, 2013

Clout Street

And sometimes a good story just falls into your lap...  

     The big black Chevy SUV headed east on 25th Street, then abruptly turned left under the Stevenson Expressway and paused before a steel gate. The armed driver lowered his window and inserted a plastic card into a scanning device. The steel gate slid away and the car roared onto an empty stretch of pristine highway, a straight shot into the heart of downtown Chicago.
     “Where are we?” I asked.
     “The Magic Road!” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle laughed, explaining that it is a special highway that permits government officials to speed on their way without having to suffer traffic delays.
     “Rahm Emanuel calls it the ‘Bat Cave,’” she said, while I was still trying to digest news of a highway I hadn’t known about running just east of Michigan Avenue.
     We had spent the morning at the Cook County Jail, gazing in sorrow at a sclerotic legal system that grinds the lives of young black Chicagoans into a grim powder with agonizing, expensive slowness. The always candid Preckwinkle—perhaps the only politician in Chicago who says what she thinks and doesn’t sand every thought into a smooth pebble of guile before gingerly letting it slip from her fingers—of course would spill the beans on the secret government highway.
     Or the not-so-secret highway.
     “Convention buses use it too,” she added, as we flashed by 18th Street, then 14th, as I twisted in my seat, trying to get my bearings. 

     Built for conventioneers

     Welcome to the McCormick Place Busway, the most obscure road in Chicago, a two lane, 2.5 mile thoroughfare constructed in 2002 on a railroad right-of-way for $43 million.
     The original idea was to speed conventioneers attending trade shows from McCormick Place to the Loop, and the road, paid for by McPier. The busway does that admirably. A trip that takes 25 minutes in traffic up Lake Shore Drive can be tossed off in eight.
     Naturally, politicians would want in on this. We went under McCormick Place, flashed past the South Loop condo development where former Mayor Richard M. Daley lived before moving to North Michigan Avenue. Preckwinkle pointed out a convenient gated exit.
     “They built the road when he was mayor,” she observed.
     Hmmm, thought I. Not a lot of hotel buses filled with conventioneers pulling off there. The road cuts right through and below the Art Institute, ending at Lower Randolph.
     Preckwinkle might be the only one bold enough to take a reporter on it. But she can’t be the only official making use of the road. 
     Gov. Pat Quinn, who does indeed sometimes drive himself, doesn’t drive himself on it because he lacks the special pass.
     “There’s a card you have to use,” said his press secretary, Brooke Anderson. “You won’t see the governor in the driver’s seat on that road. But his security detail sometimes takes it.”
     The mayor’s office confirmed both that he uses the road and he calls it the “Bat Cave.”
     “He does,” said Tarrah Cooper, the mayor’s press secretary. “Occasionally.”
     She was quick to echo that it’s mainly a route for convention buses.
     “That’s who primarily uses it, during the convention there are tons of buses.”
     She scoffed at the idea that the road is unknown.
     “It’s not magic,” she said. “People know about it.”
     I’m sure they do. I’m sure somebody is in charge of handing out access cards to connected politicians. McCormick Place brass said the Chicago Department of Transportation runs it, but CDOT spokesman Pete Scales said he knows nothing about it, and suggested I try Streets and Sanitation. “I just found out about it a month ago,” said Anne Sheehan, Streets & San spokeswoman, who has been with the city 10 years. She suggested CDOT runs it. “I’m pretty sure we don’t.”
     Actually, it is overseen by the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
     I wasn’t too broken up over hitting a brick wall, fairly certain that whoever the somebody in charge turns out to be, they will cry “national security” in three different languages before ever commenting on just how many politicians have access to the road or who those politicians might be, waving the bogeyman of panicked mobs of Chicagoans blocking access to ambulances in the case of civic calamity should the public become aware of exactly who is speeding from swank fundraiser to lavish dinner.
     People in other cities already seem to know all about it.
     “We do market it quite heavily,” said David Causton, general manager of McCormick Place, who views the road as a draw for the $6 billion worth of trade show business that comes to Chicago. “We see it as an absolute asset. The advantage it offers is lower cost. It obviously makes getting here faster, which is part of a pleasant experience for the attendee. Plus we don’t have to have as many buses to move people because the buses can go quickly on the private road, so they carry more people in a shorter time. It’s a true time saver.”
     I bet it is.
     “It may not be well known by locals that live here,” said Causton. “But it is well known in the industry. All of our customers take advantage of it. We’ve known about this for years.”
     And now you do too. You may not be able to ever drive on it.
     But at least now you can know it’s there.


  1. That was great! Thanks for the video which completely satisfied my curiosity.

  2. While I would agree that politicians should not have some special access to this roadway, when you look at its route, it's really of limited utility for "avoiding traffic" unless you are going to McCormick.
    It truly is rather ingenious, given that there is no handy rail access from the Loop to McCormick.
    Chicago is rather alone among major cities in having a huge convention center in a pain-in-the-rear remote location. New Orleans, San Francisco, San Diego and others--in these cities with major-league convention centers, many large hotels are within walking distance.
    I recently worked a McCormick convention for six days. My hotel was in River North. It made a huge difference that once the bus got to the south side of the river, it was a magic express route. I too never knew it existed, but it is a marvel.

    1. Just to add something: there are a few spots on the route, like the ramp in the north end, where it looks like if you are a bus driver, you have to be pretty good, as there is not much sideways clearance. Same thing at some of the subterranean confines of McCormick. As a veteran convention goer, I have come to realize that most motor coach drivers have every bit the dexterity and nerve of airplane pilots. But without the respect.

  3. Take the cards away from the pols & let only the buses use it or let everyone use it!

  4. This has nothing to do with the topic at all but I've been reading your book "You were never in Chicago" and enjoying it a lot save for one thing. You write about preparing obituaries and interviewing people to get all the interesting tidbits before they die. It just hit me. You've never interviewed me! You'd think that the fact that I am Rush Limbaugh's and Gloria Steinem's love child would be of some interest after I pass on. Or how I was almost the First Bush's VP save for an accident of fate. But no! All joking aside - I can't say that I'm an interesting person but I have been lucky enough to meet many interesting people.

  5. Well...I have often taken a bus to McCormick from the loop for a show- International Housewares & the Sweets & Snacks shows come to mind, although there are others.

    I have never, EVER been taken on this road. The bus route is always 20-30 minutes of stop and go traffic. So while I am sure that it gets used for conventions, not sure which ones are considered important enough to rank....

    1. Lise,

      I'm not sure about this, but I think it may have more to do with staying at certain hotels than with which show is going on.


      Having just finished "You Were Never in Chicago" and having been made jealous by all the fun and interesting Chicago experiences you've had, I gotta say that, if you indeed were unaware of this road before now, it's one of the very few things that I've experienced in Chicago that you hadn't. (I'm sure you're fascinated by that...)

  6. @Jakash -- I give you credit for knowing about it yourself, yet seeing the value in the story. Some people who've been on it, say for a Bears game, scoffed at the premise, ignoring the political aspect, which is what gave the thing spice, in my mind.

  7. Never knew this. Where did they get the money for it? More crooked pols.

  8. I have long known about the road being used to cut commute home t McCormick, and I think that's great. Wasn't aware politicians used it too. That's not so great. If they don't sit in traffic like the rest of us they are less likely to be concerned about it.

  9. The shuttle buses that take people from the Millennium Park Garage to Soldier Field use the busway.

  10. Interesting about the road and Preckwinkle.


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