LAKEVIEW — Voters in the 44th Ward said “no” on Tuesday to the CTA’s proposed Belmont Bypass project.
The $320 million project would add another track to the Belmont “L” station, which connects Red, Brown and Purple lines and require the city to buy 16 buildings, partial air rights and several parking lots — a move some locals say could devastate the surrounding area.
The question only appeared in those precincts closest to the Belmont “L” station: 20, 36 and 38. Local activists said the limited scope was due to time constraints.
What that means – as the article’s author, to her credit, points out – is that the 1,900 voters who would be most negatively affected by the Belmont Bypass got an officially-sanctioned megaphone for their views, while virtually all of the 200,000 people who ride the Red, Brown, and Purple Lines, and who would most directly benefit from this project, did not.
Several caveats: 1. I do not actually have a strongly held opinion about whether the Belmont Bypass is actually a good idea; 2. Certainly the people who own, reside, or run businesses in one of the 16 buildings to be taken and demolished have more at stake than everyone else, and I don’t want to minimize that; 3. This is a nonbinding resolution, and so doesn’t actually directly cause any action to be taken or not taken.
That said. That said, this is a shining example of the way that the procedures of local democracy often disenfranchise many of the people – frequently, the vast majority – who are affected by a given decision. Though the referendum is nonbinding, it certainly sends a message to the local alderman about what his constituents – that is, the people on whom his employment depends – want him to do; and, in the world of Chicago politics, local alderman have an awful lot of power to influence what happens in their ward. (That’s a separate discussion, though the fact that these sorts of decisions are made by such hyper-local officials is just another way in which the vast majority of those 200,000 daily riders lack recourse: their aldermen don’t have any say in the situation.)
I can imagine an objection. Daniel, says the objector, the reason these 1,900 people got to vote on this referendum – the reason they have a megaphone – is that they organized and collected petitions to get the question on their ballots. Had those other people organized, they would also have had a megaphone.
True. But two points:
1. The sorts of resources and skills required to collect signatures for a ballot referendum – knowledge of some of the more arcane election laws, probably access to at least one lawyer, language skills, enough free time to actually walk around with a pen and clipboard, and so on – are not equally distributed across the population. They are not equally distributed between, say, Lakeview and Washington Park. Setting some threshold for proving that a given issue is important enough to put on the ballot seems reasonable enough; requiring each and every precinct to do so separately – or forgo the chance to take a public stance on an issue that other people get to vote on – does not.
2. Even if the aforementioned resources and skills were equally distributed, this sort of public input – where, as with most public meetings, a sizable investment of time and effort is required just to have the chance to register your feelings – privileges small minorities with strongly-held opinions over large majorities with weaker opinions. In most cases, that means projects are shot down, whether it’s a piece of transit infrastructure that will speed the commutes of 200,000 people at the expense of 1,000, or new housing that will improve the accessibility of a desirable neighborhood at the inconvenience of its nearby neighbors. That’s not to say that these projects are always worth it, or even that every person’s opinion should be considered equally: clearly it’s a bigger deal to lose your home, even if you’re compensated for it, than it is to save five minutes on your commute each way.
But at the moment, we have a system of public input that, all too often, pretends the members of the vocal minority are the only people with a stake in the decision. And that seems to me like something less than democracy.