Chicago Begins Major Reworking of Blue Line with the Help of Stimulus Funds

$88 million from the feds continues the city’s slow reconstruction process

The Windy City has spent the last couple of decades working on the refurbishment of the oldest sections of its elevated lines, most recently with infrastructure improvements along the Brown Line. The principal purpose of these investments, most paid for through federal funds, is to speed trains up over track that had been allowed to degrade so severely that rapid transit vehicles move over significant portions of the system at 5 mph. But as in the case of the Brown Line, these projects also provided significant capacity increases and resulted in the renovation of station complexes, significantly improving the experience of the average transit rider.

Yesterday, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) would spend $88 million of its total $240 million of stimulus funds on upgrading the Blue Line, which runs mostly along an elevated path from O’Hare Airport in the northwest portion of the city to Forest Park in the southwest suburbs, via a downtown tunnel. The line isn’t in the best condition, having experienced a major derailment in July 2006 in which 150 people were injured.

Blue Line improvements will replace wooden rail ties with concrete ones, improving rail stability and preventing the rot that has made trains so slow throughout the system. The CTA’s spending on the project is just a tiny element of the system’s overall need to put the network back in a state of good repair, which the city estimates at a stagerring $7 billion. Perhaps that figure is a bit inflated, but I suppose it’s not surprising that a system still relying on track segments built as far back as 1892 needs a lot of work.

What the stimulus won’t be paying for are new express trains to the city’s airports, a service that’s been in the planning phase for several years. The transit agency wanted to set up a downtown air terminal at the infamous Block 37 development currently under construction on State Street, with trains running with checked bags to O’Hare in 30 minutes, versus 45 minutes on normal Blue Line trains. Express service would have also been provided to Midway along the Orange Line in 18 minutes, versus 30 today. That project, however, remains in imaginations only, as CTA clearly has routine maintenance that’s of a higher priority. Money to build the new downtown station and passing tracks along the corridors, as well as buy new trainsets, remains out of reach. Improving the track on the Blue Line, however, can’t be bad as a first step towards eventually expanding services offered on the corridor.

13 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • rich

    Key question is when will the Red Line be extended south.

    Other work may need to be done, but that is the only one that really matters.

  • Andy Lynch

    The transit system as is may be one of the deciding factors if Chicago is not awarded the 2016 Olympics.

  • simple

    rich, you left two words off of the end of your comment — “to me.”

    as for me, the “only one that really matters” would be the Circle Line.

  • rich

    simple,
    I did not omit anything from my comment. I don’t even live in the service area of a Red Line extension. What’s more, my comment reflected the views of Chicago transit experts & decision-makers who are currently evaluating optimal upgrades designed to system efficiency.

    The issue here is metropolitan, holistic and systemic benefit—not the parochial concerns of one neighborhood versus another. Now, granted, the CTA badly needs upgrades across the system. Maximizing overall benefit, in a way that puts the public interest first, places a first priority on the Red Line extension.

  • switchingmodes

    What is so great about stimulus funds is that they’re going apace to the projects with some of the best cost-benefit ratios. What’s great about this article that it discusses ways to revamp what we already have through both maintenance and superior design. This morning on the Switching Modes website a proposal was presented to double the capacity of the BART system without building a costly new transbay tube. These article are great examples of how we can make better use of our infrastructure, but it’s also important that we design future infrastructure, such as the HSR in California the right way the first time.

  • simple

    rich,

    i’m interested in reading the reports that document the “views of Chicago transit experts & decision-makers who are currently evaluating optimal upgrades designed to system efficiency” and show how the red line extension provides more “metropolitan, holistic and systemic benefits” than the circle line — especially since the circle line would connect every CTA and Metra line in Chicago and significantly enhance regional connectivity, reverse-commute opportunities, service to growing transit-oriented neighborhoods, and accessibility to one of the region’s largest travel generators — the Illinois medical district (40,000 employees and tens of thousands of visits per day).

    i don’t dispute that the red line extension is needed and warranted — not the least because that community’s highly transit dependent population would benefit greatly from the enhanced access to jobs and services that would come from improved cta service. but if there is indeed analysis that shows that it should indisputably be the highest priority for L expansion, I’d really like to read it. seems counterintuitive that the red line would come out ahead when you think of all of the regional implications of the circle line project. thanks in advance for pointing me to the relevant studies.

  • rich

    simple,

    I’m not saying the Circle Line isn’t needed. Chicago’s rail transit system overall badly needs billions to be invested.

    My understanding is — and I need to verify as I’m working from memory — is that the fare revenues from Red Line ridership contributes is a greater proportion than any one other line, that the potential for ridership growth is higher than any one other line, and that the inevitable economic development from such a Red Line extension will have a far greater impact on tax base and economic vitality for Chicago as a whole than any other transit investment.

    That’s a trifecta. Not only does current ridership prove an existing demand. Not only will new transit service stabilize household budgets and spark economic development where it is most needed, thus improving Chicago’s tax base in the surest way and in the most difficult to achieve areas.

    But most critically, capturing the greatest leap in ridership and fares will provide the largest possible revenue surge into a cash starved system.

    Now, again, going on memory here a bit. But these facts came straight from the horse’s mouth. From the guy channeling the data into the planning process.

    Keep in mind the Red Line had reached priority status decade after decade — but was an inexplicable, last minute exclusion from implemenation — decade after decade.

    Respectfully, the Red Line can have regional significance even if it does not run cover the entire city or range across central metro as does the Circle Line. In this particular case, I’d argue that it will have greater regional impact and more significance — though let me hedge that by saying the Circle Line is hardly insignificant.

    It’s a both/and, not an either/or situation. That other interests and other lines continue to insist that they must ‘come first’, is telling, and not a little provincial in outlook. In light of the historical background it is, in my view, more than a little disappointing . . . I won’t say insulting, but I wholeheartedly agree that reference to the numbers, to quantitative analysis, is exactly what’s called for.

    What you’ll find, I think, is an economic impact waiting to be captured by such a Red line project — at a scale that greatly exceeds intuitive guess-timates.

    I’ve spoken at length with the folks deeply involved in getting this done; respectfully, they’re on the right track. If you disagree, talk to them and show me your numbers.

  • simple

    rich, you seem to have backed off of your initial claim that the red line south extension “is the only one that really matters.” it was that statement that got me going. i know the people working on these studies too, and they’re constrained — like all New Starts proponents — by counting benefits only in accordance with the FTA New Starts “transportation system user benefit” accounting process. nevertheless, circle line has far greater TSUB than red line extension (unfortunately the numbers are not public yet). however circle line costs a lot more too. unfortunately TSUB does not take into account the potential for transit to transform development in an area and compound the benefits of the investment, and the circle line corridor is much riper for economically viable intensive transit-oriented transformation than the red line south extension corridor is. but by either account (TSUB or a broader assessment), the circle line provides greater “metropolitan, holistic and systemic benefit” (to use your words). anyway, that’s why i took issue with your initial assertion that among cta expansion proposals the red line south extension “is the only one that really matters.” it’s clearly not.

  • rich

    simple,
    “much riper”? How very telling.

    Sure, my ‘only one that matters’ sentence was too broad. Greater TSUB per –? makes all the difference, and you do note the higher circle line cost as well. I don’t agree your assessment of TOD potential is based on the key qualitative or relevant quantitative factors. Total numbers may be greater — for a longer line, that runs through more neighborhoods, with greater proximity to denser areas that already have higher land values. The potential difference that can be made — in an area where the Red Line Extension has been dropped from priority status for decade after decade — overrides total numbers. You haven’t provided per rider or per dollar analysis or dealt with relative difference made.

    Red LIne riders also face the longest daily commutes and transit delays (per CTA’s own analysis) — due to this project being continually forced to the backc of the bus / back of the line.

    I suggest you are looking at total volume of dollars generated — not efficiency, ecoomic activity generated per dollar invested, or the land use and transportation benefit on the overall system delivered by a Red LIne Extension. I’m not making an Environmental Justice or Transportation Justicde argument here. In purely objective terms, it hamstrings the larger metropolitan region (in temrs of transp & land use efficiency, economic activity and tax base) if you do not consistently choose to let one end of town decay, due to blind adherence to ‘the numbers’, faulty or not.

    Of course other projects matter. But the notion that you can justify refusing to invest in a critical section fo the city is profoudly irresponsible — and the numbers don’t justify it. You’re basically saying one neighborhood gets nothing because another project covers more ground — even though that service already exists. So, already served areas get an upgrade — while areas with no rail service get nothing. Given the pent-up demand on the Red Line, the longest commute delays, the biggest gap between current & potential land values, and the highest contribution to CTA fares, with potential to grow, I’d really like to see your numbers.

    At this point let me add, I’d really like to see the TSUB numbers broken down on per mile, per rider and per dollar basis, a side-by-side comparison of Red Line Extension and Circle Line numbers. I do not believe they will confirm your contention.

    Your use of th phrase “much riper” for development is telling. This is not only subjective, it’s code for ‘where I want to develop comes first’. I disagree that the potential for development in neighborhoods you disdain is low, or unlikely, or will be less transformative. In fact, it will be more transofrmative.

    Key thing is, though — Overall benefit at the metropolitan level will be greater as well. Lower commute times & greater access to jobs will make employers across the region more competitive. That’ll make a much bigger difference in people’s lives — a transformative impact that the Circle Line cannot claim. Same goes for land use changes & development — and who that serves and who that benefits.

    What’s more, Circle Line TOD development will happen sooner than later anyway, but even so the Circle Line transit project is already happening. But without the Red Line Extension, it’s very unlikely that transformative development will happen, least of all accelerate.

    That’s where you get into trouble. You’re privileging improvements to existing lines over getting any rail transit at all. The Red Line is transformative, regardless of scale, while other neighbhoods already have those processes underway. Assiduously servicing a majority of already benefiting neighborhoods while ignoring the overallL benefits delivered to the entire city by a Red Line Extension does well-serve the city as a whole. It doesn’t create a geographically complete e transportation system. It doesn’t deliver benefits in a geographically complete way. It fails to draw in resources on the south side for use by the city as a whole, nor extend opportunity via full-service transit — and I’d point out the city must extend other services to compensate for the basic failure that you are if not advocating, seem quite content with.

  • rich

    simple,

    Concisely, one major point bears repeating.

    Your observation that land near the circle line is “much riper” for redevelopment discredits the idea that there’s more relative benefit to be leveraged by transit investments there than on the Red Line Extension.

    If conditions are now on the verge of a development boom, why would renovation of existing transit be the determinative factor for a building trend that’s already occurring?

    Deploying public infrastructure investment to spark economic activity — in an area where development activity is lower — strikes me as a far more effective decision. And in an economic downturn, it’s a much more responsible approach to city governance. Your preferred option seems to heap more investment on areas already benefiting from rail service and where development will occur anyway.

    The Red Line Extension would take TOD activity from 0 to 50 overnight. Our experience shows such areas will be transformed overnight, so your contention that there’s little potential or interest there is not supported by contemporary market responses in city after city.

    It comes down to one thing: the metropolis as a whole has much more to gain by ensuring the economic vitality of every neighborhood. Safer neighborhoods with a real future and viable businesses will benefit all of Chicago. Having spent some time at Ida Wells & Cabrini-Green, etc., I can tell you it’s clear that accepting pockets of substandard services and crumbling infrastructure is a prerequisite for crime and anti-social behavior. Even if omission, your option if adopted at the expense of a fast-tracked Red Line Extension, shortchanges everyone … and that benefits no one.

    Again, “much riper” is a subjective descriptor that refers to the notoriously risk-averse perceptions of developers. Such views often have lilttle relationship to reality. The key is the self-interest; the area is more attractive _ ‘to them’ _.

    I will be back with some first-hand information.

  • simple

    i never said the red line extension was without merit. i simply refuted your claim that it’s the “only project that really matters”

    maybe i’m reading too much into this, but first you say it’s “not an either/or” decision and that it’s not about “pitting one neighborhood against another” but then you assert the red line extension is somehow morally superior as a regional priority because “accepting pockets of substandard services and crumbling infrastructure is a prerequisite for crime and anti-social behavior” — the implication being that the red line extension has singularly cornered the market on addressing urban ills. if that’s not pitting one neighborhood against another, I don’t know what is!!!

    You Go! Red Line Extension Uber Alles! :-)

  • I agree with Rich. Daley has showered resources on the Loop and well-off neighborhoods for the last twenty years, while the poor have faced displacement further from transit (either by the market or by Daley’s destruction of public housing) or worsening conditions in their neighborhoods.

    Transit capital spending has actually been one of few the bright spots in this dismal record of help for the rich and disdain for the poor, with significant investments in the Dan Ryan Red, Green, and Forest Park Blue (Pink) Lines alongside that going to the O’Hare Blue and Brown Lines. But Daley seems determined to undo this comparatively balanced record, as he pushes investment to help the already well-served: airport expresses, the Circle Line, and now massive proposed transit spending for the Loop.

    Far better to prioritize the Red Line extension, the Gold Line, and the Crosstown El (Mid-City Transitway). This isn’t a matter of pitting neighborhood against neighborhood, it’s a matter of basic equity. Since we choose to organize our economy on a foundation that systematically disadvantages the poor, we need to use govt investment to slightly level the playing field when we can.

  • rich

    simple @ 12:03,

    I think you’re a little off-base in that last comment. Two quick points:

    I specifically did not make an Environmental Justice or Transit Equity argument — although that case can easily be made.

    Instead, I made an economic case, and a case about where public investment will positively impact city budgets and relieve overburdened services. I sure did *not* :

    “assert the red line extension is somehow morally superior as a regional priority because ‘accepting pockets of substandard services and crumbling infrastructure is a prerequisite for crime and anti-social behavior’. ”

    I said public infrastructure investment in every neighborhood makes a fundamental differene to the metropolitan region as a whole. It will:

    * Spark development activity where that interest is flat — unlike ‘hot markets’, where development will happen anyway and transit investment for that purpose would be redundant;

    * Better access to south side labor and metro-wide jobs will boost the economic competitiveness of the region as a whole and opportunity for residents served by a Red Line Extension; and that:

    * Fiscally, Chicago will gain by a) relief to overburdened services as the area revitalizes — less need for police and social services, which are always more expensive than prevention, b) increased tax base; and c) contributing again to a more competitive region overall.

    It IS true, though, that omitting to extend standard services to every neighborhood has costs. Whether due to apathy or negligence, the refusal or failure to invest in standard rail transit services across the board is a recipe for accepting conditions that negatively impact all of Chicago. That includes crime and anti-social behavior — and every citizen, taxpayer and neighborhood pays for that.

    OR, public transit investment where it belongs can begin to alleviate the conditions that breed antisocial behavior and encourage crime. You have a clear choice: let it fester, or do something about it.

    That’s a fiscal argument. It’s also a public policy argument about effectiveness and efficiency; and about protecting the safety and interests of the entire city. There is a moral angle there — but it’s not one I laid out. I don’t know how you’d counter that set of facts or that kind of appeal, but you’re welcome to go ahead and try.

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