This week, Chicago’s CTA held meetings on the extension of its Red Line, completing initial work on alternatives analysis for the corridor. The project is designed to bring heavy rail service south of the line’s existing 95th and Dan Ryan terminus towards the city’s southern edge to serve a significant poor and minority population currently lacking quality transit service. CTA officials will advance into the federal government’s New Start capital funding process with an elevated alignment along the Union Pacific corridor as the preferred alternative. Bus Rapid Transit alternatives were eliminated from consideration.
The choice of a heavy rail alternative was always the expected choice, as it will allow commuters from the area to reach the Loop directly via the Red Line’s existing Dan Ryan branch, which runs in the median of I-94 as it passes through south Chicago. An advantage of this extension, as I wrote in December, is that it will be “closer” to the inhabitants of the area it will serve because it won’t be located in the middle of a highway, a terrible place to put a rapid transit right-of-way if we’re working to encourage transit-oriented development and walkable communities around stations.
Unfortunately, the decision to place the line along the Union Pacific corridor won’t make these the most convenient stations, either, because freight trains will continue to run along separate tracks adjacent to the Red Line extension. Freight trains currently pass at-grade through intersections in this area of Chicago, which is quite impoverished and is in desperate need of investment. It isn’t particularly dense compared to the rest of the city; it has suffered from increasing abandonment and disuse in recent decades.
The primary alternatives being considered would have extended the Red Line either south and southeast along the Union Pacific corridor to 130th Street — the choice eventually picked — or south on Halsted Street to Vermont Avenue. Each corridor is about 5 miles long and would include four new stations. Both would cost roughly the same to build at $1.1 billion, though the former will attract more annual riders, 12.7 million, than the latter, 11.6 million.
Shorter versions of each corridor would serve almost as many riders for a significantly lower cost, so the city might consider shortening the extension to 115th Street to meet federal cost-effectiveness requirements. To me, the last station on the Union Pacific route is unnecessary, because it would serve only the small Carver Park neighborhood, which itself is difficult to reach because it’s surrounded by a river, parks, and industrial zones. Further extensions from there into Indiana are unlikely.
The Union Pacific corridor is centrally located between Metra’s Electric and Rock Island commuter rail lines, something not true of the Halsted corridor alternative, which is further to the west. The public’s support, in addition, came down in favor of the Union Pacific corridor, which would be less disruptive to neighborhood activity than a Halsted line built above a street.
Considering the limited expected ridership and relatively sprawled-out nature of the affected area of Chicago, I think it would be a disappointment to build this extension without encouraging affiliated transit-oriented development. The city should find ways to encourage investors to build new housing and retail in this area, aimed towards the neighborhood’s low-income inhabitants. Chicago also ought to think twice about investing so much money into a project with fewer likely benefits than, for instance, the planned Circle Line, which will serve dense areas of the city near downtown and improve commutes for everyone in the region.
Image above: Red Line extension preferred alternative, from CTA