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Chicago Moves Forward With Three Rapid Transit Extensions

Chicago Rapid Transit Expansions MapRed, Orange, and Yellow Lines would be pushed further away from the city center in $2 billion plan.

At a board meeting yesterday, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) unanimously endorsed routes for three rapid transit corridor extensions that will provide new service to people on the city’s south side and in Skokie, a suburb north of the downtown Loop. The decision finalized the authority’s choice to extend existing rail lines rather than attempt to implement bus rapid transit along these routes. It paves the way for eventual consideration by the FTA in the New Starts grant funding process. Together, these projects will cost about $2 billion and could be completed by 2016 at the earliest.

The three projects are designed to improve travel times from locations far from the city center that currently suffer from inadequate transit options and heavy traffic congestion. The identification of the locally preferred alternative (LPA) allows the authority to move forward with an environmental impact statement and ultimately a submission to the FTA. The cash-poor CTA has yet to identify local funding sources that would contribute to the lines, however, so their completion remains in doubt.

The most significant project will be the 5-mile extension of the Red Line from its current terminus at 95th Street to 130th Street. This proposal, which will cost $1.1 billion to build and include 4 new elevated stations positioned along an existing Union Pacific Railroad route, has been under consideration for years, as it will serve one of the city’s most transit-deprived neighborhoods. Those communities have been subjected to decades of disinvestment and a new rail line could provide a boost to efforts for transit-oriented development. The Red Line, which has almost universal support from the community, will likely be the transit agency’s first priority.

Similarly, an extension of the Orange Line from its terminus at Midway Airport to a new station at Ford City some 2.3 miles south has the support of the community and has been planned since the line’s first segment opened in 1993. Trains will run in a trench next to the Belt Railway and then switch to an elevated alignment adjacent to Cicero Avenue. At $400 million, this project will require high ridership estimates to meet the FTA’s cost-efficiency guidelines.

Bringing the Yellow line a mile and a half north to the Old Orchard Mall has evoked considerable concern on the part of residents of neighboring subdivisions, unlike the other projects. The construction of an elevated single-track line past a high school and several single-family homes is seen as an intrusion on the suburban nature of the area — despite the fact that trains will run on an existing rail right-of-way and then parallel to an Interstate highway. In response to the concerns about the Yellow Line, CTA Chair Carole Brown argued that the Board’s LPA decision didn’t “finalize” routes, but she didn’t offer any good alternatives, and there aren’t any; this route alignment is well-planned. If Skokie residents raise their voices any more, they’ll simply get no transit improvements at all.

If the transit authority completes the impact statements on time, finds local cash, and receives adequate funding from the FTA, these projects could be completed by 2016. Yet Chicago’s hope that the government will cover 80% of costs seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking considering that the FTA has committed only 30 to 60% of project costs in virtually all New Starts transit projects. Will Chicago find the money to pay for half of the cost of these lines?

That said, the decision to eliminate bus rapid transit from the options is an important reflection of the benefits of expanding the city’s already well-used El rail network, which is a step in the right direction. The selection of heavy rail for these three routes confirms the CTA’s intent to move forward on these extensions — even though it has yet to make a similar commitment to the potentially more beneficial Circle Line, which will be considered in new community meetings beginning this fall.

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • No argument with these rail extensions. However, in a separate layer, I hope CTA is considering enhancements to its grid bus network including something like the LA Metro Rapid model in its stronger corridors. The demand flowing perpendicular to the rail lines is much less than on the rail lines themselves, but must still be very high given the city’s size and density.

  • Ned

    I’m sorry to see they’re not pushing the Circle Line forward.

  • It’s going to cost a billion dollars to build a five-mile route along an existing right-of-way? Really?

  • Allan

    Funding could be obtained quicker if Chicago is chosen to host the Olympics. public transport is a major issue when choosing a host city.

  • jon

    I too am glad to see the rapid transit network expand in Chicago, but it would be much better to build rapid transit in close-to-downtown neighborhoods than expanding outward. It is a shame they arent advancing the Circle Line, this is just like the MBTA which is expanding the Green and Blue Lines north and outward but is delaying the urban crosstown rapid transit line.

  • PCC

    Chicago was always a surface-lines town, which served it well when the region was essentially a series of factory towns orbiting around a commercial core. But travel patterns have changed; distances have increased and jobs have aggregated into centers and corridors (although not necessarily in transit-ready patterns).

    Extending the principal cross-town rapid transit service (the Red Line) for “the last five miles” — it reaches the city’s north border, but stops well short of its south — should be a high priority. The largely low-income and transit-dependent far south side has lost countless heavy-industry jobs. Having gone there last weekend, it takes a double bus connection or infrequent commuter rail to get anywhere, compounding its distance from the N/NW “favored quarter.” These lines have been on transit plans for 100 years; the Orange Line “extension” proposed was even part of the original proposal but got value engineered out. (In the intervening 20 years, though, the original terminal area has declined economically, and I’m not sure whether it can really come back. The Yellow Line extension is interesting and restores access to a major job center, but pretty small in the grand scheme.)

    Given the distances involved (12-16 mi. as the crow flies from downtown), there’s no way for surface transit to serve the same need. That said, there’s no local match money available for anything, anyways.

    The Circle Line looks interesting on a map, but it’s an expensive solution in search of a problem. It serves a corridor of middling job/population density and limited growth potential, and offers minimal rider time savings. Other proposals to enhance downtown distribution, or improve crosstown buses, would offer better time savings and TOD potential.

    Oh, and BRT? Impossible, since IDOT jealously guards its sacred freeway lanes, and Morgan Stanley is holding our parking meters hostage until our great-grandchildren come around.

  • simple

    PCC, The Chicago you describe does not appear to be the same as the one in which I live.

    Your statement “always a surface lines town” is unclear. The surface lines were always very important to Chicago, but the L and steam/commuter railways were (and are) never as insignificant as you imply.

    It does not take a “double bus connection to get anywhere” in the Red Line extension service area. Every single bus serving the Red Line extension area currently terminates at the Red Line 95th Street terminal. That’s a single bus connection.

    “Reaching the city’s border” is an arbitrary distinction. The justification for extending the Red Line is to facilitate access to jobs for a part of town that needs it. Most of the trips after extension will still require a bus transfer — albeit in many cases a much shorter one. Where the city limits are is really irrelevant.

    Red Line extension plans have not been on the books for “100 years”. At best it’s been 50. More realistically less. That’s a long time but no need to exagerate. For most of the past 100 years, the Red Line extension area had been well served by frequent “rapid transit” style service on the Illinois Central railway. Nowadays, the former IC service has become a commuter railway with less frequent service and the population center of the area has shifted westward so that the proposed Red Line extension route serves it better than the IC would.

    What stats do you have to show that the Orange Line extension terminal area has had a “significant” economic decline since the late 1980’s, and what relevance does that have to extending the transit line (the Red Line extension area would be considered an astounding success story if it were to come up to the level of economic activity that currently takes place in the Orange Line extension area!) Ford City Mall is arguably less economically vibrant than it once was, but the other real estate along Cicero from 63rd all the way to 79th is arguably more vibrant (albeit heavily auto-oriented in design). And the industrial/manufacturing uses to the west are all still quite active.

    Finally, your description of the Circle Line is entirely inconsistent with my understanding. You call it a “solution in search of a problem” yet (in this case honestly) for the past 100 years, a major problem with transit in Chicago is that no inter-connectivity has been designed into our city’s rail system apart from the very concentrated 1897 Loop terminal. The Circle Line builds in direct, weather-protected, transfer connections with every L and Metra line serving downtown, and does so by leveraging mostly existing track with a minimum of new construction. This represents the greatest bang for the buck possible to solve these longstanding network interconnectivity problems.

    Secondly, your assertion that the Circle Line “serves a corridor of middling job/population density and limited growth potential” is completely inconsistent with reality on both accounts. First, it would dramatically enhance service to the Illinois Medical District — connecting it to all of the existing CTA and Metra lines in the city with one direct and quick transfer. IMD is the largest job center in the city outside of downtown, and generates a high volume of student and visitor traffic in addition to all of its workers. Second-greatest concentration of jobs and activity in the city is hardly “middling”. The Circle Line area has also seen tremendous economic activity outside of IMD and is poised to support significant future economic growth. North/Clybourn, Wicker Park, Near West Side, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Chinatown, and South Loop are among the most economically vibrant and growing neighborhoods in the city, and access to and between them all would be significantly enhanced with the Circle Line. And there is a tremendous amount of land remaining available for development and redevelopment in all of these neighborhoods — particularly the area to the north of IMD, near the United Center, which could support very intensive new development. It could be argued that the Circle Line is the key ingredient to ensure that the future redevelopment of these neighborhoods proceeds in the most urban and transit-freindly nature possible, with a much higher future transit mode share than it manages today. What “other proposals” could stack up to this?

    As for BRT, there I agree with you that prospects are dim, although the reasons go beyond the points you mention.

  • jeff

    I think we need 3 items and we will be an awesome transportation hub for the entire USA and for locals as well. If I were local transit god, I’d do this:
    1) easier crossing (esp w/ luggage) between Union station, ogilvie, and CTA Loop trains, something such as a people-mover in an underground tunnel would be very nice. (the rest of the world seems to be smart enough to put the a mass transit stop INSIDE their commuter rail stations, esp if it is a snowy/cold area)
    2) express inter-airport rail, fly into MDW and out ORD with a 20 minute ride between the two. or even express..in-out such as gatwick express/heathrow express.
    3) blue line extension to schaumburg/woodfield, would get rid of a ton of kennedy “reverse commute” traffic.

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