Chicago Planners Pinpoint Scaled-Back Locally Preferred Alternative for Circle Line

Chicago Circle Line Map

» Transit Authority lays out vision for long-term system but concedes lack of funds for any heavy rail investment northwest of the Loop.

With the exception of the long-held dream for a new Clinton Street subway, Chicago’s ambitions for better center city transit service have rested on plans for a Circle Line in recent years. The project would ring the outside of the core, allowing commuters to make connections between lines without entering the heavily trafficked Loop, where most heavy rail lines converge. Study the line since 2002, Chicago Transit Authority planners have finally selected a Locally Preferred Alternative; the agency’s board will likely affirm the choice this winter, with hopes to win federal funding and begin construction over the next five years.

The route selected for the line would require the construction of roughly one mile of new tracks between the Orange Line Ashland Station and the Pink Line 18th Street Stop. Trains would travel from the Pink and Green Lines’ Ashland/Lake Stop, south along the existing Pink Corridor that parallels Paulina Street, southeast along the new line, northeast along the existing Orange Line, then north along the existing Red Line past Roosevelt Avenue Station. This first phase will not, in other words, be a full loop, but rather a sort of hook extension of Red Line service. Circle Line trains would not be able to continue onto the downtown Loop alongside Pink and Green Lines because that corridor is already at capacity.

The plan envisions the construction of four new stations along the route, two to be shared with the Pink Line and another with the Orange and Red Lines. A new stop at Congress Parkway would allow a direct connection with the Blue Line adjacent to the United Center arena. A station at Roosevelt Boulevard would provide better service to the Medical District, University Village, and Little Italy neighborhoods; there would also be a new stop at Cermak Road and Blue Island Avenue. New connections to Metra service might be constructed at a new station in Chinatown and at the existing Pink Line stop at 18th Street.

A Circle Line implemented by 2016 would cost roughly a billion dollars to complete and attract ten million annual riders in 2030. That’s roughly half the number of people who rely on the Orange Line today. The CTA’s report acknowledges the need for better connections to areas northwest of the Loop, so it proposes a number of options for further expansion north of the Ashland terminus; these new lines would add some two to three billion dollars to the overall cost. With three other major heavy rail extensions being planned concurrently in Chicago, the CTA has no capacity to invest so much in the Circle Line. It is clear that the prospects for a northwest extension of the line and a “closing” of the circle are far off.

The people most likely to benefit from this project are those who commute on Metra but who don’t work in the Loop. New connections in Chinatown and at 18th Street will make it possible to avoid time consuming transfers downtown; new stations may get people closer to their final destinations. People traveling from southwest Chicago on the Orange Line will also have a much better option for getting to the near west side.

That said, the four new stations planned will provide little new convenience to the surrounding neighborhoods, simply because they’re all within a few blocks of stations already in use. That said, an investment in the Circle Line could prove particularly useful if it were conducted in concert with an all-out plan to redevelop some of the more desolate areas south of the Medical District, the beginnings of which can already be seen in the Roosevelt Square project being undertaken by the city’s housing authority.

21 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • bou

    Why is Metra building a new 35th street station if this plan would call for a circle line metra link at Chinatown?

    Also, does this mean that redline trains from the north would split at roosevelt, meaning less redline connections to the southside?

    The greatest benefits from this plan I believe are the link they aren’t building, from the blue line to the north side. i’m sure that would see the highest ridership. But I suppose one step at a time will work. Could the circle really be effectively closed without building the Clinton St. Subway? maybe they will all happen at the same time :D wouldn’t that be nice

  • simple

    Kudos to CTA for cleverly keeping the ball rolling on this important project and not succombing to an “all-or-nothing” approach (which would inevitably result in nothing). A key attribute of the CTA Circle Line project is the degree to which it can be implemented incrementally with multiple pieces having independent utility.

    I think Yonan’s comments underestimate the importance of the in-fill stations to the current transit customers and neighborhoods as well as community revitalization prospects. Yes, Roosevelt/Paulina is surrounded by a lot of underutilized land, but it’s a chicken and egg proposition — the train station will make it easier to argue for more intensive development. And for the development already along Roosevelt Road (which has a major bus route with growing ridership), that proposed station will be far more convenient than the next nearest, at Polk. Keep in mind it’s dark and nasty cold at commute times during a large chunk of the year here (especially for workers who start early or end late), and while the proposed stations may appear close, they’re all more than 10 minutes walk from each other, which not only means 10+ more minutes walking in the dark and cold, but also missing a train. The significant reduction in out of vehicle travel time more than offsets the minor increase in in-vehicle travel time.

    The same applies to the proposed Blue Island/Cermak station — both of those streets serve major bus routes with transfer connections, and the station location is much closer to the existing (and future) mostly blue collar jobs along both of these streets than is the next closest station at 18th. Likewise 18th/Clark is far more convenient to a large portion of the growing South Loop than is Roosevelt or Cermak. I would go further and say that it’s a big mistake to leave out a station at Madison/Paulina — Madison is the busiest bus corridor along this segment, and the surrounding area is even more ripe for intensive redevelopment than the area around Roosevelt/Paulina. Plus, due to longstanding safety/security issues in the neighborhood, special event traffic at the United Center is unlikely to be attracted to transit unless they can see the stop and it’s no farther to walk than typical parking spaces. CTA argues that there are other stations nearby, but they’re all farther than the furthest parking lots and not directly visible from the stadium.

    Add to this the addition of the Pink-Blue transfer connection at Congress/Paulina (which should have been added as part of the original Pink Line routing, but was not for cost reasons), and the Orange-Red connection at 18th/Clark, as well as the multiple possible Metra connections, and there is a lot of utility here — all the while preserving the capability (and hopefully building momentum) to complete the entire Circle eventually.

    The full Circle would finally help to start breaking Chicago out of the “all routes lead but to one point” style of rail transit planning which has had the unfortunate consequences of encouraging extreme concentration of peak service at the expense of off peak as well as making individual radial lines seem expendable to many decison-makers (hence the continuing arguments that the Green Line should have been torn down rather than restored as it thankfully was).

  • I’m no expert, but doesn’t a billion dollars seem like an awful lot for a mile of new track and some infill stations? Will there also be capacity-expanding work done on the existing sections (third or fourth tracks added)?

  • Brian

    Much of the Pink line really is a former branch of the Blue. Maybe an even cheaper Phase-I could turn onto the Blue line from Pink (as that branch used to) towards O’Hare. That way too, areas northwest of the Loop get added frequency on the Blue line until the Circle Line is fully completed.

  • Jfruh: not at all. You can expect that about 90% of the money will be spent on patronage for people that Daley likes. The rest works out to $60 million per route-km, which is if anything low for elevated construction in a dense downtown in a rich country.

  • david vartanoff

    Indeed restoring the upper half of the “Paulina Connector” to the former “Evergreen Junction” on the Blue line–just north of the tunnel to elevated ramp– would make possible a Midway to O’Hare service useful as a West Side xtown as well as for airport workers and users. The infill and Metra connection stations will be useful. As to the Metra 35th station–that is more than anything else for White Sox Park. Baseball has a long tradition of ridership.

  • simple

    Jfruh and Alon – I agree that these improvements ought to be possible at less cost. Then again, better to say $1B and come in under than to promise anything less and come in above it.

    David – the former route of the el along Paulina Ave between Lake Street (Green Line) and Milwaukee Ave (Blue-O’Hare) was sold off by CTA years and years ago and added to the backyards of the properties adjacent to the alleyway along which the el used to go. This area has seen significant gentrification and most of these lots are now occupied by multimillion dollar residential buildings. Rebuilding the el where it used to go is a non-starter for the community — as is putting an el on top of Ashland Ave. Hence CTA’s decision to study the northern route further, in order to build the case and political support for the subway construction which in all likelihood will be necessary.

  • jason

    looks pretty useless to me, i was hoping they would run it at least along western…ashland is too close to the loop to serve much purpose.

    and when has -anything- come in under budget in chicago…if there’s any money left over, i’m sure we would never hear about it.

  • He-Man

    Not useless; have you ever seen the volume of people working at UIC and the medical district? Add in a station for the United Center and it would be even more useful.

    See, I think the point of the Circle Line is to expand the Loop (like the Clinton St. subway mentioned in the central area plan) instead of serve as a major north-south line. Western would be ideal for that purpose; and, it may happen since the city is starting to consider what to do with the viaduct. Also, the park/boulevard nature of Western (for much of its length) means that building an L line along it would be feasible with less disruption than Ashland.

    What IS odd: These Metra connections have had no input from Metra. Look at the possible North Side connections to the UUP-NW and UP-N lines: the northern-most routing would ask Metra to build a new station a few blocks southeast of the existing Clybourn station. The Ashland station is not far from the Western station either. The only one of those stations I’ve heard Metra consider would be in Chinatown.

    Wish we had someone to knock heads together and make the CTA and Metra cooperate on something like S-Bahn service.

  • DBX

    I don’t like the scheme as it stands. I think the Clinton Street Subway would be far more useful, as it would directly connect with Ogilvie and Union stations as well as most of the other L lines.

    There’s one key thing about it that I do like, though. They’ve given up on running a circle loop, which is notoriously difficult to keep time on. The Circle Line on the London Underground has to stop for up to two minutes’ recovery time at both the western and eastern extremities of the circle, and periodically you see people making suggestions for breaking the circle altogether. A Circle Line in Chicago would be subject to the same problem, with the added challenge of making slots on the Red Line during rush hour.

    As the CTA eventually would have to turn toward filling in the gap with the UP-W/NW/N and Milwaukee District Lines as well as the North side el routes, then they’d have to make a decision. Go with a continuous circle? Or stop at North/Clybourn having made the Circle route? Then there’s another question. How many slots do you take away from the South Side in order to make the West Side connections?

    With Clinton Street, you’d just up the Red Line’s overall frequency slightly, and alternate the trains, State-Clinton-State-Clinton etc; they’d still have their standard recovery at Howard and 95th (or 130th, if they ever get the south side extension done). You get West Side access without robbing the South Side of frequencies and you get far better connections with Metra. Alternatively, you could just run a Clinton Street local, perhaps connecting at the north end to Fullerton and at the south to Cermak.

  • He-Man

    Maybe I’m a cynical punk; but, Daley has always been itching to improve connectivity to McCormick. My bet is that what he wants is getting built piecemeal. So the Circle Line will eventually get built (IMHO) and the Clinton St subway will go to McCormick.

    Look at the routing: it is already projected to go down to “around 15th” and across the river to meet up with the Red Line. That suggests using the St Charles Airline — which goes to McCormick. Sure, Daley promised to turn the SCAL into a bike trail; but, that promise was made to a South Loop a fraction of its current size and now full of ex-Bridgeporters. He also didn’t say “boo” when Amtrak negotiated with CN to continue usage of it. Will Amtrak eventually vacate? Yes… once CREATE opens up using the Rock into Union Station.

    Like I said, I may be too cynical. But it looks like the pieces are being aligned for more Daley fait accomplis. And to be honest, I’m OK with both of them. But I just don’t see the city spending all that money just for alternating Clinton-State Red Line service.

  • AlexB

    1) The circle line is a good idea, but small enough that one would think they could do it all at once (even the whole project is relatively small in the scheme of things, just not in the US.) The lack of the northwest connection makes it more or less a billion dollar extension to areas that already have service. After all, if you are on the red line this afternoon, you can transfer to the pink or orange lines and get to the same destinations in not much less time than you could after this is built. This seems like more of a down payment on the whole thing. I hope it happens someday.

    2) I’ve ridden the Chicago “el” and visited Chicago generally and was left underwhelmed. I don’t know how, but that city needs to be nearly twice as dense as it is and the “el” needs billions and billions of dollars of maintenance and improvements before it’s up to par. Whenever it happened that the DC metro passed the “el” in ridership, they should have kicked in into gear and taken it as a call to get something done. It’s not a big surprise that the “el” is as big as many major city systems in terms of mileage and very low performing in terms of ridership.

  • Woody

    jfru @3 asks “doesn’t a billion dollars seem like an awful lot for a mile of new track and some infill stations?”

    In NYC we were told that one more station on the @#7 extension would cost about half a billion bucks. In ChiTown you’re talking FOUR new stations and mile of “el” for a mere billion or so?

    I’m thinking maybe we need more “el” lines in the Big Apple if they’re such a great bargain.

  • Woody

    It’s getting better! Or at least it’s getting more so!

    I copied and pasted the info in the note “XHTML: You can use these tags” below the comment-composing window — and it imploded my help request!

  • Woody, elevated construction is cheaper than subway construction. At a billion dollars per mile, the proposed Circle Line L construction will cost more per route-km than any subway project outside New York. In Tokyo, a $400 million/km cost for the latest subway line was considered so high it made Tokyo Metro decide to stop building new lines.

  • AlexB

    This is segueing off topic, but perhaps there is a way to “hide” the cost of subway construction. For example, in New York, the Second Avenue Subway will cost more than $2 billion per mile. A big portion of these costs will be re-arranging the web of utilities that run under second avenue. Obviously, these utilities are not controlled by the transit authority, but the relocation of utilities could become a type of public easement.

    If this subway has been planned for 80 years, why did it all of a sudden become the responsibility of the MTA to relocate the utilities? Did ConEdison not know the subway would be built someday? When the Dept of Transportation laid the sidewalks and the road bed, did they not know it would have to be ripped up and slurry walls poured? Obviously, neither ConEd nor the DOT knew the exact route, but certainly some preparation could have been made. This is true for the buildings built along this avenue as well.

    Instead of waiting until there is more money to build the northwest connection portion of the circle line (I am assuming it will have to be under ground), the CTA and Chicago in general could require right now that all utility work include relocating the existing utilities to out-of-the-way parts of the street right of way.

    This could be done all over the country. By the time money becomes available for new subways years into the future (Geary Blvd in SF, for example), the “shell” i.e. uninterrupted stretch of empty dirt, will be available for rapid digging and station construction without the requisite years of preparation. All we have to decide now is which routes to prioritize, a much easier task.

  • Alex, in more competent cities, what you suggest is exactly what’s being done. For example, Calgary, the best modern case study of low-cost light rail, kept construction costs down by reserving ROW decades in advance. As soon as it knew it was going to build some sort of rapid transportation system, in the 1960s, it reserved strips of land for it. At the time it didn’t even know whether it would be rail, buses, or freeways. Once it chose light rail, it had available ROW for it.

    Utility relocation has always been part of subway construction costs, going back to the first IRT line. It doesn’t benefit the utility companies – after a cut-and-cover segment is built, the utilities are returned to their original positions. In principle, TBMs are supposed to keep this to a minimum, since they tunnel underneath the utility lines and only require relocation at the stations.

  • ardecila

    It’s not clear how the second phase of the Circle Line would operate. I don’t think that CTA would send any Red Line trains into the Circle. I see two different possibilities: either CTA shifts the Purple Line into the State Street Subway, makes it into a full-time service, and runs it into the Circle, or a completely new service is created (Silver Line?) that runs from Fullerton-State Street Subway-Circle-Ashland/Lake.

    I like scenario A, since it doesn’t require trains to short-turn at Fullerton, and it provides a North Side express service that isn’t rush hour-only.

  • BIll

    That’s genius! Purple express to Fullerton/Belmont, State Street Subway, and then around the LOOP into the same Purple slots in the Loop! It saves the extra south-side slots that were being debated earlier in the comments. The only problem I can see are the extra slots under State Street. I highly doubt that it’s not at capacity right now.

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