» 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.