The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that a community organization on the South Side of Chicago was pushing for the improvement of a commuter rail line along the south lakefront in preparation for the city’s planned 2016 Olympics and for the benefit of a transit-deprived community. The project would improve service most dramatically by providing for a full fare integration between the city’s inner city rapid transit system and its region-wide commuter operations. If implemented, the project’s successful completion would provide a model for the improvement of commuter rail systems around the nation.
Like most American cities, one of Chicago’s biggest transit problems is that its Metra commuter rail network is not joined with its CTA local buses and rapid transit trains. This means that commuters riding from south Chicago do not have the option of a free transfer between the two networks; they have no incentive to ride a bus to a Metra station to get downtown when taking a bus all the way downtown is far cheaper, but takes much longer. Riding Metra alone is typically more expensive than comparable CTA options, even though the two often serve the same neighborhoods.
The Gold Line plan would attempt to solve some of those problems by converting parts of the Metra Electric line, which runs from Millenium Station downtown south along the waterfront, to CTA operation at a cost of $160 million. This would require new faregates, 26 more train cars, and several track and station upgrades. The project would also include the creation of a new station at 35th Street in Bronzeville. While the service would continue to be operated by Metra, customers would ride the trains as if they were CTA-owned, and they would be able to transfer without extra cost to CTA buses and rapid transit.
Most importantly for people living along the lakefront, trains would now run at maximum 10-minute frequencies from 6 am to midnight, ensuring that the system is reliable at most hours. Trains on the Electric Line currently run once an hour during off-peak times, making it hardly an option for people who need to get around the city during the day. The same service options are offered on most of the Metra network.
The plan has been proposed by Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), which is a community group that appears to be interested in virtually all matters of public policy. Their proposal has a strong resemblance to the “Gray Line” plan proposed in 2006.
In addition to serving many of the areas being considered for use if Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics is picked, the service would expand options for the South Side, which is also likely to receive new rapid transit service in the form of a Red Line extension in the coming years. Much of the area is impoverished, minority, and losing population relatively quickly, unlike communities in and around the Loop, which have seen rapid development in recent years.
Any implementation of this project would lead to substantial benefits for the city, but it shouldn’t be seen as a direct expansion of the rapid transit network, which is what the Gold Line name implies. Rather, the project should serve as the first step for a reevaluation of the role of commuter rail in inner-city areas. Chicago should be planning to fully incorporate Metra services into the CTA system within the city, making it possible for local commuters to move between the two networks fare-free and with few logistical problems. This would require a long-term implementation program, including the installation of fare gates, equalization of ticket prices, and the construction of improved connections between the lines. Metra would become something of a faster version of CTA that could offer better, convenient services to neighborhoods around the city that are close to train lines but lack efficient, all-day operation on them.
Image above: Gold Line plan, from Chicago Weekly