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.