» $500 million project speeds trips and ensures ADA compliance at all stations.
With its century-old rapid transit system, Chicago has a huge maintenance backlog: almost $7 billion in unfunded capital needs, in fact. Fortunately for the city’s commuters, after four years of construction work, the reconstruction of the Brown Line was completed this week. The $530 million renovation program was the largest in the CTA transit system’s history and will provide relief to the corridor’s roughly 100,000 daily riders.
The Brown Line, also known as the Ravenswood Line, operates as a local along an 11.4-mile corridor between Northwest Chicago and the downtown Loop, and is the system’s third most-popular service. Sections of the route are shared with the Red and Purple Lines. Most of its track length opened in 1907; much of the line had not been renovated since — until now.
Like the $740 million renovation of the Philadelphia Market Street Elevated, which opened for service in September 2009, and Chicago’s own $483 million Douglas Branch renewal, which was completed in 2005, the Brown Line reconstruction was necessary to shore up the structural integrity of the line’s stations and track, which is mostly set along a viaduct. The corridor was in terrible condition before construction began, with wooden platforms in a state of deterioration, skinny hallways and stairs, and trains slowed by ancient, dangerous track.
The project has corrected many of those issues. Some curves were straightened. Additionally, as is required by federal law, all stations were made handicap accessible, an important step forward for all users, who will benefit from elevators and larger station spaces. All but one of the Brown Line’s 19 stops were completely rebuilt, incorporating wider stairways, additional exits, and more turnstiles.
Northwest Chicago, through which the Brown Line runs, has been experiencing significant gentrification since the 1980s; one result of these changes has been a large increase in ridership on the transit corridor, stressing it to capacity during peak periods. As a result, the Brown Line’s main improvement will come from the fact that all stations have been expanded to accommodate eight-car trains, up from six cars previously. This will expand capacity by one-third, reduce waiting times at stations, and speed travel along the corridor. After the work was completed, travel times from the line’s terminus at Kimball and the primary downtown station at Clark/Lake decreased to 40 minutes, down seven from before.
The CTA was able to take advantage of federal New Starts grant funding, which accounted for 50% of total spending. The work, however, was not easy for those who use the Brown Line daily. Though new stations opened throughout the project’s timeline beginning in 2006, cost constraints required stops to be closed as they were being renovated. This reduced ridership and irritated customers. More seriously, beginning in 2007, the four-track mainline between Belmont and Fullerton, shared between Red, Purple, and Brown Lines, was reduced to three-track operation because of the need to reconstruct tracks and expand stations. The result was a slow down throughout the elevated network. This week’s full reopening will be a relief.
Chicago still has billions of dollars of work left to be spent on renovating its rapid transit system. It is already at work on the reworking of the Blue Line thanks to $88 million in stimulus funds. But with plans for extensions of the Red, Orange, and Yellow Lines, as well as for the creation of a new Circle Line, it is unclear where the transit agency will find the funds for the important program, especially since budget cuts are forcing service reductions throughout the system.
The national government is aware of the disastrous condition of infrastructure along Chicago’s non-renovated transit lines and similar older systems throughout the country, but Congress has not done enough thus far to expand spending on the fixed guideway modernization program, whose needs the Federal Transit Administration estimates at $4.2 billion more annually than currently provided. Chicago’s Brown Line renovation demonstrates the benefits of such spending, and in many ways, it is more important to ensure the state of good repair of existing systems than to move on to the construction of new lines, though of course both are necessary.
Congress is considering another stimulus focusing on jobs creation through infrastructure construction. With transit projects producing twice as much employment as equivalent road programs, the government would do well to increase investments in the reconstruction of existing transit lines.