» Now with federal planning money, new access to city’s far South Side could significantly reduce travel time for thousands of commuters.
Last week, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) announced that it had received $285,000 in planning money from the federal government to pursue a draft environmental impact study on the extension of the Red Line rapid transit corridor south to 130th Street. The agency says that this project, which will bring rail transit service to the city’s southeastern border, is its top priority.
Inhabitants of the city’s far South Side have for years complained that they are left out of the rapid transit system, which was extended along the Dan Ryan Expressway to 95th Street in 1969. Their community is the city’s poorest but residents suffer from long travel times to reach the Loop downtown. Decades of plans have suggested lengthening the route further south, but to no avail; in recent years, the CTA has primarily focused its capital funds on the renovation of the older parts of its network.
Nonetheless, with most of the system upgraded to at least workable standards, the CTA is now promoting a 5.8-mile, $1.4 billion extension of its network, designed specifically to ensure rapid and transfer-free travel from the city center to its southern edge. This Red Line scheme, in addition to further extensions of the Yellow and Orange Lines, has been in planning for several years. Yet the high price of the project, combined with the existence of substantial transit infrastructure already in place in the area, suggests there may be other options.
Some local advocates and a taxpayers’ group argue that the conversion of an existing commuter rail line into rapid transit could be pursued at a cheaper price and provide many of the same benefits. They last made their appearance last summer when they were pushing for transit improvements to coincide with Chicago’s Olympics bid.
The CTA, though, contends that the best solution is to run its Red Line trains along an existing freight corridor owned by Union Pacific. An estimated 42,000 daily riders would be served by four new stations. The agency selected its preferred route last year; if funding becomes available, the project could be completed as early as 2016.
The corridor runs roughly halfway between the Metra Rock Island District commuter trains to the west and the Metra Electric District trains to the east. Most of the line would run along the same corridor planned for Metra’s Southeast Service, which has been put off for years because of inadequate funding. The south section, from about 115th Street to 130th Street, would share its right-of-way with the South Shore Line, which runs into Indiana.
Proponents of an alternative Gray Line plan, though, suggest a different project: Improving two branches of the Metra Electric District service by increasing train frequencies and improving stations. Commuters would get service downtown to the Millennium Station via Hyde Park and the rest of the South Side. This, advocates claim, would only cost $200 million — far less than what is necessary to extend the rapid transit service. Their argument is difficult to refute: Metra should focus on improving the use of its corridors within the City of Chicago. The infrastructure is already there, but it is far from being fully utilized: One can imagine a large increase in the use of the commuter trains if customers could purchase tickets at reasonable prices, travel at all times of the day, and transfer directly to CTA buses and trains.
To serve the people at the end of the proposed Red Line extension, a cheaper alternative could be adding a station to the South Shore service and allowing them to purchase tickets at local transit prices to travel to downtown in just over half an hour. The people at the terminus of the line — just below 130th Street — are mostly inhabitants of a public housing complex and suffer from incredibly inconvenient commutes into the city. It’s around an hour to the Loop and more to get to the North Side where many jobs are located.
Those solutions, on paper more simple to implement and in theory cheaper to construct, are not particularly politically realistic, however. Metra and the CTA (not to mention NICTD, the operator of the South Shore Line) do not act as if their fates are aligned, and have done little to improve matters for typical customers. The agencies have few stations where their services allow in-house transfers. You can’t use the same tickets for both lines (or transfer between them), and prices are more expensive on Metra than CTA, even for similar routes. And Metra’s very suburban orientation means it has demonstrated little active interest in promoting rapid transit-like service even along its in-town corridors, meaning most of its trains run at rush hours and are inconvenient for non-work trips.
Moreover, the Red Line extension, even at its high cost, has the benefit of offering commuters non-stop trips from one side of the city to the other, and it also provides easy transfers to other rapid transit lines. Metra routes, on the other hand, suffer from the fact that they all terminate downtown and have few direct connections to local transit. This seriously limits the usability of the lines and means that a Gray Line would likely not be able to attract the same number of riders as the Red Line extension. Finally, the Red Line’s new stations are more than half a mile from existing commuter rail stops, meaning that the project would open up a new market for transit and potentially induce new transit-oriented development.
In the longer-term, Chicago has a responsibility to encourage more interconnections between Metra and the CTA thereby making it possible for residents to use commuter rail and rapid transit interchangeably. Metra should be working to expand the frequencies of its service. For now, though, the Red Line extension is probably the best way to achieve better transit service for the far South Side.