Chicago Freight Intercity Rail

At the Heart of the U.S. Freight Rail System, Chicago Advances Grade Separation

» A grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will speed up both passenger and freight trains by eliminating delays caused by a grade crossing.

Chicago is at the center of the American freight rail system, handling 40% of U.S. rail freight on 500 daily trains. It forms the primary junction of the four biggest American freight rail companies — BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific — in addition to the two big Canadian carriers, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. But the complex and intertwined web of tracks that brings trains into and out of the city is hopelessly out of date and causing congestion that limits the number of both freight and passenger trains that can run there.

Last week, ground was broken on the Englewood Flyover, a major element of CREATE, a grand scheme to eliminate such delays in the Chicago area. CREATE — which stands for Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program — is a series of 67 individual projects that would speed up freight, commuter, and intercity rail by increasing trackage along heavily used routes and eliminating intersections between competing roads and rails.

Thanks to a significant federal grant, some of those delays will be eliminated.

The Englewood Flyover, but one of the hundreds of infrastructure projects reliant on funds from Washington, is designed to reduce train conflicts for the 130 trains that run through the intersection of the Metra Rock Island District commuter rail line and the Norfolk Southern/Amtrak line just south of 63rd Street and near I-90/I-94 on the South Side. Rock Island trains run between Joliet in the southwest suburbs and LaSalle Street station in the Loop; Amtrak trains connect Union Station with destinations in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

The two corridors currently intersect perpendicularly, meaning that trains can only pass through on one corridor at a time. A new bridge will not only separate the operations of the two rights-of-way, but will also increase the number of tracks on each line.

At $133 million, the Englewood Crossover is no major project when it comes to typical American infrastructure (one may question whether this cost is too high for a bridge and a few hundred feet of tracks), but the cumulative effect of similar investments is an improved rail system both for freight and passenger users.

Though this project is all about improving freight systems, the large majority of the project’s funding ($126 million) originated with the federal government and the DOT’s high-speed and intercity rail passenger program, the same funding source that has been much-maligned by GOP governors in states like Florida and Wisconsin. Illinois’ Jobs Now! program* will fund the remaining costs.

The CREATE project is far from the only intercity and freight rail improvement project being funded through public sector financing. Though the high-speed rail program, with its marquee projects such as the link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has commanded much of the discussion and controversy in recent months, more mundane improvements will play a significant part in keeping the country moving.

Earlier this month, CSX announced that one-third of its major National Gateway improvement project is either complete or under construction. This project is designed to create a double-decker freight corridor between Mid-Atlantic sea ports and the Midwest. The major program will cost almost a billion dollars by itself and will have a majority of its costs paid by public sector sources.

Meanwhile, slow-speed Amtrak celebrated last Thursday its highest ridership ever: 30 million riders in fiscal year 2011. It may not have the class or the efficiency of its counterparts abroad, but the national passenger railroad has steadily increased its role in the lifestyles of Americans — by almost 50% since 2001. But it faces annual grilling sessions in Congress by conservatives who think the government should get out of the rail business.

Neither the freight rail system, nor the passenger rail system, nor even the highway system, could survive without subsidies from the federal government.

Bipartisan “agreement” in the Congress in September produced a deal that will fund intercity rail projects at just $100 million in Fiscal Year 2012 — not enough even to afford the small Chicago project, not to mention the dozens of similar improvements that are vitally necessary to keep the U.S. rail system in a state of reasonable repair. Projects like the Englewood Flyover have little to nothing to do with true high-speed rail investments, but they have a lot to do with making sure people and goods can continue to get around as they have for the last century.

* A state-level stimulus funding program that is intended to eventually pump $31 billion into Illinois’ economy. In addition to funds for roads, schools, and more, $3 billion will be distributed for transit improvements, $550 million for intercity rail, and $322 million for the CREATE project.

Image above: Amtrak passenger and Union Pacific freight trains near Chicago’s Loop, from Flickr user vxla (cc)

Bus Chicago

In Chicago, a Massive BRT Plan Could be the Best Bet for Inner City Mobility

» Chicago’s bus network is already slated for improvements. But what about a huge upgrade?

When he assumed office early this summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he would pursue the construction of a network of bus rapid transit lines in his city — in addition to the extension of the Red Line L and the implementation of a number of bike lanes. A focus on buses in the Windy City is nothing new: The Chicago Transit Authority carries almost a million riders a day on its network, and the city came close in 2008 to establishing a $153 million BRT system paid for by the Bush Administration, before the city’s refusal to implement a downtown congestion charge got in the way.

Newly empowered by the change in leadership, the CTA has moved forward quickly on three proposed corridors — one in the Loop downtown, another along Western Avenue, and a third along Jeffery Boulevard. These, CTA President Forrest Claypool admitted to the Chicago Tribune, are more “BRT Light” than anything else — while they will feature improved stations, they will have limited reserved rights-of-way and little signal priority — and they will not serve much of the city.

But a new proposal by the influential Chicago-area Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), whose board is a collection of some of the city’s top business leaders, goes a lot further, promoting a $1.23 billion project that would dramatically improve connections between the city’s outlying neighborhoods and reinforce the core network of commuter rail and L lines. While Chicago, like all major cities, has a number of transportation priorities, an endorsement by Mr. Emanuel of this scheme as the city’s long-term plan could go a long way towards making the city a place where it is easier than ever to get around without a private automobile.

The proposal (click map above to see citywide vision) would add dedicated lanes, pre-paid fares, level boarding at defined stations every half-mile, and signal prioritization to 94.6 miles of streets on ten corridors. The proposal would offer service every five to ten minutes during peak hours and every twelve to fifteen minutes other times, perfectly adequate for most people, especially now that bus tracking is ubiquitous. The effect on the city’s transportation connections would be significant: Far better linkages among existing L and Metra rail stations, improved access to currently transit-deprived areas, and the ability to bypass the Loop when making connections between neighborhoods without loosing time or experiencing diminished transit service quality.

In order to select the corridors for investment, MPC analyzed the city from a variety of perspectives: It considered which areas were least transit-accessible, which places had room for new development, and which streets were wide enough to provide for two lanes of dedicated bus lanes, in addition to car traffic, bike lanes, and generous sidewalks (it determined 86 feet for running ways and 97 feet for places with stations was the minimum required).

The routes the group selected would provide north-south and east-west routes that are completely ignored by today’s transit network, thereby allowing for easy interface with the rail system. They would take advantage of Chicago’s broad and straight streets and significantly speed up bus running times by reducing the amount of traffic vehicles encounter and limiting the number of times they stop. In total, the MPC estimates, these corridors would add 71,000 daily transit trips to the region-wide total and reduce travel times for many more.

The total costs of these investments, which would also include improvements to the streetscape to allow for the incorporation of bike lanes and improved sidewalks, would sum to over a billion dollars, which may sound expensive until you realize that the estimated cost of the short, single-route Circle Line L, which would serve the areas just outside of the Loop, is between $2.3 and $4.2 billion. And that’s for a service that would serve far fewer people in total.

Why invest in improving Chicago’s transit system, when the city is known as already having one of the nation’s most extensive networks? Because there are hundreds of thousands of people in the city who are underserved. A new Brookings Institution report by Adie Tomer, released yesterday, notes that 400,000 households in the Chicago metropolitan region have no car — representing the second-highest rate in the country. Of those carfree who live in the city itself, just 39.2% can reach 40% of the metropolitan-wide jobs via transit in 90 minutes, far less than in Subway-heavy New York City (51.9%) and even supposedly car-dependent Los Angeles (44.9%). Part of the explanation may be job sprawl, but another is clearly that the radial orientation of Chicago’s existing network makes it difficult to get to jobs outside of the Loop; BRT running along circumferential and neighborhood-to-neighborhood routes would relieve some of those problems. So there is a need for the kinds of BRT the MPC has described.

For now, though, MPC’s suggestions are merely that — a study group’s vision for how the city should look in a decade or so.

On the other hand, Chicago’s municipal Department of Transportation has its own plan, as Commissioner Gabe Klein (recently moved in from Washington, D.C.) revealed on Wednesday in a roundtable discussion at the MPC. In addition to the BRT routes planned for the Central Loop, Jeffery Boulevard, and Western or Ashland Avenues, other corridors could form a grid of east-west and north-south lines throughout the city, much like the MPC plan would. To Mr. Klein, these investments would produce 80% of the bang of traditional rail investments at 20% of the price — enough to justify a significant investment.

The first rapid investment will come to Jeffery in 2012, replacing the existing #14 Jeffery Express line, serving parts of the far South Side. $11 million in federal dollars will go towards dedicated lanes between 83rd and 87th Streets and rush-hour only reserved bus lanes between 67th and 83rd Streets. Signal priority will be integrated into the network and there will be a queue jump at the intersection of Jeffery Boulevard and Anthony Avenue. This will be enough to reduce trip times by an estimated 9.3% at rush hour, declining from 72 minutes to 65 minutes. Finally, the project will include improved bus stations every half mile with next bus LED signs and kiosks providing fare card machines and neighborhood maps.

Similar improvements are planned for the Western Corridor, though the exact route has yet to be chosen, and the Central Loop BRT, which would connect Union Station with the Navy Pier by 2014. The latter project (see map below) was funded by a federal Urban Circulator grant.

Thus the city is advancing quite remarkably on its own, making more effective bus transit not just a vision but a soon-to-be reality. But the MPC proposal goes a step further than the city has been willing — or able — to do. The city is planning minimal investments in reserved lanes and some better stations, all of which will amount to slightly reduced travel times and a service quality that falls somewhere in between traditional bus operations and true BRT.

Unlike the DOT, MPC would encourage efficiency in the BRT network by encouraging adoption of systemwide standards along entire corridors: Visible, reserved lanes, level boarding, signal prioritization, and off-board payment — all which would make Chicago’s system world class. This would come at a significant cost. But compared to other investments the city is planning to make over the next few years, like the $2 to $4 billion replacement of the northern section of the Red Line, serious investments in BRT would be a great deal.

Chicago Central Loop BRT Plan Chicago DOT BRT Plan

Image at the top: Imagining a BRT-based future for the Garfield Green Line Station, from Metropolitan Planning Council report. Maps of Central Loop and full-scale DOT BRT plans, from Gabe Klein presentation.

Chicago Detroit Social Justice Urbanism

Local Neoliberalism’s Role in Defining Transit’s Purpose

» Must transit capital projects be construed either as for capitalist development or social welfare? Can the two goals be reconciled?

Detroit has staked its development hopes on the creation of a light rail line down Woodward Avenue in the heart of the city. For the past few years, public and private groups there have banded together to suggest that this project, more than any other, would provide the kind of spark necessary to spur economic growth in this city that is losing population so quickly. Thanks to government grants and private donations, the project is mostly financed and may enter construction this year.

Yet the city’s budget situation is so bad that the mayor has suggested that if the city council moves ahead with cuts it approved this week, he will have to shut off bus service at nights and on Sundays — and eliminate service on the People Mover, a semi-functional one-way automated rail loop. This is in a city where a third of people are impoverished.

Detroit’s example is only the most extreme of what is becoming a meme in the American transport discussion, that we continue to engage in the construction of expensive new projects even as we are incapable of paying for the appropriate service on and maintenance of the system we already have. Why is this? And how can we fight the pernicious effects of these policies?

Writing recently in Environment and Planning A, Sociologist Stephanie Farmer argues that the rise of neoliberal ideology in local and national politics has encouraged a “retreat from social redistribution and integrated social welfare policies in favor of bolstering business activity.”* This, she writes in reference to Chicago, has specifically affected public transportation, which “is increasingly deployed as a means to attract global capital as well as enhance affluent residents’ and tourists’ rights to the city.”

This trend, she states, stands in opposition to the mid-century “Fordist strategy of territorial redistribution mobilizing public transportation to enhance economically disadvantaged groups’ access to the city.”**

Farmer’s approach provides something of an explanation for Detroit’s experience: Rather than concentrate on the needs of its most impoverished denizens through the assurance of basic bus service, the city’s business and political elite has instead put its resources into the construction of a light rail line whose primary purpose is to stimulate economic development by creating “place-based advantages for capital.”

Similarly, Farmer is very critical of Chicago’s approach, arguing that that city’s investments have repeatedly favored “business elites over everyday users by excluding public transit investment in areas outside of Chicago’s global city downtown showcase zone.” Her evidence for this trend is primary in former Mayor Richard Daley’s obsession in constructing a premium-fare, limited-stop express rail link to the airport (including his willingness to construct a station for said service without providing the funds to actually operate the trains) and the transit authority’s Circle Line plan, which she argued would “effectively redraw [and expand] the downtown boundary,” with little benefit for the city’s most transit dependent.

The repeated delays in extending the Red Line south of 95th Street into some of Chicago’s least prosperous neighborhoods suggest that there is no political will to invest outside of the wealthiest areas.

Farmer’s argument is revealing of the one of the peculiarities of transit promotion: Those who engage in it simultaneously argue for the social welfare benefits of providing affordable mobility for as many people as possible while also suggesting that good public transportation can play an essential role in city-building — essentially for the elite. After all, one of the primary arguments made for investing in new transit capital projects is that their long-term benefits include raising the property values of the land parcels near stations.

This creates an uneasy pro-transit coalition in many places where development and real estate interests align their lobbying with that of representatives of the poor to argue for the construction of new transit lines (usually rail), under the assumption that projects will benefit each group.

This produces an identity crisis for transit. For whom is it developed? Can its social mobility goals be reconciled with the interests of capitalists in the urban space?

Identifying the value of a transportation project is an essential element of the planning process, so asking these questions is essential, since there are limited resources. When it comes to transit, this seems particularly relevant, since most funds invested in bus or rail projects are provided by the public sector.

Ultimately, this means that the promotion of almost every transit project is defined by political ideology. Do we invest our funds in a project to connect downtown with the airport, under the assumption that economic benefits will flow down from the top, as conservatives might suggest? Is spending government money on ensuring the efficient transportation of the elite effective because it grows the economy as a whole and eventually aids the poor? Or should public dollars be reserved for redistributive causes, focusing on the needs of those who are least able to provide for themselves?

Of course there are many examples in which these questions appear to have been resolved. Even in Chicago, it would be difficult to argue that the subway and elevated lines that run into to the Loop are unhelpful for the poor, since many of the city’s greatest resources even for the impoverished are located in Farmer’s “downtown showcase zone.” Nonetheless, ponder this question next time a transit project is proposed: For whom is it being built, and why?

* Farmer, Stephanie. “Uneven public transportation development in neoliberalizing Chicago.” Environment and Planning A. Volume 43. 2011. 1154-1172.

** I should note that in terms of transit, the Fordist conception of the use of public resources for the benefit of social redistribution itself replaced an entrepreneurial approach towards the provision of transportation. Many, though certainly not all, transit systems in the U.S. were funded and developed by private groups. Were these investments able to straddle the competing goals of expanded mobility and economic development?

Chicago Elections

Rahm Emanuel and the Power of Municipal Entrepreneurship

» Taking the realm of America’s third-largest city after 22 years under Richard Daley could produce big changes for local transportation.

Despite its burgeoning downtown, Chicago has big problems. The city lost 200,000 people between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Vast tracts of the south and west sides of the city sit vacant. Job growth in the metropolitan area is slower than in most other regions of the country. The city faces a $75 million budget deficit just over the next few months.

Thus the swearing-in this week of the city’s first new mayor in 22 years, Rahm Emanuel, cannot come at a better time. In order to gain ground over the next few decades, Chicago has to do a better job keeping its existing residents and attracting new jobs. The mayoral election in February was a landslide for Mr. Emanuel, which means he has the political momentum to pursue change for this great city after decades under Richard Daley’s leadership — but will the new mayor be able to do so? Or will the city stagnate?

Transportation is only one of a myriad of concerns that must be addressed in Chicago, but Mr. Emanuel has made it one of the foci of his transition plan — and initial signs indicate that his goals are appropriate: Incrementally improving the transit network and remaking the streets so that they better address the needs of all modes of transport. The choice of Gabe Klein, of Washington, D.C. bike share and streetcar fame, to lead the city’s transportation department, implies that the new mayor understands the value of improving local non-automotive mobility systems.

In a cash-poor municipality whose transit system requires $7 billion in renovations now, it is not surprising that new rail transit lines appear to have been sidelined — at least for now. In the short-term, this may be the right approach. The city cannot afford to maintain what is has, so investing in new capital programs may be inappropriate. But whether Mr. Emanuel’s brand of local modesty is right for Chicago in the long-term is worth evaluating. Does this city need to play it safe, or become ambitious?

The transportation components of the transition plan, which is the best sign yet of where this mayor hopes to take his city, can be divided into two themes: One, the improvement and expansion of the Red Line, and two, the retaking of the city’s streets from the dominance of cars.

The first project — the Red Line renovation and extension — is a necessity: The northern sections of the corridor (shared with the Purple Line) are a century old and the Chicago Transit Authority has already presented a number of alternatives that would relieve the problem. Also on tap is the extension of the corridor south to 130th Street, designed to improve the commuting times for people who live in the city’s Far South Side, whose residents are transit-dependent but poorly served. The combined cost: Somewhere between $3 and $6 billion.

Other far less expensive improvements mentioned by Mr. Emanuel’s transition plan include a bus rapid transit corridor for Western or Ashland Avenues that could include dedicated lanes within 3 years (already being planned by the CTA); an attempt to reform the city’s zoning code to encourage transit-oriented development around stations; and the implementation of a citywide bike share system and the expansion of the bike lane network. The latter initiative would expand lanes by 25 miles a year (versus 8 today) and prioritize protected lanes. The first two miles of those, the document states, would be selected arrive in the mayor’s first 100 days. (See Steven Vance’s post on where those might be most effective.)

The overall message is that of a politician who sees the value in improving the way the city’s streets work for all their users. For Mr. Emanuel, the implementation of reserved lanes for cyclists and buses can be done incredibly cheaply but to great benefit for the quality of life of Chicago’s denizens, more than 30% of whom rely on walking or transit to get to work and a quarter of whom have no car available to their households at all. With wide streets everywhere in the city, bus rapid transit is a particularly relevant and easy-to-implement improvement for Chicago transit.

The costs of the Red Line expansion are in themselves beyond the city’s current means — especially considering that President Obama’s budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would have included billions for renovations just like this one, is likely to go down in defeat. This suggests that Mr. Emanuel will have to either get more funds from the state or raise local revenues if he is to follow-through on his campaign promise to act on the matter.

Should Mr. Emanuel, then, aim higher? Faced with the need to raise taxes anyway, should he be looking to imitate Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who transformed his personal ambition to build a one subway under Wilshire Avenue into a multi-pronged strategy to rethink all of L.A. County for transit through the construction of a dozen new lines — with a dedicated sales tax to boot?

Chicago certainly has room for improvement: Travel between neighborhoods, rather than to downtown, is difficult, and the Circle Line rapid transit corridor could be an investment-worthy piece of infrastructure. But its development has been sidelined due to a lack of funds. Meanwhile, the integration of CTA with the Metra suburban-oriented commuter rail system (the two currently have different fare structures and few interchange points) could be a boon to ridership if the Metra network evolved into a regional rail system that provided frequent access to the city’s citizenry.

But either effort would need a cheerleader. Will Mayor Emanuel step up?

Unfortunately, hopes such as those may be sidelined by a different, less pressing concern: The ever-present push to connect Chicago O’Hare Airport to the downtown Loop with a dedicated high-speed rail line. Recently revived by Mayor Daley, it is the pet project of the Loop’s business interests — but it will serve few of the city’s many transit-dependent residents and it will do little to ameliorate the problems of everyday life on Chicago streets.

Image above: Chicago’s Green Line, from Flickr user John Picken (cc)

Chicago Metro Rail Urbanism

Stuck in the Land of Missed Opportunity

» The development of Rosemont, just adjacent to Chicago O’Hare Airport, is indicative of the missed development opportunities that too often plague America’s transit systems.

Being bumped from a flight has its benefits: A few hundred dollars’ worth of free travel, a restaurant certificate, a little more time to avoid getting back to work.

Getting stuck in an airport hotel, on the other hand, is less exciting, especially when it is off-site. Take the fate of those staying in the accommodations of Rosemont, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago just adjacent to O’Hare Airport. I bunked there a few nights ago.

While in theory the town’s cornucopia of hotels are close to the CTA’s Blue Line rapid transit corridor, they are isolated from it perceptually. So is a major convention center, a movie theater, and a performance hall. Walking from the station situated in the median of the Kennedy Expressway (I-190) to the main strip of hotels requires passing under highway and rail viaducts and then along the thin pedestrian way that borders the featureless, six-lane arterial known as River Road. Normal people, apparently, are supposed to drive, park their cars, and then use the area’s skybridge system to get around. Forget the sidewalks.

What the transit user — usually a pedestrian — experiences is an automobile-dominated landscape that is far from the ideal transit-oriented development planners often argue is necessary to take full advantage of the millions spent on public transportation investments. Too many other Chicago neighborhoods, and many others around the country, suffer similar fates. It doesn’t have to be so.

Though the Rosemont Station, which is the penultimate stop on the Blue Line before it reaches its O’Hare terminus, was completed in 1983, planning for the line out to the airport began decades before. In the 1960s, Chicago went on a rapid transit construction binge, building more than twenty miles of new rail routes. Unlike the earlier elevateds that made the city’s transit system famous, however, these new lines were mostly built along highway routes: South along the Dan Ryan, west along the Eisenhower, and northwest along the Kennedy, each of which had land reserved in their medians for the trains to run.

About the same time, the village of Rosemont began to grow quickly thanks to the 1960 opening of the Kennedy Expressway and the continued expansion of O’Hare Airport. By 1969, Hyatt had opened a massive John Portman-designed hotel just next to the road. In 1975, the Stephens Convention Center commenced operations next door. Over the next 35 years, dozens of other hotels, office structures, and other facilities filled the land within a half mile of the rail station.

Peculiarly, though, taking up more than half of the developable land within half a mile of the Blue Line stop are surface parking lots or garages, as shown in the above image. How can this be possible with a transit station offering 24-hour service at high frequencies so close by?

One might suggest that the developers of the new buildings were simply responding to market reality: Americans like to drive, so rail station or not, automobiles will dominate. Indeed, the fact that there is so much parking there implies that the vast majority of people using the area’s facilities are driving there. But Chicago is a transit city, and the Blue Line offers convenient service downtown and to the airport much more reliably than does the frequently traffic-jammed highway. What gives?

Call Rosemont a case study in the importance of well-designed transit stations.

The transit authority made the first mistake by placing the stop in the median of the highway, a location that significantly limits the appeal of transit for people who have a choice. Nobody wants to have to stand on an open platform waiting for a train in the middle of a roaring expressway. Nobody wants to have to walk under or over said road just to get onto the train.

Even worse, the Rosemont stop is in the middle of a cloverleaf intersection, a site that effectively makes it impossible to develop any of the land directly abutting the line. It also forces people walking to and from the station to navigate the no-man’s land that makes up the “beautified” area of the highway off-ramps. Finally, the Rosemont station only has an exit to the north, forcing people who want to go to the more developed areas to the south to go under the road again. It is not a pretty situation, and it is shared by the Cumberland station, one stop east on the Blue Line, though at least that stop has exits on both sides of the highway.

Bad design has its consequences. At Rosemont, developers have constructed their buildings as if unaware of the nearness of transit. No restaurants or retail activity is designed to face the street; sidewalks are minimal; signage is clearly oriented towards the driver. Are people expected to ride transit in this environment?

For those like me bumped from flights and stuck in Rosemont’s airport hotels, this landscape limits accessibility significantly. One can brave down the arterial to the transit station (which I did, despite a hotel receptionist’s apparent ignorance of the Blue Line’s existence) or take a hotel bus departing once every 30 minutes back to the airport. Though I spent my evening patronizing a cafe and a restaurant in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, I have a feeling that, finding themselves in similar situations, many others — all without car access — would choose to simply remain in the hotel.

The position of the station and the poor consideration given to it by the design of the development around it are limiting transit use and, perhaps more importantly, diminishing economic activity in the Chicago region in general. Those thousands of people bumped from flights every year at O’Hare Airport could be eating at a restaurant in Wicker Park or shopping downtown, but most of them are probably stuck in their hotels.