Initial Thoughts on Chicago’s Transit Future

Following a depressing winter for system reliability  that itself followed the disastrous rollout of the new Ventra fare system, recent weeks have been exciting for transit advocates in Chicago. The governor’s task force released a report on Monday detailing the (numerous) ethical and infrastructure flaws undermining Chicagoland’s transit system, generating (to judge by my Twitter feed) some cautious hope from advocates that change might be possible, if not likely. Yesterday a coalition of elected officials, advocacy and community groups, corporations, and labor organizations calling itself Transit Future held an initial press conference, detailing what might be possible for the region’s transit system should it become possible to build up the political will to bring Chicago’s transit funding up to snuff with a dedicated revenue stream. Deserving prominent credit among the sponsoring organization is my former employer the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which has been advocating for a dedicate revenue stream for transit for years. The presence at the press conference of prominent local politicians like Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle gives the initiative a definite hint of momentum within Chicagoland’s famously fractious political system. Who knows if anything will come from the initiative; the proposal, though apparently lacking details beyond a $20 billion cost at this point, is modeled on Los Angeles’ Measure R, which brought that city a dedicated revenue stream for its ongoing massive transit expansion (former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who shepherded through Measure R, was at the Transit Future press conference today). It would bring Cook County a small (Measure R was a ½ cent) sales tax increase to pay for transit improvements, and require the approval of the Cook County Board. The political future may be uncertain (maybe that’s a future post), but the transit-project proposals are exciting, and I’ll offer quick hits on each of them here. You can see maps and graphics about each line at the website; they’re presented in a not-very-copyable format.

South Lakefront Service

What Transit Future is calling the South Lakefront Service is a continuation of the long-advocated-for Gray Line/Gold Line proposal. This would essentially convert excess capacity on Metra’s lakefront Metra Electric District line and South Shore branch to rapid-transit service, using standard railcars rather than L equipment and running on existing tracks. This conversion is, as many many people have noted, a no-brainer that should have been done long ago. The Electric District is the only Metra line with high-level platforms, which can accommodate fast loading and unloading and high passenger volumes (and the South Shore branch’s have even been renovated recently!) Faregates would be installed and trains would run every ten minutes or so–rapid transit, rather than commuter rail, frequencies. Cost estimates I’ve seen place the cost of conversion under $300 million, though that doesn’t seem to account for new rolling stock, which would seem desirable; neither Metra’s on-their-way-out Highliners nor the new gallery cars (for some reason, modeled on the awful car design of Metra’s diesel lines) are particularly appropriate for rapid-transit style service.

That being said, if we’re shooting for the moon and dedicated transit funding, I’d like to see the proposals for the Metra Electric become more ambitious. Metra Electric is a unique asset; it’s got plenty of excess capacity, is already electrified, and boasts between 2 and 4 tracks fully separated from competing freight traffic (a rarity in the Chicago area). Let’s aim for something closer to the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail Chicago proposal, which would link the Electric District to O’Hare via the St. Charles Air Line, Union Station’s run-through tracks, and the tracks that host the Metra Milwaukee District West and North Central Service trains (owned by Metra, Canadian Pacific, and Canadian National). The weakness of that proposal was that it was very focused on business- and professional- class travelers; by combining it with revamped South Shore service, we could both provide a very fast crosstown connection (and end a transit desert, which the part of the Northwest Side through which the MDW tracks run currently is) and connect underprivileged communities to new opportunities.

In addition, both the Gold Line proposal and Transit Future’s South Lakeshore Service envision enhanced service only on the South Shore branch of the Electric District. I see no reason enhanced service couldn’t run down the main line as well as far as Kensington, and possibly down the Blue Island branch (which would need to be double-tracked) as well. Bringing that service in would, at least in the interim, relieve some of the need for the proposed (see below) Red Line extension into Roseland, at much lower cost.

The Lime Line

The Lime Line (ok, first things first: we need a new color. “Lime Line” is an awful name–it sounds like a train that wants lots of attention) would run down a largely abandoned or underutilized freight rail corridor on Chicago’s West Side parallel to Cicero Avenue from Montrose to just below Midway Airport. There it would turn east, also within existing freight rights-of-way, and run east and a little south across the South Side to meet the Red Line at 87th. This is a revival of the old Mid-City Transitway concept; the right-of-way it would occupy has been fought over between freight and passenger interests over the years, with some proposals having been put forward to convert it to an all-truck toll road, since many of the city’s remaining manufacturing firms are located in the stretch along Cicero, particularly north of the river. The presence of those same firms means that this is likely the single most important line in the entire plan from an equity perspective. If there’s one thing that’s true of Chicago transit, it’s that the existing system serves Loop-bound commuters, who are predominantly white-collar, decently well, while the dispersion of the few remaining manufacturing and other blue collar jobs has made it very hard for most lower-income people to rely on transit. Less importantly, building this line as an L line would also enable a one-seat ride between the airports. This is as much of a no-brainer as the South Lakeshore Service, though it would be significantly more expensive. My only thought would be to extend the eastern end of the line from 87th to 95th and then run it east to meet the South Shore branch at its 93rd Street terminus. Various proposals have been put forward to extend the northern end of this line into Skokie along the old C&NW right-of-way, but that would likely be very expensive for relatively little ridership, and NIMBYs would probably fight it tooth-and-nail (there are actually two very nice houses built squat on the right-of-way at Bryn Mawr, and some of the rest is a trail), so the extension hardly seems worth it.

 Ashland BRT

Anyone who follows the news in Chicago has heard lots about this project, so I won’t offer my thoughts at much length. Just get it built.  1) In terms of full corridors, I’d rather see BRT on Western than Ashland, but for an initial “prove-it” segment, the one selected for a trial on Ashland makes the most sense of any on either street. 2) Ending the BRT at Irving Park is dumb. The commercial district along Clark north of there needs better transit access desperately, and the sloooowww 22 bus isn’t cutting it. Ashland and Clark have four travel lanes all the way to Devon; run the BRT all the way to the old trolley turnaround at Clark and Devon (currently used by the 136).

Red Line Extension

As I said above, I think some of the goals of this project could be, in the short term at least, met by improvements to Metra Electric District service and by the introduction of Southeast Service (see below). Having both would be great for the neighborhood, though, especially for intra-South Side travel (MED would be much faster for travel to the Loop). The cost estimates I’ve seen seem high, but it’s probably a good project.

Brown Line Extension

This would continue the Brown Line from its current terminus at Kimball as a subway under Lawrence Avenue until it met the Blue Line, where trains would continue out to O’Hare. It’s the first project on this list that would require extensive underground work, which would make it expensive, though tunnelling shouldn’t be too complicated. I’m a little biased on this one, as it would make my parents’ life a lot easier, giving them a two-seat ride (one local bus and then the L) to O’Hare from their home in West Rogers Park. It’s probably a worthy project, but I don’t think it’s a high priority. I also worry about capacity issues on the Brown Line, which is already crush-packed at rush hour, and, as I understand it, can’t run any more trains because of capacity issues in the Loop. Adding riders from west of Kimball would almost certainly exacerbate that problem. Perhaps some Brown Line trains would run through the State Street subway, as has been proposed?

Red Line Modernization

The CTA seems to have done a bang-up job with the rebuild of the Dan Ryan section of the Red Line, bringing it in on-time and on-budget. As far as I am concerned, the challenge on the North Side is much larger. Higher ridership and the lack of a parallel transit option like the Green Line (as well as, let’s be honest, the unwillingness of rich North Siders to tolerate long-term closure) make the possibility of doing something similar on the Howard end remote. But the infrastructure is old and in need of updating. One would hope that any rebuild would include closing some of the stations that are too close together–Jarvis is hardly a train-length from Howard, and Argyle/Lawrence/Wilson are only two blocks apart–as well as a flyover at Clark Junction. Smoothing out the slow curve above North and Halsted on the Brown Line wouldn’t be bad either. Contrary to some, I don’t think any radical changes are really necessary on the North Side L, but modernization could bring massive benefits in terms of reliability and capacity. Being one of the first projects to receive Federal Core Capacity grants makes this a project quite likely to happen.

Blue Line Modernization–Forest Park

Pretty straightforward. I don’t have much to say.

Orange Line Extension to Ford City

Not very interesting. Been in the planning for years. Do it.

Southeast Service

This line would bring commuter rail service to Union Pacific’s ex-Chicago & Eastern Illinois mainline through the south suburbs. In general, I think Chicago’s commuter rail has gone far enough and more money shouldn’t be spent on outbound extensions. The south suburbs through which the line would run, though, are generally very poor and heavily African-American. That simultaneously makes me more open to the utility of the Southeast Service and less sure of its success; how many of the people in Dolton or Harvey or Chicago Heights are commuting to jobs in the Loop? Presumably some are, but the proportion is also presumably much lower than in the more white-collar suburbs that are Metra’s typical hosts. The C&EI line is also a very busy freight corridor, leading me to think that reliability for these trains would be relatively low. The corridor does run through Roseland and other underserved far South Side neighborhoods, though, so if it runs frequently enough it could be a success.

South Suburban ART Network

Not much detail available, so I don’t have a ton to say. Better transit is badly needed in a part of the region that is both relatively poor and heavily car-dependent. An ART network could be truly transformative. I think 95th Street deserves full-scale BRT from the South Shore branch terminus to Oak Lawn.

Airport Connector Express

The first project I don’t like. The idea seems to be to build rail transit of some sort–I assume an L, though it could be European-style regional rail–to connect the two airports, mainly utilizing the Indiana Harbor Belt tracks parallel to Mannheim Road. Firstly, the IHB corridor is possibly THE busiest freight corridor in Chicagoland–the freight railroads aren’t giving up any of the ROW. That means the line would have to be elevated along the IHB tracks, making it very expensive. Secondly, the Lime Line/Mid-City Transitway would presumably already be providing a one-seat  (or at worst, two-seat with an easy transfer) ride between the two airports. I think that long-term the IHB corridor could be a very well-utilized regional rail line, running all the way from Des Plaines to Blue Island or potentially even Gary; but that’s going to require years of negotiations with the freight railroads and probably some re-routing of the traffic that uses that corridor. An express connecting the airports? Expensive as all get-out, and hardly necessary.

Blue Line Extension, Forest Park to Oak Brook

Yeah, okay, the ROW exists, it’s been studied. Would suburbanites actually use it? Multiple Metra options exist not far away, and I can’t imagine off-peak demand would rate extension of an L line. NIMBY opposition would probably be fierce, especially along the former Chicago Great Western ROW, which is where the greatest potential for walkability exists…because the ROW runs really close to residential areas. The tagline for the project on the Transit Future website is “Creates a fast commute to one of our region’s top job centers,” so I guess the thinking is focused on the reverse commute to the Oak Brook corporate center,, which is actually quite progressive (and Chicago has a very strong reverse commute). I kind of get that logic, but let’s extend to Mannheim in Bellwood first and see what happens.

West Suburban ART Network

I doubt this network would be as successful as its southern cousin. Not only are the western suburbs wealthier and less transit-dependent, but they’re also less dense (with the exception with the first ring immediately west of the city). Also, the traffic is absolutely horrible, so not having dedicated lanes could be a death blow. Especially until the IHB ring regional rail line gets built, Mannheim Road should probably have full-scale BRT with dedicated lanes and all; the development along it is dense enough to support it and there is potential to connect with several L and Metra lines.

Blue Line Schaumburg Extension

This one I don’t really get. Would suburbanites really ride the slow (yes, even after reconstruction it will be) Blue Line all the way into downtown every day? I’d think it would make much more sense to drive to the nearest Metra station. I guess the reverse-commute potential is quite high here as well, but I don’t know if it will be high enough to support this long an extension. Also, running trains from Schaumburg all the way into the Loop would likely require express trains, and the Blue Line is two tracks without room for expansion, so how would that be handled?

Purple Line Rebuild

Yes, it needs it. No, it’s not really an express as it stands. I don’t think closing a couple of stations in Evanston (as has been discussed) will make much of a difference. I miss the North Shore Line, and it closed when my parents were two years old. Maybe we should repaint the Purple Line rolling stock in the Electroliner paint scheme.

Yellow Line Extension

This is a no-brainer. It’s short, the ROW exists, and the demand exists. I’d imagine there are times of day when the ridership on the 97 bus exceeds that of the Yellow Line, since instead of ending in a parking lot (ok, it’s got a nice Starbucks too), it actually goes to Old Orchard, which is a major job center (as well as home to the district court, which is a major destination it is own right). There will likely be NIMBY opposition, but I’m not very sympathetic; there were freight trains on that ROW less than fifteen years ago.

North Suburban ART Network

The first- and second- ring northern suburbs (Evanston, Skokie, Lincolnwood, Niles, Morton Grove, Des Plaines) are actually pretty dense and have a decent mix of incomes, with the potential for reasonably high transit usage. Better bus service along corridors like Touhy, Dempster, and Milwaukee (ok, mainly those three) could be very successful. As with the other ART networks, specific features will be key; queu jumps at lights especially could make a big difference.

Analysis and What Else I’d Like to See

Just kidding. That’s another post. UPDATE: New post on the political strategy behind Transit Future here.


UPDATES: Added various hyperlinks, especially in section headers. Thanks to J. P. Velez in the comments.


5 thoughts on “Initial Thoughts on Chicago’s Transit Future

  1. Pingback: Looking West, not East–Analysis of Chicago’s Transit Future | Itinerant Urbanist

  2. Pingback: » South Lakefront Corridor Transit Study — Shame!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s