Envisioning an Ambitious Future Metra

Chicago’s antiquated commuter rail system has been in the news a lot lately, from its long-running patronage scandal that included the suicide (by one of his own trains) of one CEO and the resignation of another under political pressure to a rough performance during one of the worst winters in memory. Now, though, Metra is attempting to turn a corner, with a process underway for creating the agency’s first strategic plan, and long-overdue fare hikes planned to pay for a new capital plan.

Metra is certainly attempting to shore up its public image. But the strategic planning process that is underway is sadly lacking in ambition and vision. As Daniel Kay Hertz writes in NextCity,

Service innovations like increased frequency don’t yet appear anywhere in the strategic plan, and a Metra spokesperson confirmed that the agency has no plans to move in that direction. In August, Streetsblog Chicago reported that one board member flatly rejected that kind of service expansion, claiming that running a single extra train during rush hour would cost over $30 million. (Aikins, however, reports that GO Transit spent just $7.7 annually to adopt half-hourly frequencies on its two biggest lines.)

And Metra is, famously, paralyzed in its ability to act on any ambitious projects because of a governance structure that incentivizes suburb-on-city warfare:

There are also structural barriers: Metra doesn’t own all of its tracks, and some carry freight trains that would interfere with frequent service. But even on the lines it does own — including South Chicago — Metra’s governance structure makes regional, big-picture planning difficult. Unlike GO Transit, which is run by the province of Ontario, a controlling share of Metra’s board is appointed by suburban officials, who have historically shown more interest in competing with the city for dollars than collaborating on a regional transit strategy.

Paralyzed Metra may be. But it’s all the more sad, because the Chicago area actually has a rich set of assets that could make setting up the nation’s premier regional rail system a relative snap, certainly easier in degree of engineering difficulty than equivalent situations in Boston or New York.

In short, advocates of turning “commuter” rail systems into “regional” rail argue for turning infrastructure currently used mainly for peak-hour commuting into rapid transit, with more-frequent service across a greater span of time. Imagine trains coming on your local Metra line every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Chicago has long been recognized as having unequalled assets for such an approach; although many of Metra’s lines do, as Daniel pointed out, share tracks with long, slow freight trains, there are several that do not; the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s map of freight trains per day in the city area is a very useful asset for envisioning this.

The line currently known as the Metra Electric District has attracted the most attention in terms of rapid transitization, and for good reason. The passenger tracks are fully separate from freight tracks; there are at least four tracks for passenger trains all the way out to 111th Street; the line is already fully equipped with high-level platforms, a necessity for getting people on and off the train quickly; and within the city of Chicago MED runs through poor, mainly African-American neighborhoods with poor transit access.

Seriously, you're running THIS as commuter rail? Image via Steve Vance and Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Metra_Electric_District#mediaviewer/File:Metra_Electric_(15449778660).jpg

Seriously, you’re running THIS as commuter rail? Image via Steve Vance and Wikimedia Commons

Plans for turning the MED (usually the mainline as far as 67th and then the South Chicago branch) into a rapid-transit operation have come from various sources, including the amateur, the governmental, the academic, and the advocacy world. Most recently, a rapid-transitized MED has been incorporated into Transit Future and into the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s plan for a CrossRail Chicago. The latter plan brings in the element of using the St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge to connect the MED to Chicago Union Station. From there, trains would use renovated platforms on CUS’ two run-through tracks and proceed over newly-electrified tracks currently serving Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service trains to a connection with the O’Hare Airport People Mover.

Image via The Transport Politic

Image via The Transport Politic

These proposals are a useful starting point for envisioning the future of Metra, the last one in particular. Though excessively focused on the needs of white-collar Chicago (promotional literature touts it linking “O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago”), the CrossRail Chicago proposal shows a kind of vision—moving large numbers of people across a very large city, rather than forcing them to transfer or otherwise navigate the congestion of the Loop—that a full-scale Regional Rail system would need. Though the benefits of through-running trains through downtown Chicago itself may not be great, it is operationally easier than using the numerous dead-end terminals that currently plague Chicago, and does open many potential crosstown commutes.  And though I’d rather see a tunnel under the Loop to connect MED to the rest of the system in the long run, using the SCAL and CUS run-through tracks is significantly more realistic in the short term.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the CrossRail proposal is the best place to start. It would involve electrifying some tracks that are shared with freight trains; the MD-W right-of-way varies between 3 and 4 tracks wide, and reconstructing the line for electrification, fully separating freight and passenger traffic, and installing high-level platforms, while doable, would be fairly expensive. There are two other North Side Metra lines that are entirely or nearly entirely freight-free, UP-N and UP-NW; why not start with them?

CMAP Freights Per Day Map

CMAP Freights Per Day Map–North Side

The UP-N line carries zero freights per day south of Lake Bluff and runs through dense North Side neighborhoods desperate for more transit service, making it initially an attractive candidate for the first wave of rapid transitization. There are however, a few challenges. While the UP-N ROW has room for three tracks as far as Evanston, one of the three trackways is currently unused and built over by stations in several locations (including the brand-new Ravenswood station), making restoration of the third track somewhat challenging and pricy. Adding in rapid-transit locals with frequent stops would tax the capacity of the existing two tracks at rush hour. In addition, there is currently no direct track connection between the CUS run-through tracks and the UP lines, which terminate at the ex-Chicago & Northwestern Ogilvie Transportation Center. This isn’t as big a challenge as might be imagined, as there’s really only one building standing in the

Sorry, Cassidy Tire.

Sorry, Cassidy Tire.

way of linking the CUS approach to the tracks that once led to the C&NW Navy Pier Branch, which could be (with some work) re-purposed to carry trains up to the UP lines. Altogether, there are enough challenges with the UP-N line that it’s not the lowest-hanging fruit for North Side regional rail.

That title, in my opinion, falls to its sister operation, the UP-NW line. It checks off all the boxes. Zero freight traffic? Check. More than two tracks? There are three or more, meaning one could be reserved for peak-hour diesel expresses. Currently runs through an area in need of rapid transit? Once it leaves the path of the Blue Line at Jefferson Park, certainly. Transit-supportive land use? The neighborhoods and towns along UP-NW aren’t as dense as most of the North Side closer to the lake, but they were originally railroad suburbs, and retain a decent degree of walkability. There’s even an opportunity for supporting local bus service, with Northwest Highway running parallel to the tracks. I would argue that UP-NW is the natural Phase 1 North Side partner for a regional rail system incorporating MED and CUS run-through tracks.

There are, in fact, two options for connecting CUS to UP-NW; one is a direct connection via the aforementioned demolition of the Cassidy Tire building; the other involves sending trains first west and then north on tracks used by Milwaukee District-North trains to Mayfair (adjacent to Montrose Blue Line station) where they’re rejoin the UP tracks. I favor the second approach for two reasons: 1) with the provision of several infill stations, it holds the promise of bringing rapid transit service to an area of the city currently without it, whereas UP-NW runs mostly parallel to the Blue Line and 2) it would begin the infrastructure work for a Phase 2 buildout of the O’Hare branch. There are challenges; the line is only double-tracked in parts, and it does host occasional freight, so clearances for infill stations might be an issue. But I think these are much more manageable than the challenges on other lines.

Time for some maps? I think so. Here’s my proposal in Google Maps.  Toggle through the three layers (button at upper left) to see what I’m proposing for phases 1 and 2; I’ve also included an expanded version of the Mid-City Transitway concept, a more elaborate project that I think would be crucial to any future re-orientation of the Chicago transit system away from its Loop-Centrism, but which I’m not discussing here.

In summary:

Phase 1

  • Institution of rapid-transit style service on Metra Electric at least as far as 111th Street.
  • Blue Island and South Chicago branches to be run as shuttles, with South Chicago probably having direct service to Randolph Street at peak hours.
  • MED-CUS connection via St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge over the Chicago River, including a new infill station in the South Loop, possibly with L connections (this is the most expensive part of the whole project).
  • New Northwest Rapid Transit Line, including electrification and high-level platforms via MD-N tracks to Mayfair and UP-NW to Des Plaines or beyond (Arlington Heights is a possible terminus).
  • Service pattern would be through trains from Des Plaines to 111th Street. Expresses from suburbs would continue to downtown stub-end terminals.

Here’s what Chicago’s rapid-transit system could look like after Phase 1 (I’m bringing back the old Chicago tradition of west-facing transit maps!). Click on this and the following images to embiggen:

Phase 1_Final

Phase 2

  • Reconstruction of UP-N with three tracks and high-level platforms as far as Evanston; demolition of Cassidy Tire building to provide direct access to CUS.
  • Reconstruction of MD-W  and NCS tracks, including isolation of passenger service from freight as far as Franklin Park, electrification, and high-level platforms.
  • Service patterns could take any number of forms, with three northern and three southern termini.

Here’s what the system could look like after Phase 2:

Phase 2_Final

And with the Mid-City Transitway (which, if it is ever built, will probably be an L line) providing a belt line:

With mid-city

At this point, with three lines feeding in from the north, and a large amount of traffic from the south, the poor two run-through tracks at CUS would probably be verging on a capacity breakdown, so this seems like a logical place to stop. How much would this plan transform Chicago? Well, it could provide easier commutes for thousands on North Siders to the South Loop, Hyde Park, and the like; and it would likely make service jobs on the North Side more accessible to disadvantaged South Side communities. It would also mean expensive L expansions like the Red Line extension to Roseland aren’t necessary; indeed, I think it’s likely that both initial phases could be completed within the anticipated budget of the Red Line extension. That being said, dollar-for-dollar Chicago’s best transit investments probably lie in improving bus service, whether that’s re-prioritizing local buses or a transformative bus rapid transit system.

A rapid-transit conversion of these lines, though, is low-hanging fruit; it’s cheap, easy, and could be very quick. The essential problems, as always, are political. Metra’s skewed, paralyzed governance structure would need to be convinced to go along with a project that primarily benefits city-based riders. Transit unions would need to accept one-person operation of trains on the new service for it to be affordable–a common practice in Europe, but one an insurmountable barrier in the US thus far. In many ways, though, I think that building political momentum for this kind of a system could be easier than improving Chicago’s buses; it’s a cost-effective fix that doesn’t involve taking road space away from drivers or investing in (much) fancy, expensive new infrastructure. Let’s get Metra moving.

A Few Notes

  1. Other than the SCAL-CUS connection, the most expensive part of this plan would likely be buying rolling stock. Metra’s new MED gallery cars, identical in most respects to the ones in operation on the diesel lines, have only one set of central doors–not ideal for rapid-transit operations.
  2. The “other” low-hanging fruit on the Metra system for rapid-transitization is the Rock Island district; I think it’s a lower priority because it runs parallel to the Red and Green Lines for much of its length. It’s possible future target for this kind of conversion, though.

An Ambitious Plan for Regional Rail in Downtown Chicago

So I was going to save this post for later as part of a series on Chicago transit (good stuff coming!), but I set off an enthusiastic discussion on Twitter this afternoon about the concept of using a little tunneling to through-route regional rail and high-speed trains through downtown Chicago:

Click on the tweet or my feed to read the whole discussion. Since this seems to be what we Jews call in Aramaic inyana d’yoma, the matter of the day, I figured I’d do a brief bit now; maybe I’ll come back to it in more depth later.

Several urbanist/transit writers, most prominently Stephen J. Smith (now at NextCity) and Alon Levy, have been beating the drum about the massive potential of using what are currently regarded as “commuter” rail lines through city centers, effectively turning them into all-day-usable, frequent “regional rail” systems. Most of these analyses that I’ve seen have focused on East Coast cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The concept, though, has also taken root in Chicago; the Gold Line proposal has long made a compelling case for rapid-transitizing the Metra Electric District (no seriously, this is a no-brainer), and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ambitious CrossRail Chicago plan combines infrastructure preparations for true HSR with through-routing of commuter trains.

CrossRail Chicago is, to me, the single most ambitious and potentially transformative transit project Chicago has seen in a long time (short of the full Transit Future slate being built, of course). But why, I ask, stop there? The CrossRail plan still relies on renovating a couple of relatively low-capacity, vulnerable pieces of infrastructure: the two-track, sharply-curved, St. Charles Air Line, and the currently mostly-unused run-through tracks at Chicago Union Station. Trains would have to make several sharp turns to transition between legacy rights-of-way that weren’t intended to work together, meaning that they’d have to travel through downtown pretty slowly–something that might impact HSR trains severely (Today, Amtrak trains coming into CUS from the Air Line back into the station–I once sat on the connection on a late-running City of New Orleans for a full hour while the Metra rush-hour trains made their exit. To be fair, that connection would be upgraded under the CrossRail plan). But the CrossRail plan would only transform two of Metra’s numerous commuter rail lines into regional rail-type operations, and there’s only so much that can be done when through-running relies on two low-speed run-through tracks. Can we aim for something more ambitious?

The stereotype of Chicago’s commuter rail system is that it predominantly shares its tracks with heavy freight traffic. That’s certainly true of a couple of the busiest lines–UP-W and BNSF–but several Metra lines actually see little or no freight traffic. (For those not familiar with the Chicago rail network, CMAP’s map of freight trains per day on various lines is an invaluable resource.) Metra Electric trains share a ROW but not tracks with freights; meanwhile, freight is for all intents and purposes nonexistent on the UP-N and UP-NW corridors, nearly so on the Rock Island District, and at manageable levels on the Milwaukee District lines and the SouthWest Service corridor. That’s a lot of potential for rapid-transitization, probably more than the CrossRail proposal can handle. So how might we handle a full rapid transitization of the Chicago commuter rail network?

Here’s one idea:

What you’re looking at is a system of tunnels connecting the Metra Electric District, Rock Island District, and all of the North Side lines (UP-W, NW, and N, MD-W and N, NCS), with the focal point being an underground superstation under the CTA hub along Lake Street between Clark and Wells. Tunnels would curve north and west from the existing Millennium Station to run under Lake Street, passing under the existing CTA subways to a deep-level station, and reconnecting to the rail system west of the Chicago River. Meanwhile, a second set of tunnels would bypass LaSalle Street Station (or stop at new underground platforms underneath it), and run under LaSalle Street until joining the east-west tunnel under Lake.

Aside from enabling high-speed through-running through the Loop, this system would mollify what has always been one of the biggest complaints about Chicago’s commuter and intercity rail stations: that they don’t connect well with the city’s transit system. A superstation running several blocks under Lake Street could connect regional and intercity trains alike, including HSR, with ALL of the L lines that run through the Loop (I couldn’t get the transit layer to display in the new Google Maps editor, but they’re all right there). And it would bring commuters into the heart of downtown, closer to the densifying (and already very dense) River North area.

Such a project would, of course, be massively expensive (not my area of expertise–Alon, if you’re reading this, want to leave some estimates in the comments?), but I’d argue it’s a much better solution for future true HSR than using the geometrically-restricted and somewhat remote Union Station. Bringing through-routed riders into Clark and Lake is also far preferable to dumping them at Union Station. It’s probably in the realm of fantasy. But sometimes it’s fun to dream.


  • The connection between the LaSalle tunnel and the Lake tunnel is awkward, and I’m not sure where the LaSalle platforms would go. But that’s probably deal-withable.
  • I’ve tried to note what I think would be realistic portal areas for these tunnels. Arguably, you could get some of them closer and save some money by taking a few buildings, but the further the portals are from the deep-level station, the less steep the grades down will be, which helps speed.
  • Dennis Griffith suggested re-using one of Chicago’s under-appreciated lower level streets to bring trains to River North. That’s an intriguing idea, but I’m not sure how feasible it is (trains would have to cross other lower-level streets at grade, for one thing), and I’m not sure where trains would go on the other end.

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.