Chicago’s first elevated train went into operation in 1892, and since then the system has been constantly shifting. Today, few remember how it looked at its peak, before the formation of the CTA in 1947 out of the privately owned Chicago Rapid Transit Company and Chicago Surface Lines. Since the consolidation, the CTA’s rail network has declined from a high of 227 stations to only 144. Today, however, the tide is turning the other way: although the CTA’s economic difficulties led to the recently announced fare hike, capital projects, like new facilities, stations, and tracks, are often eligible for millions of dollars in funds from the federal government. With Olympic hopes on the horizon, environmental concerns and volatile gas prices driving people out of their cars, and the city once again seeing positive population growth, now is a good time to take a look at a few ways our transit system might expand in the near future.
When the Orange Line was constructed in the early ’90s, the original plan had it extending south past its current terminus at Midway, all the way to the Ford City Mall at 76th Street and Cicero Avenue. Unfortunately, financial constraints caused the plan to be scaled back, but the Midway stop was planned out to allow possible future extensions. Today the CTA is applying for government money to extend the line as part of the Federal Transit Administration’s multi-step New Starts program. This program contributes to qualifying capital projects in cities across the country, although 20 percent of funds must be matched by state, local, or other federal agencies. Currently the project is on the Alternatives Analysis step, which solicits input to determine the “Locally Preferred Alternative” (LPA).
At a public meeting in the mall’s basement on August 19, CTA representatives explained the goals of the extension. For one thing, Midway’s transit center is currently congested with thirteen CTA and eight Pace bus routes, not to mention cars. Moving the Orange Line terminus two miles south would relieve some of that congestion, as well as shorten bus routes that carry passengers to the CTA from the south. The extension would also accommodate new growth around Ford City since the Orange Line was first built. “A lot of the new hotels, commercial [businesses], restaurants have opened up,” attests Ronald Shimizu, a consultant hired by the CTA. “We also have a lot of industry in the area as well.” Shimizu cited projections that show thirty-six percent growth in employment in the area by 2030.
The first stage of the Alternatives Analysis narrowed down the possible modes of transit between Midway and Ford City from an initial eleven options (including monorail and MagLev train) to a more reasonable two: heavy rail (like the existing CTA trains) and Bus Rapid Transit (a nebulous concept that might involve separated bus-only lanes). The Alternatives Analysis project should be completed within a few months, and if all goes well construction may be finished within five to ten years.
The proposed sites for the major Olympic venues in 2016 stretch along the lakefront, from Soldier Field and the Olympic Village south to Jackson Park. Unfortunately, none of these spots are particularly accessible by CTA trains. Hyde Park resident James Withrow has a solution: the Gold Line. Withrow’s proposal would take the South Chicago branch of the Metra Electric line, which runs from Millennium Station downtown past the waterfront venues to 93rd Street, and turn it into a line of the CTA. In practice this would mean running trains every ten minutes and providing integrated fares, so you could transfer to or from other CTA buses and trains for only twenty-five cents. Withrow hopes the trains would be branded as CTA and appear on CTA maps, but Metra would continue to operate them through an agreement with the CTA. “It’s just important for people looking at Hyde Park to realize that operationally they’re on the El grid,” he explains.
Although the name “Gold Line” is a nod to the Olympics, Withrow’s idea was not originally built around the games. “I’ve been working on this for five or six years, or at least talking to people about it, promoting it as something we ought to do,” he says. If Chicago beats out Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo, Withrow believes the Gold Line would be “vital” for transportation to run smoothly in 2016, but its utility will continue beyond then. “I think the best way to put it is that people see this as a good excuse to do the right thing,” he says.
Recently Withrow’s proposal has been adopted by Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and Communities for an Equitable Olympics (CEO) and endorsed by Aldermen Toni Preckwinkle (4th) and Leslie Hairston (5th), as well as Hyde Park’s state senator and representatives. A few weeks ago Withrow got a favorable response from Doug Arnot at Chicago 2016, and he has high hopes that the Gold Line could be up and running as soon as two years from now. The CTA, which has not historically been known to oppose Mayor Daley, should go along with the plan, although Withrow is a little less optimistic about Metra. “You always hope that they will cooperate and actually want to help out, and I look forward to the first piece of evidence that that’s happening,” he says diplomatically.
Withrow has looked into the potential cost of the Gold Line, and it’s not clear yet where the funding would come from. “I never for a minute thought they’d be cheap, but basically the price we were quoted was something like three and a half million dollars per [rail] car,” he says. “I notice that when Governor Palin sold her jet, she only got 2.1 [million] for that, so we’re talking about something that’s more expensive than a jet.” Still, he’s optimistic that the federal government will chip in half the cost. “This is definitely the most pro-public transportation administration we’ve ever had,” he says. And given the clean electric technology and the lasting benefits, he hopes to get funding at the state level too. “This area, especially the area south of here, it was built for streetcar trolleys, it wasn’t built to accommodate a lot of cars,” he points out. “If you have a transit method that people enjoy using, I would certainly hope that both Hyde Park’s retail district and the retail further south of here would be helped out quite a bit by this.”
The almost three-mile gap between Roosevelt and 35th-Bronzeville-IIT on the Green Line used to have a stop in the middle at Cermak Road, long before there was a Green Line, even before Anton Cermak was elected mayor. That stop was part of the original South Side Rapid Transit line, but by the ’70s it had fallen into disuse, partly because of the new Cermak-Chinatown stop nearby on the Red Line, and the CTA decommissioned it in 1977. Now, with the South Loop booming as the Green Line rushes past without stopping, the CTA may wish it had a stop there once again. Since 2002 the agency has been studying that possibility on and off, and last month it received a grant from the RTA to look into a potential new station at 18th or Cermak. Both sites would have their ups and downs: a Cermak stop would help people travel to and from McCormick Place, but an 18th Street stop would be farther from the Red Line stop and closer to the center of the South Loop. No plans are in place yet, but look for future public meetings to be held.
The Red Line extends farther south than any other CTA rail line, but it terminates at 95th Street, a good thirty blocks north of the city limits. According to the CTA, residents of the Far South Side experience twenty percent longer commutes than the rest of the city, and expected job and population growth will only increase congestion in the area. Since 2007, the CTA has been conducting an Alternatives Analysis study in the hopes of receiving funding from the FTA’s New Starts program, which may also fund the previously mentioned Orange Line extension and has in the past funded reconstruction of the Pink and Brown Lines. A meeting in April 2007 solicited public input on three proposed routes: Bus Rapid Transit or heavy rail running along Halsted, Michigan, or the Union Pacific railroad tracks from 95th Street south to about 130th Street. All of these alignments would better connect Pullman, West Pullman, Roseland, and the south suburbs with the rest of the city. According to comments submitted to the CTA after last April’s meeting, heavy rail along the Union Pacific route was the favorite, although the Halsted and Michigan routes were also supported by some. Specifics including station locations will be discussed at the next public meetings for the Alternatives Analysis, scheduled for December 3 at the Historic Pullman Visitor Center (11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave.) and December 4 at the Woodson Regional Chicago Public Library (9525 S. Halsted St.). Both meetings will take place from 6-8pm.
Graphics by Ellis Calvin