Next Stop

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.

Orange Line Extension
Possible Orange Line Extension
Above: One potential route of the Orange Line south of Midway Airport

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.

Gold Line
Location of the proposed Gold Line
Above: The proposed route of the Gold Line, along what is currently the South Chicago branch of the Metra Electric

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.”

South Loop Green Line Station
A possible Green Line stop at 18th Street
Above: A possible Green Line stop at 18th Street

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.

Red Line Extension
Three considered Red Line extentions
Above: Three potential routes of the extended Red Line south of 95th Street

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

8 comments for “Next Stop

  1. James Reyes
    December 1, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    The Gold Line sounds like a good idea.Several years ago I proposed building a temporary el line,the Porta-el.It could be used to help prevent Olympic grilock.Such a system could also be used for temporary highway bridges.It could be used to provide temporary repairs to road and rail bridges after natural disasters or terrorist attacks.So highway and homeland security funds could also be used to design, manufacture and store such a system.

  2. gray line
    December 2, 2008 at 10:29 am

    The gold line proposal sounds quite like this:

  3. Harvey I Kahler
    December 3, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    What does a guy on the North Side have to say about any of this? Well I worked for the Chicago Area Transportation Study, now part of Chicago Metropolitan Transportation and Planning (CMAP), and thought about the issues for a long time.

    Orange Line Extension:
    Until last year, I thought extending the Orange Line to Ford City was the only reasonable rail expansion proposal on the table for all the reasons given in the article. I have since come to understand that this extension would disrupt service to Midway Airport that comprises a natural transportation center and travel destination. Truncating buses at Ford City would imposes an inconvenience, time, and a cost for the transfer for this relatively short distance.
    Furthermore, I see the Midway bus terminal expanding to host express routes, foremost to Rosemont and to West Suburban employment centers such as Willow Springs, Oakbrook, O’Hare, Elmhurst-Addison and Thorndale; and to Metra connections at Hinsdale, Elmhurst, and Bensenville to outlying western suburbs. These express routes would use the Tri-State Tollway for much of the way.
    For these reasons, I would rather see a busway constructed between Ford City and Midway if traffic congestion and signals on Cicero result in significant differences in passenger-hours of travel or unrealized potential riders.
    However, there may be a trade-off for the majority of riders continuing beyond Midway that also need to be considered. Would more transit users be gained with additional suburban access than lost potential new or diverted transit riders traveling into the city?

    Gold Line:
    James Withrow is credited here for suggesting the Gold Line; but I know Mike Payne has pushed this idea as the Gray Line for a number of years. Mike also proposed extending Gray Line service to 115th (at Cottage Grove) on the Mainline. I strongly urge expanding Gold Line service to include the Mainline with branches to Blue Island and Hegewisch. These branches provide local services mostly within the city, reduce the distances for Pace feeder buses, eliminate the needs for a costly, nearly $1-billion extension of a parallel Red Line, reduce competing express bus services, and offer integrated connections between the suburbs and City. The CTA express buses, albeit attractive for speed and cost, divert riders and reduce efficient utilization of both the CTA and Metra rail systems and CTA arterial routes. The differentials in rail and bus fares and transfer costs exacerbates the problem. A premium service is provided at a bargain price. In the Loop, precious street lane capacity is consumed by buses.
    I think it’s possible to integrate a CTA Gold Line service with Metra without costly changes to segregate tracks through fare controls. The challenge is for outbound ticket inspection at the gate or on board Metra and NICTD trains. Boarding any inbound train after paying a fare is no problem.
    I’ve studied the Millennium Park (Randolph St) terminal and think there is adequate capacity for 8-min South Chicago and respective 16-min Hegewisch and Blue Island Branch (8-min Mainline) headways. This would increase the average wait time by only two minutes in comparison to a Red Line extension.
    A reconfiguration of turnouts leading to the platform tracks may be needed at Millennium Park. The other needs are a fourth main track between Roosevelt and Monroe, and a platform for South Shore (NICTD) trains at Van Buren, bi-directional signaling and positive train control, and expansion of 115th Street with at least a third track and second platform.
    Additional trains would be needed for either a Red Line extension or the Gold Line, so the difference in cost would be small, given the need to replace life-expiring Metra railcars.

    Green Line:
    A new station at 18th St is a commendable idea; and so is Balbo, given development in the area and convenience for Loop L routes.

    It is all the more essential to preserve the Canadian National tracks across the South Loop along 16th Street for a connection between McCormick Place and Union Station with connections to West and North Suburban Metra Lines. Selected North Central (to O’Hare Transfer) and Milwaukee District trains could be extended to McCormick Place for connections with the Gold Line, Electric District and South Shore trains and minimize the number of transfers for trips across the region. This is especially important for improving access between high unemployment and job-rich areas.

    The metaphore of a tree with roots on the South Side is unfortunately parochial and fails to address the needs for access between Chicago and its suburbs. More fitting would be a heart on the South Side with arteries across the region.

  4. Sam Feldman
    December 4, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Harvey Kahler,
    You have a good point about the Orange Line extension; it would inconvenience travelers from the south riding the bus to Midway, as they would have to transfer to the Orange Line for the final 17 blocks or so of their journey. On the other hand, the extension to Ford City can also be viewed as a first step towards an Orange Line that extends even further to the south or southwest. Also, given Midway’s current congestion, it would be useful to separate out those routes that primarily carry commuters to the CTA (which would then be moved south to terminate at Ford City) and those that primarily carry people to the airport (which would continue to terminate at Midway).

    You and the commenter before you are quite right to point out that James Withrow’s Gold Line proposal had its origins and inspiration in Mike Payne’s Gray Line idea. I agree with all your comments on extending CTA service to the other Metra Electric branches, and I’d only add that the South Chicago branch might be the best place to start. If it proves to be a success, it will be easier to take on the Blue Island branch and Hegewisch.
    -Sam Feldman

  5. train nut
    February 13, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    While it would be nice to see more train service on any line, the gold line proposal is not a financially workable proposal. Metra’s cars are about dead. New cars cost about 4 million each since each car is a locomotive. Couple that with the proposed $2 fare? you have to be kidding? Metra is required by law to recover 55% of it’s operating costs out of the fare box. the south Chicago trains are on average only 20% full and during rush hour never more than 2/3 full.

    It appears, while a very nice idea, the costs are way out of bounds for a CTA type of fare structure to support.

  6. Buddah
    April 20, 2009 at 6:09 am

    In regards to all of these pet projects there just that pet projects nothing will get formalized from the gold/grey line as it only purposed as a possibility for the Olympics not for Hyde park. Its better off building the needs to match the city and not the one time needs of the Olympics. What most users and citizens don’t understand it that the CTA will need a dedicated right of way ROW for L train cars The FRA makes sure of that no way around it. Which means 2 new tracks all the way from downtown to 115th st paralleling the current Metra electric line which is a waste of funds. Metra will not be in the business of running metra electric trains every 10 min or so to suite CTA’s needs if the current metra trains and tracks were to be used instead. With the finished overhaul at Millennium station for Metra/NICTD there’s almost no room for a new CTA terminal to be built in the same area. Metra has also said there system is to capacity under FRA guidelines so no new trains could be added on the route without a major overhauls on Metra’s part.

    From downtown to the southside people need to remember it cost nearly $500k per mile of track laid and since a new double track line will be need that’s a cost of $1 million per mile not including concrete pillars, structures, and stations just to lay new track. If CTA really wanted to expand and be cost effective to the south east side then buy the south Chicago Metra electric branch from 70th and Kenwood to 93rd st. and extend the Green line from 63rd and cottage grove down to the Metra/IC make a flyover and build parallel tracks for CTA use from 63 to 70th and connect it to the south Chicago branch and eliminate the Metra under way connection. This would be at a cost of 1/10th the cost of the Gold/Grey line and provide the same extended CTA rail service for the east side. A similar project was done with the CTA decades ago it it now called the Yellow line (Skokie swift) was once the North shore line.

    next the Red line expansion is a good idea but again a different ROW will be needed to keep the cost minimal. Im inclined to say when you have a good idea stick with it and running down the middle of the expressway is the best. Id continue the Red line down I-57 to 119th. st or build it as a branch line that connects to 95th st. station that’s the best possible solution for the lowest cost.

    Orange line yes the poster above was right extending the line would complicate things to much for midway its best to terminate orange line trains at midway and use it as a hub. In that respect a light rail system could be build from midway down to ford city and points further south (Oak lawn) to free up bus transit along Cicero. Again most cost effective solution Only the fact that we would need new light rail train cars and facilities would push the price up for that project.

  7. April 29, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Would more people ride from Blue Island and Hegewisch with the fare going from $4.00 one way to downtown Chicago to a C.T.A. like $2.50 like fare? I was told by a Metra conductor more riders would ride the train but the fares will never go down and Metra and C.T.A. are two different entities.This really would get more riders and even more revenue coming in thoe I would think.I really was looking forward to a Metra southeast corridor route going to Dolton and like Lansing and Chicago Heights and like over to Glenwwod like areas and then on south to Beecher,Illinois.This would really get more traffic off the roads from this region and Indiana commuters have to drive to Hegewisch and Hammond as thier is nothing unless you come west over to like Homewood Metra station for the electric mainline.Your C.T.A. running the Blue Island and South Chicago branches and the Hegewisch on the South Shore line really would help and then Metra could run all of its far south mainline Metra trains express after the 115th Street Kensington station which would become a double platform station making this I call a super transfer station with all this extra activitie of more trains.The South Shore is already putting back in another feeder track at the Metra mainline junction where the South Shore merges with the Metra Electric mainline to allow a train to merge going both ways at the same time coming into and out of the 115th street Kensington transfer station as I always refer to it as it operates now and in the past.Look at 1973 photos of Kensington station back then and thier was double tracks back then for the South Shore merging onto and across the Metra mainline tracks.They took that one track and over head wires down and now already the overhead wires beams are in place but the extra track has to be laid back in and thier is the room for it going past that switch tower my relative worked at for years and years that she always diplayed the American flag at,but now the tower is empty as the railroad automated more already back in 2005 and up to 2009 and since the tower is closed the flag has come down as she was tranfered to the 63rd street tower and now that tower closed and she has to run the switching dispatch operations from downtown Chicago.Dan of Blue Island all my life since 1962.

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