Is $2 Billion Red Line Extension Best Way to Provide Transit in Far South Side?

Architect's rendering of a proposed CTA Red Line station at 103rd Street and Eggleston Avenue. The Union Pacific railroad tracks are left of the station.
Architect’s rendering of a proposed CTA Red Line station at 103rd Street and Eggleston Avenue. The Union Pacific railroad tracks are left of the station.

The Chicago Transit Authority released a major study today, the next step in the developing project to extend the Red Line southward from the 95th Street terminal to 130th Street in the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood. The Environmental Impact Study is required by the federal government before the CTA can ask for funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The CTA has been studying the Red Line extension for decades. Former mayor Richard J. Daley promised it to residents of Roseland and Pullman when the Red Line’s Dan Ryan branch opened in 1969. In 2009 the CTA finished a required “Alternatives Analysis” wherein they studied different routes and modes to provide transit service in the area that the extension would serve.

The CTA determined it would be in their and residents’ best interest to extend the Red Line, using the same kinds of tracks and vehicles as the existing rail service, from 95th Street, west to Eggleston Avenue (400 West), and then south along an existing Union Pacific-owned freight railroad right of way.

Four new stations would be built at 103rd Street, 111th Street, Michigan Ave at 116th Street, and on 130th Street, at approximately 950 East.

The CTA said the project would cost about $2.3 billion. The Chicago Tribune reported last week that the extension could be up and running in ten years, with construction starting in 2022. That’s an optimistic timeline, and it presumes that funding can be secured from many sources, primarily the federal government. Required matching local funds could be provided by an existing TIF district and, in theory, the state of Illinois, although it’s been a long time since state lawmakers have been able to pass a budget.

The Chicago City Council is currently debating whether or not to approve “transit TIF” districts. A new state law would allow the city to draw a transit TIF district around the Red Line starting at Madison Street and going all the way to 130th Street along the existing and proposed tracks. The transit TIF would allow the city to take out a federal loan to help pay for the extension.

Transit increases property values, and a portion of the increase in property tax revenues after establishing the district would pay off the loan. After the Chicago Public Schools a portion of the new money that’s proportionate to its share without a TIF district, 20 percent of the remaining funds would go to other taxing bodies, and the other 80 percent would be used to pay back the loan.

For the first time, the CTA also released a citizens’ guide to the Environmental Impact Statement that summarizes and describes the content of the full document, and is a welcome addition to the discussion about the need for rapid transit service in Roseland, Pullman, and Altgeld Gardens.

Since the Red Line extension would cost $2.3 billion, it’s necessary to consider whether this would be the smartest way to provide rapid transit service to Roseland, Pullman, and Altgeld Gardens. A recent article in The Chicago Dispatch points out there’s existing rail transit infrastructure in those neighborhoods in the form of Metra’s Electric District lines.

map of Metra Electric district and proposed Red Line extension
A map shows the proposed Red Line extension in yellow, and nearby existing Metra Electric lines in blue.

The Metra Electric already has stations on 103rd, 107th, 111th, 115th, and 121st and State Streets, all within one to one-and-a-half miles of the proposed CTA stations. Both the Metra Electric (solid blue line) and the South Shore Line to Indiana (dashed blue line) currently run close to the Altgeld Gardens housing project, but neither line stops there.

Planners at the Chicago Department of Transportation, CTA, Metra, and the Regional Transportation Authority, haven’t shown interested in restoring rapid transit service to Metra Electric stations. Sandy Johnston, who studies railroads and rail transit in Chicagoland told The Chicago Dispatch that CDOT’s South Lakeshore transit study in 2012 “totally sandbagged the option of restoring frequent service on the Metra Electric.”

But the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric, a collaboration between transportation organizations and South Side community groups, as well as citizen advocate Mike Payne, who has long proposed turning the Electric line into a rapid “Gray Line,” have pushed strongly for this service restoration.

On the other hand, it’s likely that many residents of the areas that would be directly served by the Red Line extension wouldn’t be satisfied solely by the creation of rapid transit service on the Electric line. They’ve been waiting for decades for the Red Line to be extended further south. Moreover the fact that the backbone of the ‘L’ system runs all the way to the city’s northern border but stops several miles short of the southern border has long been a symbol of transit inequality in Chicago.

The relevant problem with CTA’s Environmental Impact Study, and the Alternatives Analysis that preceded it, is that the CTA isn’t required to coordinate with other agencies. The fundamental issue is that the studies didn’t figure out the best way to provide transit service in the underserved neighborhoods – provided by any and all transit operators. The studies are instead a recommendation on how the CTA can provide transit service.

The CTA will host an open house and public hearing in West Pullman on Tuesday, November 1, 2016, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at St. John Missionary Baptist Church, 211 E. 115th St. You can submit a comment for the record at the event, or via email.

  • ardecila

    Lots of interesting tidbits buried here, including the fact that CTA is planning 3700 new parking spaces along this corridor. Potentially a good park and ride option for the Red Line could lure suburban commuters for whom Metra’s limited schedules don’t work. There are lots of people in the northern suburbs that drive to CTA’s Cumberland stop instead of relying on Metra.

    I’m also suspicious of the $2 billion cost figure. Keep in mind that they are projecting costs to Year Of Expenditure, so that is less than $2B in 2016 dollars. Also, I seem to remember that the total cost figure included new railcars for the extension and a whole new yard for the Red Line, which would need to be built even if the line weren’t extended.

  • The Gray Line could be up and running as a CTA ‘L’ service in approximately ONE YEAR, instead of 2026. (maybe)

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Hey — Why not BOTH: shorter-term, transition Metra Electric to more of a “mass rapid transit” service line AND, longer-term, extend the Red Line? To remain truly viable into our kids’ and grandkids’ future, Chicago NEEDS a MUCH MORE, MUCH BETTER mass rapid transit system! Right now, we have a very incomplete ‘network’ (more like a “partwork” than a network).

  • I didn’t have a chance to read the EIS before posting this. Plus, what one can find in the EIS can probably span several posts.

    Re: 3,700 new car parking spaces – really? According to Jake Peters, who posted about this on Twitter, that’s a 55% increase in car parking spaces.

    Spending public money on building parking is a poor use of funds, even if that money is to get people onto public transit. It’s because we’re spending 2x as much money to subsidize that transit rider now: 1x for the car parking space, and 1x for the transit ride.

    I think that the amount CTA would have to charge to cover the debt of the new parking facility is probably more than people are willing to pay, thus the CTA would have to transfer funds from other sources (which could include rider fares) to pay it back.

    A potential benefit of subsidizing parking for transit riders would be that those drivers aren’t using highways, thus reducing congestion and pollution there (although the congestion is a wash because the newly vacated space on the road could fill up with different drivers).

  • ardecila

    I have mixed opinions on this. As I mentioned, Metra has suburban park and rides already, but the service levels suck for off-peak and weekends. Ergo, most people other than 9-5 commuters will drive downtown. Providing a park and ride at 130th at least gives south suburbanites a transit option that doesn’t suck, and drops them off right at popular destinations like Wrigley Field, Museum Campus, Mag Mile, Daley Plaza, and Sox Park (which Metra doesn’t).

    Even if the garage can’t sustain itself financially, I think taking cars off the Dan Ryan is worth some kind of public subsidy.

    The other park and rides planned at 103rd/111th/Michigan are wholly inappropriate. Maybe it would be excusable if CTA did community planning to eventually turn those lots into mixed-use development…

  • ardecila

    Of course, this assumes the line is getting built. A better, regional strategy would spend that $2 billion to improve Metra service and establish better connections to CTA service. Maybe a short, cheap one-stop extension of the Red Line to 100th/Cottage Grove for a Metra Electric transifer.

  • david vartanoff

    Mike is, of course, right; his Gray Line project is the better version both in terms of cost/benefit and time until service begins.
    The Metra Electric was built in the 1920s as a major mass transit style commuter system featuring local and express trains and high throughput capacity. The South Shore Line (now NICTD) was operationally integrated serving the far Souh Side as well as Indiana as far as South Bend. Between Kensingon on MED and Hegewisch, there were until the 60s four local stops including one at 130th virtually where CTA wants to put the Red Line terminal. Hegewisch has been used in modern times for “short turn” NICTD service from Millennium using Metra equipment diverted from other routes. Thus, there is precedent for restoring the local stops, and instituting frequent headway service from Hegewisch to Millennium.
    The basic point is that RTA already owns both the MED, and the ROW from Kensington to Hegewisch, adding platforms and restoring the double trackat Kensingtpon(already on NICTDs “list”),is small change compared to engineering and building a new RR.

    The key to making all of this work is frequent trains AND total CTA fare integration–ventra readers, tag in, go, w/ full transfer rights to all other CTA services at NO surcharge. POP w/no on board fare sales.

  • I’ve seen zero sign in my entire lifetime that Metra has interest in running less than half-hour headways or serving any population except suburbs-to-downtown commuters during well-defined morning and evening rush hours.

    They just can’t (or won’t) run an actual public transit service. So throwing money at them will just improve service to Kendall County and encourage more mcMansions even further out.

  • Brian Sheehan

    I agree, though I would recommend an extension beyond that point someplace within the vicinity of
    Olive-Harvey College/103rd and Stony Island, which would be an appropriate location for a park and ride (and a large bus terminal), as well as providing the theoretical transfer station you mentioned at 100th/Cottage Grove, which is of course the most critical part of your idea.

    Though, in that case, I can’t image why they couldn’t also use the median in I-57 for its original purpose;
    it could serve as another extension of the Red Line, as a branch going all the way from Blue Island to Howard during peak hours, and as a shuttle from 95th to Blue Island at all other times, with shuttle headways matching those on the main portion of the line, timed to meet Red Line trains at 95th for easy transfers.

    It would serve areas largely quite far from Metra Electric. Since the right-of-way is already there
    in I-57, I imagine it’d be quite cheap too.

  • BEFORE Metra even existed, in my lifetime, I rode the I.C.’s rapid transit service to and from work downtown (Goldblatt’s), to 87th on the Mainline (Woodruff) for many years during the 60’s.

    The physical plant can be operated as rapid transit — Metra choses not to (at present) because of City/Suburban political/funding conflicts.

  • “Even if the garage can’t sustain itself financially, I think taking cars off the Dan Ryan is worth some kind of public subsidy.”

    Counterpoint:
    “Once some space opens up on roads, however, motor vehicle traffic has a way of quickly filling the vacuum.”

  • JacobEPeters

    Exactly. Although, which is short term & which is long term can change may depend on whether you view constructing a new $2.3b right of way, or reforming the operations of a Metra line as the more herculean task.

    But if we compare this to the far north side transit options, having both doesn’t seem very redundant. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/36c1075755fd9be46f8f9a736322ce42d398fb3b579252e674b99b501d5ef064.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/628ba1053e8d2af6e6ca7ce4d6fb886dda13f192b8ae0dfc2788c9e09ce4a51e.png

    These 2 maps are both to the same scale & both show around a dozen stations in a similar area, and the distances between Red Line & Metra Stations might actually be a bit longer than the distances between the same services on the north side. Improved commuter rail frequency will be a godsend for those south side residents who live near existing stations, but a large swath of this area will still have over 20 minute walks to any of these stations. If we’re talking equity, then neither investment makes the other one superfluous.

  • chriskazaglis

    I find it odd that this proposed addition runs next to the metra line and even goes over it, but no one thought to have a red line stop next to a metra station so people could transfer.

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