Transportation advocacy organizations and community groups have joined forces as the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric, pushing for improvements to the commuter rail line that could lead to better job access and more economic development on the South Side. They want to see rapid transit-style train frequency, fare and schedule integration with the CTA and Pace, and – eventually – the extension of the line all the way to O’Hare.
Right now Metra generally runs trains only once an hour on the Metra Electric District line, which goes about 30 miles from Millennium Station to south suburban University Park, with a few more trains running during the morning and evening rush hours. As such, it’s not nearly as useful as an ‘L’ line for general travel, and it’s not a great option for non-standard work commutes.
However, it wasn’t always that way. The MED started its life as a rapid transit line with dedicated tracks and closed stations. The Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric wants to go back to the future, so to speak, by bringing back frequent service, with trains every 10-15 minutes, all day long.
Nowadays, if you need to ride downtown from the south suburbs or Southeast Side via the Metra Electric and continue on to a workplace on another side of the city, you need to pay the Metra fare, which is higher than the $2.25 charge for an ‘L’ ride, and then pay full fare for another train ride. Unlike riding on the CTA with a Ventra card, you don’t get a free transfer. As a result, some South Side residents choose to take a CTA bus to an ‘L’ line for their commute because it’s cheaper, even if the MED would be quicker.
The coalition wants to fix that problem by piloting tap-on and tap-off use of Ventra on the MED. This would allow customers to tap their Ventra card on a sensor before and after their ride, with the appropriate fare deducted according to the distance traveled. It would make it possible to provide a transfer discount for customers switch to the CTA or Pace.
In the long run, the coalition wants to see the MED connected to O’Hare Airport using Metra right-of-way, with stops at McCormick Place and Union Station, a scenario the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has proposed as part of its CrossRail plan to build a regional network of fast trains.
Mayor Emanuel wants to establish an express train between O’Hare and the Loop, so the MED solution would be a way to do this while creating better transportation access for residents of low-to-moderate-income communities on the South Side. That way the O’Hare Express wouldn’t just be a train for elites, and there would be the added benefit of direct access from the airport to conventions at McCormick Place for business travelers.
The idea of rapid transit on the Metra Electric has been around for decades. In the Nineties, rail advocate Mike Payne proposed having the CTA take over the MED, a scheme he called the Gray Line. In the 2000s, residents proposed a similar idea dubbed the Gold Line to provide frequent transit service to the Southeast Side as part of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.