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Everything You Need To Know About CTA’s Red Line Rebuild

A map of Red Ahead projects along the Red and Purple Lines. Image: CTA

The Chicago Transit Authority has begun a series of projects aimed at completely overhauling nearly every part of the Red (and Purple) Line, its longest and busiest rapid transit route. They call these projects "Red Ahead," and together they should dramatically improve reliability on the line, while also increasing service, adding accessible facilities to stations, and the ability to run more and longer trains.

This story collection will be updated with new information as it arises. Click on any link to read prior Streetsblog coverage about Red Ahead. Last updated August 13, 2014.

Why is the Red Line important to Chicago?

The Red Line is Chicago's busiest transit route, and the busiest transit route in the United States outside of New York City. It carries 34 percent of CTA's rail passengers over its 26 miles, between Rogers Park at the border of Evanston, through the Loop, to 95th Street in Chatham. It also transports hundreds of thousands of baseball fans to both Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field every summer.

Why does the Red Line need "Red Ahead"?

The CTA is trying to bring their entire system into a state of good repair. Doing so would perform preventative maintenance and upgrades to stations and tracks, before they become an expensive problem, and therefore reduce annual maintenance and operations costs. As you may have noticed, CTA has long deferred maintenance to save money now, but this costs them more money later.

The CTA says that it cannot run any more Red Line trains through the system because northbound Brown Line trains delay the Red Line at Clark Junction, the split between Red and Brown between Belmont and Addison stations. CTA, using estimates from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, is projecting that neighborhoods along the Red Line are going to continue growing, and so is investing in new capacity for the northernmost reach of the Red Line: increased capacity on the tracks, longer and wider station platforms, and the Brown Line Flyover to separate Clark Junction.

Upgrading the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stations will improve passenger comfort by doubling platform widths to 24 feet. The CTA will add elevators to make them accessible, which isn't currently possible because of the narrow platforms. The stations will be built to coincide with the future Red-Purple Modernization (RPM, see below), a bigger project that will replace aging both the aging track foundation and stations that poorly serve current needs.

What are the projects that comprise Red Ahead?

Red Ahead includes projects all along the Red (and Purple) Line tracks, "from Linden to 130th." Projects under construction in 2014 include:

    • Wilson station rebuilding
    • Clark/Division station rebuilding
    • Harrison station renovation
    • 95th Street terminal

Other projects have begun planning, and so CTA has held outreach meetings for them this year, notably the Brown Line Flyover and station modernizations from Lawrence to Bryn Mawr.

Red-Purple Modernization

Red Ahead also includes the long-term Red-Purple Modernization project. CTA held public meetings for RPM in 2010, but this very complex project's planning and public involvement processes will continue over the next five years.

130th Extension

Additionally, the CTA is conducting an environmental impact study for the proposed, five-mile extension from 95th Street south to 130th Street, near Altgeld Gardens and the city's southern boundary. In August the CTA announced that it has narrowed the five route alternatives to two "desirable options," according to the Chicago Tribune. The project would build four new stations at 103rd, 111th, Michigan Avenue, and 130th Street. Both routes would use some existing freight railroad right-of-way, and the CTA would have to acquire hundreds of properties.

What Red Line work has already happened?

The Red Line has seen several station refurbishment and track replacement projects in the past six years. The biggest improvement replaced ten miles of track on the South Side, between Cermak-Chinatown and 95th Street. The project, known officially as Red South, also renovated stations, bringing all of them to fully accessible standards. It also decreased travel times by 10 minutes between Roosevelt and 95th Street.

Two Red Line stations – Fullerton and Belmont – were replaced in 2008 as part of the Brown Line Capacity Expansion project. The CTA also renovated stations on the North Side Main Line (north of Belmont) as part of what they call the Red North Station Interim Improvements project. These upgrades will last for the next several years, until they can obtain money for RPM.

What is the Red-Purple Modernization project?

Red-Purple Modernization, or RPM, would increase passenger capacity on the Red Line, replace crumbling tracks, and make all of the North Side stations fully accessible. Additionally, the CTA has proposed to entirely dismantle the concrete embankment that the trains run on from Lawrence to Howard. Instead, trains will run on a modern concrete guideway, which will be cheaper for them to maintain and make for quieter operations.

In August, Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, gave a $35 million "Core Capacity" grant to the CTA so they can begin preliminary design, engineering, and environmental planning for the first phase of the rail project. This stage will include rebuilding the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stops to make them wheelchair accessible, as well as replacing track and signaling systems, and widening platforms. It would also construct the Brown Line Flyover.

What are the consequences of building the Brown Line Flyover and how are people reacting?

The CTA said that, to serve projected ridership needs in Lakeview and other north side neighborhoods in the next 25 years, it will need to add more trains to the Red Line. The Red-Brown Line crossing at Clark Street, just north of Belmont, gets in the way, so CTA has recommended raising the Brown Line up and over the Red Line there. Like an interchange in place of a surface intersection, the flyover will take up more space, and would require that some buildings next to the tracks be demolished. However, the flyover would allow the CTA to run many more Red Line trains during peak times.

There seems to be agreement that Red Line capacity is strained, with crowded cars and platforms, but some question whether all 16 buildings have to be demolished to build the flyover.

When will construction start on these projects?

Construction for RPM wouldn't start for at least five years, since CTA must conduct extensive environmental and public review processes that are required under federal law. At the same time, they must also design and engineer the project, and identify funding for the project. The funding will likely take the longest time, as the project is estimated to cost $2 to 4 billion, and neither city, state, nor federal government have extra transportation funds available. CTA applied for funding in November 2013 from a new federal program called "Core Capacity," which was designed for projects like this: existing, heavily used, and capacity-constrained rapid transit lines. Even if CTA gets federal funding, which it did for projects like the Brown Line and Pink Line reconstructions, the state will have to provide a substantial local match.

Smaller projects can be built faster: The Brown Line Flyover could start in 2016, and the Lawrence to Bryn Mawr station upgrades could begin in 2017.

The Red Line extension is also a long-term project -- at least three to four years away. CTA should finish the environmental impact study in 2015, which will include their selection of a preferred route alignment, and then they'll hold a public hearing. The CTA hasn't applied for federal funding yet, but Alderman Anthony Beale (9th Ward) said that the CTA could involve private investors by tapping into the Chicago Infrastructure Trust for some of the funds.

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