Central Area Committee Pushing New Downtown Rail Transit (Again)

The Connector Transitway would first be built between Union Station and Streeterville (Columbus/Illinois, the white dot to the right of "Red Line-Michigan Av").
The Connector Transitway would first be built between Union Station and Streeterville (Columbus/Illinois, the white dot to the right of “Red Line-Michigan Av”).

The Chicago Central Area Committee, a coalition of business executives, has proposed to build a network of automated rail lines downtown and in nearby neighborhoods to expand transit capacity for growing areas and better connect underserved communities. Their proposal includes a plan to provide rapid transit service on the Metra Electric corridor, something many South Siders have advocated for, which the committee says would help spur development.

The CCAC formed in the 1970s, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s it supported Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to build light rail as a downtown circulator shuttling workers between the two West Loop train stations and high-density job centers elsewhere in the central business district. The current proposal has the backing of some of those who worked on this plan, including former UIC Urban Transportation Center director Steve Schlickman, and the Metropolitan Planning Council.

The Chicago-based MacArthur foundation is offering a single $100 million grant for an idea “that will make measurable progress toward solving a significant problem” on “any critical issue.” The committee is trying to win the grant in order to kickstart their plan for a revised circulator that also heads south to better connect neighborhoods around Jackson Park and the Obama Library, which is slated to be built in the park.

The CCAC worked with the Urban Transportation Center to produce a detailed report explaining how a modern and automated train – with rolling stock that’s incompatible with CTA’s ‘L’ system – would finally connect the major downtown transit nodes with each other.

The first phase of the new system, which they call the “minimum operable segment,” would link Union Station, the Ogilvie Transportation Center, the Merchandise Mart, and Streeterville using Clinton Street and the abandoned Carroll Avenue route, which is north of the Chicago River. This section, the report said, would cost $750 million, or $375 million per mile and is the most “complex part” of the complete proposal.

More downtown rail transit is necessary, the report said, because over 100 million square feet of development is projected to be built over the next 20 years, and existing rail transit can support only a third of that. Downtown is also gaining many new residents, and existing downtown bus service is atrociously slow (although the Loop Link express bus corridor represents a modest improvement that will get better if prepaid boarding is implemented at all stations.)

Additional branches would head to areas that are underserved by rapid transit. One line would run from the Loop through the former Cabrini-Green area, terminating at the North/Clybourn Red Line station. Another would pass through Pilsen along the 16th Street corridor, terminating at the 18th Street Pink Line stop. A third would run through the Roosevelt/Clark development to meet the Orange Line at 18th Street. Building these lines, the report said, “would support the Chicago Transit Authority’s efforts to increase the efficiency and reach of the existing rail system and improve distribution of workers within the enlarged central business district.”

Map of Connector Transitway
Full map of the Connector Transitway.

Another branch would head south from the Orange Line and the Museum Campus along the Metra Electric right-of-way to provide rapid transit service to Kenwood, Hyde Park, and Jackson Park, an idea that has strong support from transportation advocacy groups and community organizations.

The $100 million grant wouldn’t actually be used to construct the new train routes. Like the circulator plan from the 1990s, a Special Service Area or transit TIF district would be overlaid downtown to levy a 0.25 percent property tax to fund the infrastructure.

CCAC would use the $100 million grant to create the Chicago Transit Redevelopment Trust, which would coordinate planning with transit agencies, and buy and invest in property along the lines, according to Crain’s. After starting construction, the Trust would use these real estate holdings to generate more investment on the South Side.

That may be challenging. Relatively little development followed the construction of the Orange Line or the rebuilding of the Green Line – both of which occurred in the mid-90s. There are still dozens, if not hundreds of parcels along these existing lines that are vacant or developable.

And it’s unlikely MacArthur –despite spending more of its money in Chicago than elsewhere – would fund this because of the proposal’s heavy focus on commercial development.

Greg Hinz wrote in Crain’s that “it’s trial balloon time” and that “big-think city planning” in Chicago has “almost disappeared.” This is a big proposal, by all means, but it’s resurrecting a decades old idea to increase downtown transit capacity that probably should have, in some form, been built.

  • I’m all for more rail, but I do wonder who they think is going to pay the lion’s share. And convince all local stakeholders that it’s a good idea to have it coming through right next to their properties.

    Because the bit mentioned in here likely won’t raise anything like the amount of money in question …

  • Obesa Adipose

    They’d get the money from the same sources that bankrolled the $450million for the Jane Byrne interchange project with the difference that this project will actually relieve traffic congestion.

  • John-Charles Sokolow

    I can’t help but think, if they did do this, making the system incompatible with the current CTA `L` would be a huge mistake. We don’t need three separate transit systems. There’s already `L` and Metra which are technologically very different we don’t need a third thing.

    And it’s not just a technical consideration, if this isn’t an extensions of the `L` will it share the same fare structure? Will there be free transfers like there are from red line to brown, or any of the other major lines.

    While I am 100% in support of expanding Chicago’s rail network, we need to expand it not add something new that competes with it.

  • Combin8tion

    Absolutely nothing wrong with having multiple type of rail transit in the region. Many major cities world-wide have different types of rail. Japan, for one, has the high-speed bullet trains, inter-urban heavy rail and intra-urban subway or metro systems; none of which are compatible with the other but work well together to move people. Germany has U-Bahn, S-Bahn and inter-city regional trains that while somewhat compatible are very different types of systems with their own rolling stock.

    Chicago needs to move beyond the outdated, narrow gauge rail that is the CTA. It causes the CTA to overpay for rolling stock that must be custom designed for the gauge and it leads to overcrowding as the cars are necessarily narrow. Hopefully, this proposal thinks far ahead of what urban transport should be.

  • mkyner

    Tying in the Metra Electric project here seems like a bit of a stretch for a system more focused on the city center and immediately surrounding area. I think it would make more sense to with the ME proposals that use Millennium Terminal and then just connect to this new system at Museum Campus and McCormick Place.

    What about a line down Michigan Avenue? There are no L stops between Roosevelt and Cermak, and this proposal doesn’t fill that gap. Crain’s ran an idea recently to make Michigan more pedestrian-oriented. Including a streetcar service along there could be part of that.

  • Bodega Mayback

    Just a couple points:

    There is no 18th street orange line so i don’t know what it thinks it will connect to there. I think an 18th street orange would be pretty great for east pilsen and china town though, so maybe it’s a proposed new station in this graphic.

    There’s also a missing metra train transfer, and that is the halsted train stop in pilsen.

    Lastly, it looks like it’s indicating that there is a blue line clinton station shared with the green and pink line. There is a blue line clinton station and a separate green/pink line clinton station, but they are roughly 3/4s of a mile apart. Other than those graphical critiques i applaud the ambition.

  • Kevin M

    CTA trains roll on standard gauge.


  • kastigar

    What’s missing: the 606 Trail needs to be extended from the east to connect to the Metra-Clybourn Station and the Finkel Steel area.

  • kclo3

    The central segments have extremely short stop spacing; combined with the heavy branching, this system would be very operationally similar to Miami’s Metromover. The outer segments however seem to rely heavily on future greenfield development proposals, and would otherwise have pretty weak ridership and could probably be replaced with better Metra service a la Gray Line. On that note, the plan also strangely doesn’t use the St Charles Air Line approach into Union Station, instead choosing two routes on Roosevelt and Cermak that would only split frequencies and give poor service between both. Using that line and adding Orange/Green and RI transfer stations would be a stronger solution for transfer rather than serving each separately.

  • what_eva

    I’m not sure what else can be reasonably done to connect the 606 to the Metra station. 606 drops you on Ashland, go one block north, cross Cortland and you’re at the Metra station.

  • cozzyd

    Not sure how you could go easily go down Roosevelt with the El above and the Red Line below. Also, might be worth having it stay on the West side of the river until Roosevelt.

  • oogernomicon

    Funny that idea of stakeholders having “it coming through right next to their properties.” Once upon a time, the properties came up alongside the tracks to begin with. And it made pretty awesome sense, too.

  • Re: Short stop spacing north of Harrison: If it really were automated, it could run shorter trains at higher frequencies, spend little time at each station, so short stop spacing wouldn’t really matter.

    The short stop spacing is necessary in a high-density area. The elevated Loop ‘L’ has short stop spacing (now with one fewer stop when the new Washington/Wabash station opens). If you don’t have this, then your stations become overcrowded quickly.

  • The Orange Line runs along 18th Street from Clark Street to State Street (one block). There’s an interchange here with Red Line tracks coming up from the 13th Street portal.

    Yeah, it should stop at Halsted.

    This plan isn’t probably gonna get anywhere, but if it can point more attention to the OPPORTUNITY to increase frequencies on the Metra Electric line then that’s welcome.

  • I think tying in the Metra Electric, and saying that all of the revenue generated from the investments that this is supposed to generate would go to support investments on the South Side, is a way to say that this is an equitable plan.

    I don’t think this plan is feasible, and the part about getting $100 million from MacArthur Foundation is the least feasible part about the plan.

  • The CTA runs on standard gauge, like Kevin said, but it has shorter cars because of the tight turns it makes.

    I think the CTA should plan for a future where it operates two kinds of trains: the current stock for elevated lines, and a longer stock on the Red Line (preventing it from going “over the top” in the future), and Blue Line.

  • Those property owners actually thought rail was a net plus for their businesses (and knew it was the most efficient way for employees and customers to get to them). Many current property-holders prefer to orient towards cars, and view rail as noisy and mostly full of poor people.

  • It doesn’t seem to make sense to me to create an all new infrastructure paralleling the MED all the way to 79th (why stop at 79th?).

    The present MED infrastructure utilizing Highliner II’s seating about 150+ per car, would have a much higher per-hour passenger capacity than rolling-stock even smaller than CTA ‘L’ cars

    Would there be duplicate stations, or would some on either line be eliminated?

  • I’ll bet I don’t get it either, even though the Metra Electric part of their idea is something I have been pushing for two decades: https://app.box.com/shared/jqvpx489un

  • BlueFairlane

    Though not as tight as those on the Loop, the curves in the Blue Line tunnel are fairly sharp. Could they handle longer cars?

  • What then would happen to Red Line service IF the State St, Subway for some reason became unusable (flooding, tunnel collapse), maybe even for weeks!

  • kclo3

    It doesn’t necessarily have to be new infrastructure, if these hypothetical cars can run standard gauge and under DC catenary to be drop-in compatible with ME. Along with serving restored infill stations between 27th St and Hyde Park, the new cars could run local service to 67th St, allowing South Chicago ME trains to also run limited-express service along the trunk to McCormick, in a manner similar to the North Side Main Line.

  • The cars/trains they are proposing are like London’s Dockland’s Light Rail, even smaller/lighter than CTA ‘L’ cars; neither those nor ‘L’ cars could run immediately adjacent to Class I Rails, due to current FRA Regulations: http://media3.picsearch.com/is?rairCSTRcqaFKWpVgAGkXK_rn2SGnv1hmgPByHMpbBU&height=243

  • kclo3

    FRA is only a big obstacle when it comes to transit-freight sharing, the recent wave of light rail transit has softened the regulatory climate such that MED, which is already segregated from freight, could probably gain an FRA waiver to host non-compliant trains easily.

  • A question no one has definitively answered, even as the CTA spends billions on new cars. :/

  • Benjamin Recchie

    A couple of observations about the proposed map (see page 20 of their report):

    -Besides the stations serving the new lines, they’re also proposing a new Red/Orange station at 18th, a new Pink LIne station at IMD, another Pink Line station at the United Center, a new Blue Line station near Clinton/Milwaukee (w/ transfer to the existing Green/Pink station), and an Orange/Brown station at North/Clybourn, as well as all the proposed Red Line stations to 130th.
    -The Orange Line no longer goes around the entire Loop, but follows the Brown Line north all the way to Kimball.
    -The Purple Line is routed through the State Street subway to Roosevelt. (Ed Zotti proposed something similar years ago, too.)
    -It’s not mentioned, but it seems likely that Metra would close their lightly used stations at 18th, 27th, and Halsted, in favor of the more frequent service offered by the new lines.

  • david vartanoff

    routing thoughts. The Clybourn/Finkl branch should physically interchange w/ the existing Lso that Purple Line trains can service the west of the river/Union Station Area directly then head south to terminate at McCormick Place or perhaps the Reese 27th site. There is zero value in building new incompatible trackage along the MED–put back the 5th and 6th tracks (removed between 11th and 51st circa 1960) and implement the Gray Line including double tracking the South Shore to Hegewisch. Restore on that segment the stations at 130th and 3 others which cover the area of the overpriced Red Line extension and can be implemented in a couple years. extend the Pink south to a wye with the Orange–second route east to McCormick, and with restored Paulina Connector gives us O’Hare to Midway skipping downtown.
    Indeed much should be built/implemented, but using the parts we already have is worth considering

  • Keith

    Not a city planner, engineer, or transportation expert, but can someone tell me why the city wouldn’t connect the blue/brown/red line on north avenue. The stations are a few miles apart and that would connect Bucktown/wicker/Logan with Lincoln park/Lakeview. Would also help give access to the blue line to O’Hare for those neighborhoods. Just a thought.