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O’Hare Express Train: Bad, But New Damen Green Line Station: Good.

At a press conference yesterday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new Green Line station at Damen Avenue, and later in the day, at another press conference to give a speech about his past infrastructure accomplishments, he announced that he is recommitting to the terrible, very bad O’Hare express train proposal.

This article was originally posted on my blog, City Notes.

The proposal won’t save nearly anybody any time and will probably cost the city a ton of money if it ever happens, while serving mostly as an abstract bragging right among rich business travelers. I’ve written before about why this is bad; all those reasons still apply.

Some people have suggested this will only happen if it can be done entirely with private money. Here is what I will say: There is virtually no prospect that this line will turn a profit. As I mentioned in the Chicago Magazine piece, Toronto’s line, which is logistically far superior to any express we might build, is miles away from even breaking even on its operating costs, let alone making up for its construction costs. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has proposed an alternative way to get to O'Hare quickly: use existing Metra infrastructure.

That makes me extremely skeptical that a private company would be willing to shell out for an O’Hare express at its own risk. Far more likely, especially given the city’s far-from-stellar record in negotiating public-private partnerships, is that if this went through, it would be because the city had assumed a large share of the downside risk if the express didn’t turn a profit. In other words, I can’t imagine a scenario where this project happens and Chicago residents don’t catch the bill.

Damen/Lake CTA station in 1949
The original Damen stop on the Lake St. elevated line being demolished in 1949. Image: CTA via

The other announcement was happier: the Chicago Transit Authority will build a new infill Green Line station at Damen and Lake. Emanuel said construction would start in 2018 and the station would open in 2020.

This is replacing an older station that was put out of service after World War II, just like the other two Green Line stations – Morgan and Cermak – built since the Grand Blue Line station was reopened in 1999.

The Damen stop is being pitched as "serving the United Center," but that’s pretty silly: it’ll be barely closer to the stadium than the current Ashland Green Line or Illinois Medical District Blue Line stations. The difference in walking distance is 0.2 miles.


Rather, the new station will serve much more important purposes. In addition to a decent number of homes, it’s in the middle of a major industrial corridor, with more than 6,100 jobs within a half mile of Damen and Lake, according to the Census Bureau's On The Map. But perhaps even more than Near West Siders, who already have the option of the Blue Line’s Forest Park branch about three quarters of a mile to the south, the Damen Green Line station is great news for residents of Ukrainian Village.

In fact, after providing service to the Kinzie industrial corridor, the station’s most important function may be relieving the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch, which struggles with overcrowding during rush periods. While someone living in Ukrainian Village today might take the Chicago or Grand buses to the Blue Line, once the Damen stop is complete, they’ll be able to take the Damen bus (or walk or bike) to the Green Line, and get on a much less crowded train—and one that, if they work in the West Loop, may even be more convenient to their office.

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