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Mike Payne: Let’s Improve Rail Access to the Obama Center Instead of Widening Roads

Mike Payne. Photo: Steven Vance

On January 8th there was a small victory for residents who want to see the Obama Presidential Center plan be less car-centric. Bowing to pressure from citizens and community groups, the Obama Foundation announced that they would not be building an above-ground garage at the east end of the Midway but would instead be submerging the 400-450-car facility under the center's Jackson Park site.

Still, the city is planning to spend more than $100 million to widen Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue near the new cultural amenity to mitigate any negative traffic impacts of pedestrianizing Cornell Drive east of the center’s campus. (It’s not clear that there would be any, since six-lane Cornell is currently far too wide for the 19,300 car trips per day it currently accommodates.) But since the campus is right by the 59th Street Metra station and is served by several CTA bus line, the situation begs the question of whether we could avoid spending all that money road construction by instead beefing up transit service to the area.

As such, longtime transit advocate Mike Payne’s presentation at the monthly CTA board meeting on January 10 was very timely. For decades Payne has been pushing for the Gray Line, his proposal to convert the infrequent service on the Metra Electric District Line to rapid transit and integrate its fare system with the CTA and Pace, including lowering the price of a ticket. He’s not alone in this respect – in 2016 a consortium of 14 South Side groups formed to advocate for similar goals.

The Metra Electric District line runs right by the Obama Center site in Jackson Park.
The Metra Electric District line runs right by the Obama Center site in Jackson Park.
The Metra Electric District line runs right by the Obama Center site in Jackson Park.

At the meeting, Payne argued that the conversion could be accomplished relatively cheaply since most of the necessary infrastructure for the Gray Line already exists. He added that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has shown interest in the plan.

“I have been lobbying for the Gray Line since 1996, and have addressed the Metra, RTA, and CTA Boards many, many times,” Payne said, adding that he planned to address the Metra and RTA Boards this week. “But [my proposal] been totally ignored.”

Payne argued that the enhanced transit access the Gray Line would provide could lead to significant new investment and development in communities of color on the South Side, potentially creating thousands of new jobs and pumping billions of dollars into the local economy. He noted that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s current pet transit project is to create upscale express service between the Loop and O’Hare, and tech mogul Elon Musk recently declared his intention to dig a tunnel for the line, but relatively little attention is being paid to expanding transit service in struggling neighborhoods in the near future.

Payne acknowledged that Emanuel has also been – slowly – pursuing the possibility of extending the Red line from the 95th Street terminal to 130th Street near Altgeld Gardens. But he noted that $2 billion project could take many years to come to fruition, especially with the current transit-hostile administration in Washington D.C. Moreover, the proposed route covers much of the same territory as the Electric District line.

“Also the Gray Line would provide direct CTA ‘L’ service from downtown to the Obama library campus,” he concluded. “His foundation is currently offering no type of improvements to public transit in the area -- only road modifications.”

Payne’s presentation before the CTA board was a good example of a private citizen speaking truth to power. After all, it makes no sense for Chicago to spend many millions of taxpayer dollars to facilitate driving to the Obama Center only for those who can afford to do so. As Payne stated, investing in the Gray Line and other enhanced transit service would be a much more prudent and equitable solution.

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