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

Mike Payne. Photo: Steven Vance
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.

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.

  • CIAC

    I am so sick of hearing about this Gray Line idea. There already is more convenient transit in that area than most areas of the city. There is express bus service downtown from Hyde Park, at all times (or at least nearly all times), that gets there in minutes. There is the Metra Electric line which also is very convenient. And Metra has just this past year increased the frequency of trains to Hyde Park. Now, I believe, the longest wait for any train is 20 minutes. So basically, they’ve already done half of what Payne keeps pushing for, the increased frequency of service. I guess now all that’s left that would supposedly, in his view, lead to Payne’s dream scenario of “thousands of new jobs” and a huge stimulation of the local economy is the “fare integration” and the lowering the price of the Metra ticket to match CTAs. What does he think this is going to cause? Tripling the ridership on Metra and none of this coming from the CTA bus trips? He thinks lowering the price of a trip to Hyde Park from whatever it is now to $2.50 is going to make that much of a difference? No it won’t. And even a tripling of total transit ridership during non-rush hour times (you have to assume that this is impossible during rush hour since it just doesn’t make sense for multiple reasons) wouldn’t even create the economic effects he thinks it would.

    And almost none of the people who visit the Presidential Center (I’m glad you didn’t refer to it as a library because, contrary to what a lot of people are expecting, it won’t be one) are going to make any decisions about whether to use a rail line vs. driving or ride share or cab based on whether the rail line charges $2.50 or $5 or $6. So anybody who thinks that this idea for a “gray line” makes any type of significant difference in whether roads need to be widened just isn’t thinking clearly. Again, Metra has already increased service to Hyde Park in terms of frequency between trains. So that part’s done. I’m curious if Payne is noticing any of the extraordinary increase in jobs and the economy near stations that he’d expect. Basically, half of his proposal has been implemented.

  • craterlet

    To the extent that this plan involves turning the Electric District over to the CTA, it would benefit the South Side (well beyond Hyde Park) and serve as a more cost-effective alternative to the Red Line extension. However, we’d be better off advocating for the Crossrail Chicago proposal, since it would have city-wide benefits and connect the South Side to both the Loop and O’Hare employment centers.

    I don’t know — given the way Metra runs, perhaps it is more realistic that Metra would choose to divest itself of one of its assets than to reconfigure and improve its service. That is a shame though, because I think that Metra has the potential to be one of the biggest agents for creating a more sustainable future for our 8.5 million-person region.

  • Dennis McClendon

    The trips on Cornell—or any replacement lanes—aren’t between downtown and Jackson Park. They’re commuters from the Far South Side and southern suburbs. The Gray Line is quite irrelevant to them.

    There’s an intrinsic appeal to the Gray Line: the IC once provided rapid transit-like service, and perhaps it should again. But on closer study, it’s not so compelling. The cost per new rider would be extremely high, it would turn lots of one-seat rides into three-seat rides, and there’s very little likelihood of spurring any spinoff development given the existing density of South Shore. Payne’s, um, rectally derived, numbers notwithstanding, RTA’s 2012 South Lakefront Corridor Study found only modest benefits and high costs for the “Gold Line:”

    If it were assumed that capacity expansion at Millennium Station and along the main line was not needed, the capital cost per new rider would be over $13 and the overall cost per new rider (including operating costs) would be over $35. . .. The operating cost of the Gold Line service plan would be substantial at approximately $60 million annually. The average operating cost per rider would be $12.90. Current operating costs per rider are about $8 per rider.. . given the relatively low cost-effectiveness of the project, obtaining the necessary Federal New Starts funding would be very difficult. TOD impacts are not expected to be large since there already is existing rail service in the corridor.

  • Jeremy

    “Payne’s presentation before the CTA board was a good example of a private citizen speaking truth to power.”

    That is the problem. Government in this area operates on the adage of: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

  • JacobEPeters

    If there was simply a standard transfer fee between Metra & CTA, & the entire system used the same fare card, that would likely boost Metra Electric ridership in city neighborhoods, potentially justifying increases in service frequency over the following years. I just don’t think that it requires a lot more than that in order to draw people back to using the service in the neighborhoods that are currently far from Green & Red Line service.

    However, I would love if the next time Metra bought rolling stock, the local Metra Electric consists were designed to be lighter, more compact, tram-like vehicles, in order to reduce cost of fleet & operating costs, but I believe that would require a change in FRA regulations for vehicle design that shares track with the existing Metra longer haul commuter rolling stock.

  • craterlet

    This is 10 years old, and is about intercity rail, but it gives a sense for harmful the FRA is on these issues:


    There is a FRA waiver process, but I’m not sure how hard it is to get or why few to no agencies apply for it.

  • craterlet

    Capacity at the downtown stations is a problem mainly because they are all terminal stations (if that is the right term). Through-running a la Crossrail would allow for more train arrivals, at least a Union Station. Another problem that should be addressed are the terrible train sets that Metra uses: bi-level cars with one door do not make for quick dwell times.

    As for the demand, I think that is hard to predict given some of the neighborhoods that are served by MED. Parts of the area have seen dramatic population declines over the last few decades. That could continue to happen, it could stabilize, or those areas could start to get built up again. I can’t predict that future, but it seems more likely to see growth with solid regional rapid transit to downtown and the Northwest Side than with a commuter train that is too expensive to ride.

  • CIAC

    No. It’s more likely an example of the government not being candid enough to private citizens when their ideas are not plausible. Probably because the want to avoid sounding disrespectful these government bodies just ignore Payne’s ideas instead of telling him why they are impracticable. Then he states ” [my proposal] been totally ignored.” Or maybe they did explain why it wouldn’t work and he just considers that to be ignoring it. There are people like that, either one agrees with them or “ignores” them.

  • CIAC

    Just a reminder that all the areas of the south side near the Metra Electric service have convenient express bus service to downtown. That’s one thing people lose sight of when they have these grandiose ideas of how spending a lot of money to improve service on the Metra Electric line would cause an extraordinary increase in transit ridership.

  • craterlet

    All the way out to University Park?

  • CIAC

    Huh? University Park isn’t a city neighborhood. It isn’t even remotely close to the city. I don’t think even the supporters of the “gray line” and similar proposals are suggesting that the entire Metra Electric line become a CTA line, with CTA prices and frequency. They are focusing on the south side. That, of course, raises further questions about the practicality of the Grey Line idea. How do you charge CTA fares for some riders but not others? But obviously, as bad an idea as converting the city portions of the Metra Electric line to a CTA line would be it would be light years even more absurd to convert the entire Electric Line to a CTA line. What’s going to be cut to do that? There would need to be a lot of things. And I don’t think anybody is suggesting this. So I don’t understand your question.

  • Glenn Gabryel
  • david vartanoff

    Turning the MED into the Gray Line within CTA’s service district require tiny investment with large potential return. RTA has already committed to deploying ventra on Metra routes; writing software to honor CTA passes for tag on, tag off usage is relatively easy. Ramping up service to more frequent service requires more crews and inevitably more maintenance personnel.
    The next step is to implement Gray Line service between Kensington and Hegewisch. This will require restoring a couple of local stations which had existed in prior years–one of which would be at 130th exactly where CTA’s Red X is planned to terminate in a decade or more. The value of using the MED and South Shore Line tracks is that service could be brought on line at vastly lower cost many years sooner.

    About the Obama center specifically; the CTA Jackson Park Branch should be restored to Stony Island including an intermodal station connecting to MED, and instituting a bus from 63rd & Stony to the center.

  • neroden

    Those buses are called “duplicative service”. The Illinois Central used to run trains every ten minutes. With turnstiles and magnetic swipe cards. Metra seems unwilling to restore the rapid transit service which worked just fine in the 1960s…

  • neroden

    The whole of Metra Electric should operate as rapid transit. Whether it’s “CTA” ior not is irrelevant, but it should be rapid transit.

  • neroden

    BS! The Illinois Central essentially operated the Grey Line scheme from the 1920s through the 1960s. It’s about as practical as you can get.

    His proposal is literally PROVEN IN SERVICE FOR 40 YEARS.

    The city knows damn well that it’s 100% practical. *Everyone* knows it’s 100% practical. The city doesn’t want to do it for essentially turf-war reasons.

  • neroden

    It’s totally OK if people switch from CTA bus trips to the Metra Electric. It means the CTA saves a ton of money on operating buses slowly through crowded traffic, while putting more people on the trains keeps the cost of the trains the same.

    20 minutes is not rapid transit service. It needs to be 10 minutes.

  • Champ

    He is also a Gifted Athlete!