Why Isn’t CTA-Style Metra Service Being Considered for Lincoln Yards?

Due to Emanuel's apathy towards Metra, the city is focusing on building a new Goose Island transitway

The planning department’s framework plan shows a potential “transitway” route between Goose Island and Metra stations in the West Loop, which two Metra routes already serve. The Clybourn station is at the diverging point of the two routes. Map from Department of Planning and Development, with Metra lines highlighted in red for emphasis.
The planning department’s framework plan shows a potential “transitway” route between Goose Island and Metra stations in the West Loop, which two Metra routes already serve. The Clybourn station is at the diverging point of the two routes. Map from Department of Planning and Development, with Metra lines highlighted in red for emphasis.

Last year the Chicago Department of Planning and Development recommended creating a new transitway that between Goose Island and downtown Chicago. The recommendation, developed as part of the North Branch Framework Plan, seems to be evolving into a concrete proposal, since the DPD has acknowledged in the media that it has been in talks with Lincoln Yards developer Sterling Bay about the possibilty of a light rail route or bus-only lanes. (Lincoln Yards will occupy land along the north branch of the Chicago River that was vacated by Finkl Steel, General Iron, and Lakin Recycling in recent years.)

The transitway would also include a bike and pedestrian trail. Increasing transit access and capacity in the area might become necessary if Sterling Bay’s plans to build lots of housing and offices comes to fruition, or if Amazon chooses to locate there.

If any new transit mode is built here, it should be a robust bus rapid transit corridor with enforced car-free lanes, limited stops, prepaid, level boarding, and traffic signal prioritization, something that doesn’t yet exist in Chicago. Light rail lines are much more expensive than BRT, and light rail lines that have their own right-of-way (rather than being slowed down by car traffic) are even more expensive.

The Chicago Tribune published a map of the possible transitway alignment, using information from DPD’s plan. Notably, the map omitted the existing two commuter rail lines – Metra’s UP-North and UP-Northwest – that run just west of the proposed route between Armitage Avenue and the Ogilvie Transportation Center via the Clybourn station.

It appears that the city isn’t seriously considering the possibility of implementing rapid transit-style service on those two Metra lines as an alternative for transporting future residents from the North Branch Industrial Corridor (an area larger than Goose Island) to downtown workplaces, or vice versa. (Goose Island isn’t zoned for residential uses.) According to the plan, the purpose of the new transitway would be “to increase connectivity with the central business district as well as to other transit modes.” The two Metra lines do that already, although service is infrequent, except for inbound morning rush-hour commutes and outbound trips during the evening rush, so ignoring the possibility of rapid service on these routes represents a missed opportunity.

The failure of the Rahm Emanuel administration to pitch in to improve Metra service as a strategy for boosting transit access for Chicagoans is a recurring issue. The city’s plan for the $2.3 billion CTA Red Line extension to 130th Street largely ignores the fact that similar results could be achieved much cheaper and faster if the CTA collaborated with Metra to create rapid transit service on the nearby Metra Electric District line.

In addition, the city of Chicago doesn’t invest any money in building or rehabbing Metra stations, even though 29 percent of Metra’s stations are located within the city limits. In contrast, Emanuel has invested nearly half a billion dollars in federal and local funds to rehab CTA stations, and used has $100 million in city funds to build two new stations, and is spending $60 million in to construct a new Green Line station at Lake and Damen, largely funded by tax-increment financing money.

Emanuel’s indifference to improving Metra service may be due to the fact that while he has political control over the CTA, he only gets to appoint one out of ten Metra board members, as well as the fact that most Metra commuters don’t live in the city, so he doesn’t have to worry about winning their votes. But increasing Metra service and frequency could provide new transportation options for hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans on all sides of the city where the ‘L’ doesn’t exist, so that would be savvy politics as well as good for the people.

Meanwhile, Metra proposed a station at Peterson and Ravenswood avenues in 2013, and was still intending to build it as of 2016, but can’t move forward with the project due to a $15 million funding shortfall. As of December 2016 the Clark/Ridge TIF district, which covers the station area had about $18 million in unallocated money. Emanuel controls TIF funding so, as with the Lake/Damen stop, he could allocate that cash if he wanted to. But the mayor hasn’t shown much interest in doing so, presumably because the Peterson facility would be a Metra stop, rather than a CTA station.

A rendering shows a relocated and rebuilt Clybourn Metra station. Image: Sterling Bay/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
A rendering shows a relocated and rebuilt Clybourn Metra station. Image: Sterling Bay/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Sterling Bay has included a relocated Clybourn Metra station in its own plan and renderings for Lincoln Yards. R2 Companies, another developer that owns a lot of property on Goose Island, proposed building new bike and pedestrian bridges to facilitate trips between the island and the Chicago Blue Line station and the North/Clybourn Red Line station two years ago. DPD’s Framework Plan acknowledges the possibility of building those bridges.

  • Kevin M

    This line seems way too short–and will therefore serve far too few people–to justify spending precious public resources to build. There are several other city transit needs that would help more people and bring a better ROI than this Goose Island line.

    It is a shame that CDOT/Emanuel is effectively selling out other city transit needs just so that he can help Sterling Bay increase the market price of its pending developments by being able to tout a pending new, private-ish transit line (that the riff-raff of “those other neighborhoods” won’t be riding).

  • Chicagoan

    “Emanuel’s indifference to improving Metra service may be due to the fact that while he has political control over the CTA, he only gets to appoint one out of ten Metra board members, as well as the fact that most Metra commuters don’t live in the city, so he doesn’t have to worry about winning their money.”

    Mayor Emanuel doesn’t want to spend any money or time on a service that he can’t control. Working to improve Metra service is a lot of work that offers little political gain for Rahm, especially with the election and candidates lining up to take a shot at the guy. I get it.

  • Cameron Puetz

    At a minimum, if the Chicago Terminal RR vacates its route, the city should move to project the right of way. If the development plans live up to the hype, the transit connections will be needed. Right now a corridor exists to add transit. It would be a shame if in 10 years the transit is sorely needed but can’t be built because of the land acquisition costs. It’s a rare opportunity to have an resulting fright corridor exist where transit is potentially needed. Even if current conditions don’t justify building and operating the line, at least preserve the right of way.

  • Kevin M

    It has already been decided that those RR tracks will be abandoned:
    “In January, an Iowa Pacific unit, the Chicago Terminal Railroad, gave
    up, agreeing not to oppose Sterling Bay’s application with the federal
    Surface Transportation Board to force the rail company to abandon the
    tracks, according to a recent decision by the board.”
    Source: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/realestate/20180502/CRED03/180509948/sterling-bay-deal-could-bring-606-across-the-chicago-river

  • Cameron Puetz

    Looking at the route some more, why not shift the north end a bit and link up with the Brown/Purple Line tracks? Some trains could be added take this route instead of heading into the Loop, connecting north side commuters to the growing job centers in Lincoln Yards and the West Loop. Since the added trains wouldn’t pass through Tower 9, they’d avoid the parts of the Brown/Purple Line that are at capacity.

  • Cameron Puetz

    There’s a lot of potential political gain if Emanuel could deliver results improving Metra, particularly in the outlying neighborhoods that don’t have great CTA connections. It’s more an issue of being a control freak. With only one board member, Emanuel’s ram rod style doesn’t deliver results.

  • planetshwoop

    it’s deeply disappointing that it has to be so balkanized. People in the city work in the suburbs, and vice versa. An actual regional railroad instead of the deep mistrust would be useful.

  • And what is the impact on the Midwest High Speed Rail’s usage of the pass through tracks between Union Station and Oldivie for through trains from the south to OHare and Milwaukee?

  • Chicagoan

    From my observations, people in Beverly or Edgebrook are driving or walking places, seldom using their Metra stops except to go to a show in the Loop or something.

  • Austin Busch

    Probably negligible, as the alignment seems similar to the Loop Link so would likely by BRT above ground, maybe LRT as streetcar.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I’d assume that O’Hare and Milwaukee trains would continue using the north concourse, which has 13 tracks. Given how many more trains (both Metra and Amtrak) operate out of the 15 track south concourse, there should be capacity to spare on the north concourse. The new route would be coming in about where the tracks start fanning out into platforms, so track capacity past the station shouldn’t be an issue.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Always follow the money. Due to the Great Schism of 1982, Metra gets not one dime from city residents and CTA gets not one dime from the suburbs. Metra has been gracious in renovating various in-city stations recently, but won’t have any interest in running a service that’s primarily for city residents.

  • planetshwoop

    Huh? Plenty of people use the Edgebrook stop for getting to the Loop, as well as reverse commuting to Northbrook/Deerfield for work.

  • planetshwoop

    A different view: see if a model like the DLR in London could be considered. It has driverless trains, was built with simple, standard parts to hold the cost down, and used the old railroad ROW.

    If it is successful in Chicago, it can be extended to other parts of the city.

  • ardecila

    Arguably, Metra would not be a good fit for the corridor. Even with a greater focus on serving city destinations, it needs to remain regional transit. The transitway is very obviously local transit, and it will likely have stops every quarter-mile – far too close together for Metra or even the L.

    Also, the transitway would more directly serve the lands that are slated for urban redevelopment, while the existing Metra Clybourn station (and any infill stations) would be sandwiched between a 10-lane expressway and an auto-oriented corridor on Elston. Even if developers’ wildest dreams come true, the Metra corridor will still not be an enjoyable place to walk to.

  • Cameron Puetz

    There’s also some similarity between the Docklands redevelopment project and the Lincoln Yards redevelopment with a former industrial area trying to change very quickly.

  • Scroller

    And add a Blue Line connection in there too. Chicago’s rail system is already such a rigid hub and spoke that it is practically useless if you are trying to go anywhere that isn’t between where you are and downtown. Some sort of mid-north connection between the Blue Line and the Brown/Red/Purple is sorely needed.

  • Obesa Adipose

    We already have a version at O’hare. Although light rail more expensive to build then a BRT I imagine it would be cheaper to operate.

  • Cameron Puetz

    If you wanted to get real ambitious, bring the new line into the subway stub tunnels at Lake and Milwaukee. Expand the Clinton Green/Pink Line Station to be a subway/elevated transfer station similar to Roosevelt. Then build a concourse under Canal to link Union, Ogilvie, and the CTA. Throw some moving sidewalks in and distances wouldn’t be unreasonable for people with multimodal commutes.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The neighborhoods along the ME are screaming for better transit service. Improving the ME would be a huge political win.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Uh… What the heck’s a “transitway?” It is, until fully defined (actually engineered and out-to-bid), a pretty meaningless term. I, like the author, would like to see — here and in other places in Chicago — “gold-standard” BRT. However, the word “transitway” could just be a regular bus route. Right now, from what I see/read, what is proposed (or rather ‘talked about’) is little more than a ‘potential corridor,’ along or near to which some kind of transit service could be provided. We need to know what — if anything at this point — the City is contemplating / aiming for / thinking about in much more detail. It does seem weird to have a dead-end spur in what should be, or at least should be ‘envisioned’ as, a ‘interconnected transit network.’ That is the problem with Chicago’s mass rapid transit system — it’s not a real network, but rather spokes going out from the Loop. Chicago will never be a truly great city, in terms of mobility and access, until it develops a real connected mass rapid transit network, so folks who live in, say, Andersonville don’t have to go to the Loop to go to Logan Square, which (as the bird flies) is about 4 miles. Such a trip (circa 4 miles) on a good, ‘real’ urban mass transit system should take about… what? 15-20 minutes. Not, most definitely, an hour and 20 minutes!

  • david vartanoff

    From the everything old is new…dept. The original Chicago & Evanston. rail route to Goose Island from the predecessor Union Station became the L North of Wilson Ave in 1926; the south end continued serving freight customers. Now that industry has left, new residents should get transit while development goes on. As always rail is more expensive to build (opportunity for patronage/graft) but provides a better level of service if decently designed. As we already have tracks, there is little excuse for anything less.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The tracks are still visible in the pavement of Lakewood Ave as far north as Barry. You can see the rest of the former path in satellite photos by looking for the gradual arch of odd shaped infill buildings from the corner of Lakewood and Barry to Wrigley Field. There’s also a bridge of nothing on the Brown Line just east of Racine where these tracks used to be.

  • rohmen

    Can rapid transit-style service be feasibly implemented on the Metra lines
    in question? I could see a huge benefit for rapid transit service on the UP-N line for the City stations and Evanston (maybe even some of the Northshore towns as well), but rapid transit service all the way up to Kenosha doesn’t seem to make sense, and would likely be cost prohibitive. Can you easily run rapid transit on only part of the line?

  • James Marsh

    Bad idea, we dont even know if Lincoln Yards is even viable

  • what_eva

    Since the area is otherwise so flat, you can also tell when you cross the alignment due to the slight rise leftover from the tracks. eg, crossing Lakewood on streets south of Belmont, Racine/Roscoe, Clark/Addison, etc.

  • Tone

    True, but the suburbs have treated the City as a pariah for so long it’s hard not to reciprocate.

  • chicagois

    any transportation link can skirt the edges of what must be a large, publicly owned
    park….otherwise this is a smokescreen for the Mayor to continue to snub north side voters as he carts cash to buy minority votes. City has floated over 10 such lines in the last several years…none of them have been built…Sterling Bay needs to pony up for a park or we should not have to build them a private transit line

  • paulrandall

    Why is Lincoln Yards being conceptualized as a suburban style development with the Dominick Street axis, paid for with taxpayer dollars, as an auto dominated, arterial highway, instead of a transit primary, permeable, pedestrian accessible, perimeter with Dominick Street as the right of way for transit and active transportation. Why not build out the North Branch Corridor using a Barcelona superblock model instead? Dominick/Throop will never be a viable north south arterial connector because it dead ends into Webster on the north and dies south of North. There is already so much back up at the North / Elston intersection that dumping the Dominick / Throop traffic load so close to the already over capacity Elston / North intersection is pure folly.

    Using Dominick as the transit / bike corridor makes more sense, especially since the planned river walk is not viable as a shared bike pedestrian space. Lets get our priorities right here.


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