Auburn Gresham Metra stop, which broke ground yesterday, could spur South Side retail
Auburn Gresham used to have a commuter rail station on 79th Street as a part of the old Rock Island Railroad. After the Rock Island Railroad entered bankruptcy, the station was closed in 1978. The Regional Transit Authority took over the commuter rail service on this corridor in 1980, which became the Metra Rock Island District line, but did not bring back the Auburn Gresham station. Monday marked the groundbreaking for the new Auburn Park Metra station on the RID line, which will start construction next year.
Carlos Nelson, CEO of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, spoke at the groundbreaking about growing at 79th Street and Lowe Avenue, next to the former station. He wished for quick access to downtown, where there are plenty of job opportunities, and having a station that could connect those opportunities to this stretch of 79th. If he wanted to ride Metra downtown, he would have had to travel to the Gresham station a mile away. 40 years later, residents will again be able to reach the Loop in less than 15 minutes, greatly expanding transit and job access.
Metra took a thoughtful approach towards the design of the $20 million station by integrating it into the surrounding landscape. There will be a new pedestrian plaza facing 79th, retail storefronts will be available for rent, and a section of Lowe Avenue will be closed to vehicular traffic. The station will be ADA accessible, with two elevators and an “island” boarding platform, located between the inbound and outbound tracks. And Metra responded to requests from cyclists by including ample bike parking, according to Metra CEO James M. Derwinski.
Unfortunately, car parking and a drop-off roundabout will take up a significant chunk of the site. This interrupts portions of the plaza and encourages residents to drive to the station, making the area less pedestrian-friendly than it should be. However, the station is still in the design phase, so hopefully the final design will be less car-centric.
State Senator Jacqueline Y. Collins has been lobbying for the Auburn Park station since 2009, and she said she’s pleased that this work is coming to fruition. Collins believes this station will address historical imbalances in the neighborhood. “The people of Auburn Gresham and adjoining communities deserve this opportunity, and the people of Chicago deserve a public transit network that knits our city together, enables movement and growth, and leaves no one out,” she said at the groundbreaking.
17th ward Alderman David Moore said the station will be a catalyst for investment along the 79th Street corridor. The station will complement the #79 bus, the busiest route in the city, hopefully spurring new transit-oriented development and businesses on the South Side. Moore cited newly opened business Brewer Coffee & Custard, which catered the event, adding that he believes the Auburn Park station can help existing businesses on the corridor thrive.
Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle spoke about her plan to ensure equitable access to Metra for low-income residents by reducing fares on the RID and Metra Electric District lines to the price of an ‘L’ fare within the city, increasing frequency, and allowing free transfers to the CTA system. This would allow the Metra line to act more like a rapid transit line and help residents reach the rest of the South Side and south suburbs. Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke against the proposal claiming it would have a “dramatic effect” on CTA bus ridership. In an interview with WLS, Preckwinkle said that she will move forward with Metra on the plan, even if the CTA does not join in the discussions.
The Auburn Park station will bring many benefits to the neighborhood, but it must be noted that Metra may also close low-ridership stations on the RID line. That means many other South Siders may suffer the loss of convenient transit access that Carlos Nelson experienced when his local RID station closed years ago. And, as Collins stated in her speech, fair transit access should be a right, not a privilege, for South Siders.