Pace is developing plans for inter-suburban Tri-State Tollway express service
Pace’s plans for express service along the I-294/Tri-State Tollway corridor are still taking shape. But what has been developed so far shows a route that would run between the Harvey Transportation Center, a major Metra/Pace transit hub in the eponymous south suburb, and the suburbs around O’Hare Airport, terminating at either the Rosemont Blue Line station or an office park in northwest-suburban Schaumburg near the spot where I-90/Jane Addams Memorial Tollway passes under Meacham Road.
Before the pandemic, Pace had five routes that used the corridor. Routes 877, 888 and 895, which all provided inter-suburb commuter express service, have been suspended since April 2020 due to falling demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. The two remaining routes, Route 395 and Route 890, pick up and drop off shift workers at UPS’ Hodgkins facility.
When the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority began developing plans to renovate the central portion of Tri-State Tollway, it brought Pace onboard to see if the suburban bus system could come up with a plan to incorporate transit-friendly infrastructure. The two agencies had a similar collaboration for I-90/Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, adding flex lanes that could become bus-only during rush hours and heavy traffic and building two park-n-rides and the one-of-a kind I-90/Barrington Road inline park-n-ride where, instead of leaving the highway, the buses stop at the platforms on the bus-only outer lanes, saving time and making the trip smoother.
According to the preliminary plans shared during the September 8 meeting of Pace board’s planning committee, the new project would take a cue from the I-90 collaboration. Pace would start out by building two inline park-n-rides – one at the Cermak Toll Plaza near an office park in Oak Brook, and one at the former site of the O’Hare Oasis in Schiller Park, which is located near hotels, warehouses, and the airport’s freight facilities.
The second phase calls for building a third inline station further south, near the corner of 103rd Street and Harlem Avenue in Chicago Ridge. Phase 3 calls for adding two more stations, one at Cicero Avenue/217th Street in southwest-suburban Alsip and the aforementioned Meacham Road site.
Throughout the September presentation, Pace officials reiterated several times that the plans were still in development. According to agency spokesperson Maggie Daly Skogsbakken, since then Pace has continued to talk to stakeholders to refine the concepts, and it is planning to launch extensive public outreach by the start of 2022.
Express Services and Conditions
Routes 877, 888, and 895 all followed the similar pattern, leaving the south suburbs in the morning and returning in the afternoon. Route 895 ran Express between Chicago Ridge Mall, the Rosemont ‘L’ station, and the Northwest Transportation Center before serving Schaumburg’s various office and commercial areas further northwest. Route 877 linked Harvey and other south suburbs to office buildings, hotel, and retail destinations in west-suburban Oak Brook and Lombard. Route 888 ran between the Homewood Transportation Center and Naperville, making some of the same west suburban stops as Route 877 and continuing west.
During the September meeting, Ryan Ruehle, Pace’s rapid transit corridor planner, said that the transit agency considered 32 station locations, narrowing it down to the five most promising stations, and three stations where they got as far as preliminary design. He said that the Schiller Park site “was the most straightforward and cheapest.”
While the O’Hare Oasis was demolished in 2019 to make room for additional lanes, the mounds on the sides, with ramps and gas stations, are still there. Pace would take advantage of that infrastructure to put in platforms on the now-vacant land south of the gas stations. While the only way a pedestrian can currently reach the site is to walk on the side of the road, Pace plans to add connecting sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.
The station would be within walking distance of several hotels and car rental facilities, as well as Route 330, which serves Rosemont’s commercial core to the north and the Manheim Road/La Grange Road corridor to the south, and Route 332, which serves O’Hare’s freight processing facilities and the west-suburban York Road corridor.
Ruehle said the Oak Brook station “represents a much more substantial investment in bus infrastructure and passenger facilities.” Like the I-90/Barrington Road station, Pace would need to build brand-new stations on the sides of the highway, adding a new 121-space parking lot on the east side, and a new access road to reach it. The station would have a pedestrian bridge similar to Schiller Park station’s. One upside is that the west platform site is already accessible to pedestrians – the only thing currently stopping them from reaching it is a fence.
While there is nothing east of the station except the Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery, there is a large office park to the west of it. It’s also within a few minutes’ walk of Route 332; Route 301, which primarily serves the Roosevelt Road corridor; and Route 322, which primarily serves Cermak Road corridor. As Ruehle noted during the presentation, the latter two are both near-term priorities in Pace’s plans to expand the Pulse Arterial Rapid Transit network.
The Chicago Ridge station would be located southeast of the spot where the Tri-State Tollway crosses over Harlem Avenue. It would have a pedestrian bridge, a 72-space parking lot by the east platform, and the 354-space parking lot by the west platform, with an L-shaped driveway with a walking and a biking path connecting the west lot to Harlem Avenue at the 103rd Street intersection.
The area around the site is mostly occupied by transportation and shipping businesses and motels. Riders would be able to transfer to Route 386, which serves Harlem Avenue between Chicago portion of the 63rd Street and the DeVry University location in Tinley Park, as well as 63rd Street as far as Midway Airport. The Harlem Avenue corridor is another Pulse priority corridor.
Ruehle said Pace is taking part in the Village of Schaumburg study on the future of the Meacham Road area, and the Alsip station location simply has more unknowns than the others. “[The] 127th and Cicero [site] shows promise, from both physical feasibility and market strength perspectives, but it requires more study to determine what an appropriate [station] design might entail,” he said.
Pace estimates that the three stations would cost around $204.6 million to build, with about $114.5 million of that coming from the agency’s own funds. Ruehle said Pace would be able to use some of the Rebuild Illinois state infrastructure money to cover the costs of building the Schiller Park and Oak Brook stations.
What the actual routes would look like, and how many routes would use the corridor, is still up in the air. Pace looked at 10 potential routes and tried to project how many riders they would get by 2040. Alternative 1, which would run between the Harvey Transportation Center and Elk Grove Village’s Busse Road corridor, with a stop at Rosemont ‘L’ station, would get an estimated 4,393 boardings.
Alternative 1a, which is the same thing minus the Elk Grove portion, came in second with 3,506 boardings. Alternative 9, which would run between the Rosemont station and the Burr-Ridge Park-n-Ride near I-294, allowing for transfers to I-55 express buses, came in third with 2,609 riders.
Ruehle cautioned that those estimates are based on pre-pandemic numbers, so Pace would need to redo the study and potentially consider other routings in 2022.
Director Christopher Canning, who represents Cook County’s North Shore suburbs, wondered how long the Alternative 1 trip would take. Ruehle said that any estimates were hindered by the fact that the flex lanes aren’t in place yet, but that Pace is looking into it. “The ability to move faster will make the service more attractive, and it’s definitely one of the things we will consider,” he added.