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Advocates praise the CTA’s plan to upgrade its Forest Park Branch, want more details on how the ‘L’ overhaul will work

The advocates say the agency should provide more info on the schedules of the bus shuttles that will replace trains during track closures, and want to know how the upcoming work will affect service on the rest of the Blue Line.

The Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line, looking east towards the Loop. Photo: Steven Vance

Update 6/30/23, 1:30 PM: David Powe, director of planning and technical assistance for the Active Transportation Alliance, provide the following statement on the Forest Park Branch Rebuild:

"We're happy to see that the CTA is ramping up efforts to speed up the Blue Line, particularly given the long-neglected status of the Forest Park branch. We're eager to see the full plan, including the removal of slow zones around Kedzie [3200 W.], Pulaski [4000 W.], and Cicero [4800 W.] 

Now would also be an opportune moment for IDOT to reimagine highway shoulders as bus-only lanes, rather than just areas for overtaking cars. Chicago and Illinois are behind our peers on implementing Bus Rapid Transit and bus priority projects."

Chicago transit advocates were pleased by the the CTA's announcement yesterday that the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line, which runs through West Side communities that currently have subpar 'L' service, is slated for an upgrade. But the advocates say the agency should provide more info on the schedules of the bus shuttles that will replace trains during temporary track closures. They also want to know how the upcoming work will affect service on the rest of the Blue Line, which has already seen major crowding issues in recent months.

But before we look at the advocates' questions about the plan, let's take check out what the CTA says it has in store for the Forest Park Branch Rebuild. According to the news release the agency released Wednesday, the first phase of the project will replace nearly three miles of track on the Near West Side and reconstruct the Racine Street (1200 W.) stop to make it wheelchair-friendly. In the long run, the rebuild is supposed to make the entire branch ADA accessible.

Phase 1 is slated to happen from Sunday, July 23 to Saturday, October 7 and cost $268 million. Workers will completely overhaul 15,000 feet, nearly three miles, of track between the LaSalle (130 W.) and Illinois Medical District (1900 W.) stops. They'll also improve the traction power system to make service more reliable.

The Illinois Medical District station. Photo: John Greenfield

According to the CTA, the Forest Park Branch opened in 1958, and has seen some upgrades during its 65-year life. But the agency says that after more than six decades of heavy use, almost 80 percent of the branch is under slow zones. Moreover, only four of the 11 stations are wheelchair accessible.

The agency says that to reduce hassles for riders, the rebuild will be done in two parts. (The next two passages are their words, with our notes in brackets): 

Part A (July 23-late August): "Crews will rebuild the track between the UIC-Halsted [800 W.] and LaSalle stations. During this time, Blue Line trains will operate in two segments: 1) between O’Hare and LaSalle, and 2) between Forest Park and IMD. The Clinton [530 W.], UIC-Halsted and Racine stations will be temporarily closed."  

The Phase 1A service map

Part B (Late August-October 7): "Crews will rebuild the track between the IMD and UIC-Halsted stations. During this time, Blue Line trains will operate in two segments: 1) between O’Hare and UIC-Halsted, and 2) between Forest Park and IMD. The Clinton, UIC-Halsted, and IMD stations will be open for rider use."

The Phase 1B service map

The CTA says that after the track work is done in October, the Loomis Street auxiliary entrance of the Racine station will reopen. But the main entrance at Racine will stay closed, likely until late next year, while station reconstruction work is done. After that the Racine entrance will reopen, while the Loomis entrance will close for reconstruction until the end of 2025.

According to the agency, after the long-term line-cut, ongoing rebuild work is expected in the area, with more details about service impacts announced soon.   

"Customers will be encouraged to use the nearby Green Line, which runs parallel to the Forest Park Branch and will have added train cars to accommodate the anticipated increase in ridership," the CTA stated. "Customers will also be encouraged to take the nearby Pink Line and CTA bus service in the corridor."

The Racine station's main entrance on Racine Street, looking west. Image: Google Maps

To encourage these alternatives, the CTA will offer free bus rides on routes running between the IMD and Jackson stops during rush hours, but only in the peak directions – inbound in the morning, outbound in the evening. 

To incentivize use of these alternative service options, CTA will provide free rides on bus routes operating between the Pink and Green lines, as well as reduced fares at respective Pink and Green line rail stations. "Customers will be strongly encouraged to plan ahead and allow for extra travel time, including using alternative services prior to the start of project work." 

The first phase is bankrolled by state and local funds including Illinois' Rebuild Illinois infrastructure fund, tax-increment financing, and CTA Bonds.The CTA says it needs to find more money for future phases of the rebuild, which it says will cost $3 billion total, including Phase 1.

The grassroots transit advocacy group Commuters Take Action applauded the news in a statement on its website. "We welcome the upcoming improvements to the Forest Park branch of the blue line. Riders on the West Side of Chicago deserve quality transit, something which they haven’t been able to enjoy in recent years due to the dismal state of repair on that part of the Blue Line."

However, they argued that the CTA had been light on details about the shuttle buses for the track closures, and how the work would affect other parts of the Blue Line. Here are some of their key questions, which Streetsblog shared with the agency's media department:

- Roughly how much extra travel time should Forest Park Branch riders plan on during the rebuild?

- Will the CTA "publish a full shuttle schedule, with intervals and travel times available to riders”?

- "CTA’s spokesperson mentioned that 'wait times along the rest of the Blue Line could be a ‘couple of minutes’ longer.’ Does that mean that there will be fewer Blue Line trains along the rest of the line?”

- Will the CTA "install protective barriers/walls between the platforms and the expressways” of the new stations to improve customer experience?

Shortly before publication of this post, Streetsblog heard back from a CTA representative: "CTA has already prepared extensive information regarding the scope of project work and how it will affect Blue Line service, which is available on the project website here:"

The rep promised that as the agency approaches the start of project, they’ll have more details about expected impacts to service along the entire Blue Line, plus information to help riders pick alternative service options that fit their needs.

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