Friday, February 10, 2012

CTA Update: Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Red Line North

The Chicago Transit Authority held two public open house meetings, one in Evanston, and one in Edgewater at the Broadway Armory this past Tuesday evening, to update the public on plans to rehabilitate and reconstruct the north branch of the Red Line and the Purple Line.

There are four alternatives under discussion: Reconstruction and consolidation of some stations; reconstruction without consolidation; minimal rehabilitation; and no rehabilitation, with only minimal repairs.

Reconstruction will involve completely rebuilding the Purple Line except at stations where the roadbed has been replaced already, and the Red Line north of Addison. The plan calls for a new elevated structure with four tracks, the replacement of several stations with new ADA-compliant stations with 24'-wide platforms, elevators, and escalator; rebuilding the Wilson and Loyola stations as transfer points on the Purple Line; and the possible elimination of the Lawrence, Thorndale, and Jarvis stops on the Red Line, and the Foster and South Blvd stations on the Purple. Red Line platforms would be extended to accommodate 10-car trains and Purple Line Stations would be extended to berth 8-car trains.

It's hard to think of a more critical issue for the city than the rehabilitation and expansion of our century-old rapid transit system, which has been allowed to become extremely degraded while ridership has grown rapidly in the past decade. Ridership of CTA trains in the city has boomed, and in 2010, ridership on the Red Line reached the level of 1927, it's previous peak, hauling nearly a quarter-million people per day, for 38.5 million riders in 2010, surpassing that of the previous peak in 1927.This increase has mostly been on the north branch of the line. The three major north side lines- the north branch of the Red, the Brown Line, and the O'Hare branch of the Blue line, together haul 59% of the CTA rail system's passengers.

The boom in ridership is no doubt due to the sharp uptick in fuel prices in the past decade, with the promise of many more increases and possibly shortages to come, as the peaking of liquid fuels gains traction and car ownership becomes an unbearable burden for urban denizens. This development is likely to be permanent, and the next decade will most likely see steeply reduced rates of auto ownership along with swelling demand for public transportation. Cities will need improved public transportation in order to remain competitive. Therefore, it is imperative that any major overhaul and reconstruction of the system be planned to allow for the addition of new lines and greatly increased population density in Chicago as people abandon their car-dependent lifestyles in the auto suburbs of the 20th century and return to cities and towns where they have access to public transportation and can live within walking distance of services and jobs.

The plans made so far do not project increased ridership greatly increased over current levels, and what is being planned at this time is the replacement of the line between Addison and Howard. The rebuild would merely replace the existing decrepit structure with a greatly improved line, and while it will permit longer trains and feature greatly improved comfort and safety by building wider platforms and larger stations with improved egress, it will not permit more trains than can currently be safely run, and most of all it is "closed" in that no provisions are being made for new lines to connect to it, such as a connecting line that runs over Touhy Ave between the Cumberland or Rosemont stations on the Blue Line and the Howard station on the Red;  or- dare we dream- crosstown lines over Belmont and Lawrence to bypass the nightmarish congestion on these narrow, heavily traveled throughways. Another timely addition would be a spur on the Brown Line into West Rogers Park, another high-density neighborhood, to run from the Lincoln/Western station up Western to Howard. This would relieve overcrowding on the Red Line, and it might be that a whole new line is justified here. Yet more rail lines, including a another "loop" track to handle extra lines into the downtown area, should be figured into any plans we make now, even if it is another two decades or more before we actually build them. Failure to allow for upgrades and additional service means greater costs down the road, as we can see from the newly built stations at Belmont and Fullerton- will these stations need further expensive expansions to accommodate 10-car trains, which CTA has never run before? If planners had allowed for greater train lengths when designing these two stations, this rebuild would be a little cheaper.

The reconstruction of the Red Line is a once-in-a-century opportunity to plan for demand that does not exist yet but that could materialize very quickly given the trajectory of energy supplies and prices, which foretell an epic economic shift that will likely reverse the social and economic trends of the past 60 years. This shift will most likely bring more people into the city, for much greater population density than exists at this time. The planning process should allow for more retail/transit/mulitfamily housing hubs, where mixed use retail/commercial/mulitfamily housing could be built around rail stops and adjacent bus plazas.

Whatever we do here, it is imperative to seize the moment to make cohesive plans that will enable Chicago to handle higher population densities and supply housing, transit, and services for many more people than we have at the present.


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