Transit Transitioning: City Envisions Future Public Transit System

By Metro Editor

For some far South Side residents, a trip downtown is a rare event that must be planned well in advance. Their plight highlights one of Chicago’s most prevalent social concerns: the accessibility of public transportation.

Most South Side residents must take several buses before they can reach the nearest El station. Because access to public transportation is so limited, most people do not venture far from their neighborhoods, limiting their access to jobs and further hindering economic opportunities in some of the city’s most impoverished communities, according to Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation.

“It’s extreme,” Nelson said. “Not only is it extreme, but it screams of racism. The South Side of Chicago is the largest geographic area of the city, the largest in population as well. It’s the only area of the Red Line that does not extend to the city limits or beyond. There’s little to no transit extending to these areas. These are areas of significantly underserved, low-income communities that need access to employment, but they’re cut off.”

That is why Nelson and other community activists enthusiastically supported Transit Future, a campaign to transform Chicago’s public transportation system.

Transit Future was created by the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood Technology as a vision of what Chicago’s public transportation system could be. It fills the gaps left by the existing rail system, expanding throughout Cook County into the South, West and North suburbs.

The Transit Future website has gone viral in Chicago since its April 4 launch, gaining support from the region’s top leaders including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and nine Cook County commissioners, according to Transit Future’s website. Community organizations such as Team Englewood and Enlace Chicago have also shown support, as well as large educational institutions such as Roosevelt University and University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center.

The plan reimagines the current system with two new El train lines, one of which would connect the South Loop to the South Side—the South Lakefront Service—and the Lime Line, a North-South line along the lakefront that would connect to the Blue, Green, Pink, Orange and Red lines to provide accessible transfer points for West and South Side residents. Also part of the vision is the controversial Ashland Bus Rapid Transit route, which would install a bus-only lane in the center of Ashland Avenue traveling from 95th Street to Irving Park Road.

Additionally, the existing Red and Blue lines would be modernized to eliminate slow zones. The suburbs would also be made more accessible, with train lines being built to connect to the Loop and extending current lines to the suburbs, such as the Blue Line extending to Schaumburg, one of the region’s top employment centers. A commuter rail line would also be created in the South Suburbs, extending from Chicago Heights, Ill., back to the center of the South Loop. The Ace Line would also be built in the West Suburbs, extending to Rosemont, Ill., connecting to O’Hare and Midway airports.

“The current system isn’t meeting current needs, and it’s definitely not going to meet future needs,” said Max Muller, director of Government Relations and Advocacy at the Active Transportation Alliance. “It was designed for a city 50 years ago.”

A May 2011 report from the Brookings Institution illuminates the importance of public transportation to a city’s economic prosperity. The study, titled “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” evaluated major cities’ public transportation systems and how well they align with where its residents work and live. On average, only 24 percent of Chicago’s jobs are within 90 minutes of public transportation access.

Chicago reflects a common struggle for most metropolitan cities, said Adie Tomer, an author of the study and research analyst at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. He said rail lines in cities are often hard to change, and as city jobs become increasingly suburbanized, creating transportation to adequately accommodate workers is difficult because of a lack of funds. However, Tomer said public transportation is the driving force behind where people decide to live. If a commute is too long, people will move somewhere more convenient, he said.

However, the plan may be only a pipedream without the $20 billion needed to fund it.

Muller suggests modeling fundraising effort after a similar transportation overhaul in Los Angeles. In 2008, L.A. residents voted to up the sales tax by half a cent, generating $40 billion to transform its public transit.

Federal funding could be provided to Cook County for the plan if the Cook County Board taxes residents, Muller said. There are also America Fast Forward Transportation Bonds, which are federal low-cost bonds provided to transportation agencies such as the CTA in exchange for tax credits. The program is backed by President Barack Obama and was proposed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to expand funding to reconstruct the city’s public transit system.

Jacky Grimshaw, director of Transportation and Community Development at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, said she hopes the tax will be implemented by 2015.

The need for public transportation will only increase and the implementation of new public transportation systems will better prepare Chicago for its future, Muller said. In addition to the Chicago public transit system’s inability to address customers’ future needs, Muller said it needs short-term updates. The CTA continues to restore and maintain current lines with projects and is reconstructing its rail lines along the south branch of the Red Line in October 2013. The CTA is also in the process of securing federal funding to extend the Red Line from 95th Street to 130th Street, according to an April 17 CTA press release.

Although those plans cost millions of dollars, Muller said they are worth the price because current rails and lines still need to be maintained, although he said he is more concerned for the future.

Muller said Transit Future is currently just a vision, but he is confident that it can become reality with enough community support. He said he understands most people would be unhappy being taxed to fund such a large-scale initiative, but it is a small sacrifice to transform public transportation.

However, Alderman Deb Mell (33rd Ward) opposes the plan. She said she agrees that Chicago’s public transportation system is in need of updates and expansion, but people do not like being taxed and will likely not support the initiative.

In order to generate more support from citizens, Muller said he and Grimshaw have been in contact with Cook County commissioners for their public backing. So, nine of the 17 commissioners have expressed their support for making the vision a reality.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who represents the North Side, including Rogers Park, Edgewater and Evanston, said he supports the idea but believes implementation will be difficult. Suffredin said he anticipates problems working with the Regional Transportation Authority because Cook County does not control its budget. Although Cook County’s budget allocates $2 million to the CTA, the county also does not control it.

RTA declined to comment on the campaign, but the CTA is supportive because expanding the transit system would improve the quality of transportation for its customers, CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said in an email.

“We need to think outside the box when it comes to public transportation,” Suffredin said. “We need to be open to new approaches, and I think this starts the conversation. This isn’t the end of the conversation. This is the beginning of the conversations.”

Although Suffredin is apprehensive about the taxing approach, Cook County Board Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy said she is willing to make sacrifices for the plan even though the county’s budget is tight.

“It is imperative we have a modern transportation system in Cook County,” Murphy said. “It will bring a lot of revenue into the county. It will help businesses, it will help people—it will help everybody. Transportation is the lifeline of any community.”

Other cities throughout the country have revamped and expanded their public transportation system, acknowledging it is important for the continued sustainability of their state, Murphy said.

Minneapolis is creating new rail lines, building a high-speed rail system and implementing bus rapid transit using state funds, said John Siqveland, public relations manager at Metro Transit for Minneapolis. Siqveland said Metro Transit reached out to its customers to gauge what changes and additions they would like to see in the transit system, recognizing that the city’s current system does not address residents’ and visitors’ needs.

Chicago’s inability to address current and future public transportation needs prompted the concern of many business, civic and labor leaders, such as Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and Warren Chapman, Columbia’s senior vice president, who are part of a leadership panel guiding the campaign with strategic funding and promotion ideas.

Chapman said significant funding and creativity from various organizations is needed in order to realize this vision.

It is essential that Chicago have a transit system that can sustain the new generation of young adults who will rely on transit to get to jobs and school, and this plan addresses that effectively, Chapman said.

“I think the concern is you may be a student now, but you will get a job eventually, and you will be using the same transportation system that you use to get to school to get to work, and how does it work for you? How does it benefit you?” Chapman said.

For decades, the convenience of Chicago’s public transportation system has been a concern for Steve Schlickman, executive director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center. Schlickman said he was the former RTA president and has been advocating for this type of transformation for several years. As the population grows, public transportation has to grow with it, Schlickman said, adding that there is a correlation between a city’s transportation system and its economic future.

“The plan addresses what we haven’t done in the past in the way of transit and acknowledging what we need to do for the future,” Schlickman said.

Abraham Lacy, executive director of the Far South Community Development Corporation, said because South Side residents cannot easily access public transit, they are crippled as far as job opportunities, reflecting poorly on the city’s future. The plan’s ability to foster jobs makes it appealing, he said, but he is apprehensive about the long-term impacts. Improving public transportation on the South Side would likely draw more high-income people to those communities, increasing the potential for gentrification, Lacy said.

“If it’s going to bring development, are current residents going to be pushed out?” Lacy said. “Are we going to get gentrified out of our neighborhood due to higher-income individuals coming into [it]?” Lacy said.

Transit Future is an opportunity for the city and county to take advantage of the space they have and help it to grow economically, Tomer said.

“Chicago will just be healthier. There will be more jobs and that can help the economy grow, but also if the economy is healthier, government is healthier in terms of revenue and that can help pay back the investments [the plan would require],” Tomer said.