Through-Route Chicago

Paris RER ridership courtesy of “Transport Politic Databook” fourth graph down. Metra data per its ridership reports.

Problem Recall. Chicago’s recent station and route modernization failed. We need a Plan B.

Drawing of key Through-Station and above caption courtesy of Crossrail Chicago.

Problem >>>> Solution Summary: Before trains can expand as a serious alternative to the single occupant car, we must through-run Ogilvie and Chicago Union Station (CUS) where eight lines terminate. This through-station makes possible a higher capacity through-network to serve much of Chicagoland. Also key to this network’s growth is the 16th Street Flyover (green) that connects with four south suburban lines terminating at Millenium and Lasalle stations. Equally important, the proposed through-authority works with developers to minimize today’s inchoate proposals and, instead, coordinate more sustainable and equitable transit-oriented redevelopment. The Solution outlined below has two Parts: Benefits; and Strategy.

Part A) Benefits Through-Route Chicago can produce. The proposed independent, federally-funded study should detail an Ogilvie/CUS through-station and project how it triggers these three benefits: sufficient capital for a through-network; mobility multipliers; and train ETOD.

1: Illinois and Chicago will be relieved of this financial burden that neither can carry.  With U.S. funding currently in retreat, Illinois’ future share for train upgrades could rise to an impossibly high 50%. Chicago has talked about a West Loop multi-modal hub for two decades… but only built its least expensive component, an open-air bus station. The study projects how Illinois’ match can come from federal loans using Amtrak air rights as collateral.

2: A through-network will reduce transportation stress and multiply mobility four ways. First, the peak hour CTA “L” will need relief after the pandemic passes. Second, recent and future urban redevelopments need high capacity mobility options and they are stimulated best by trains. Third, reducing road congestion will be possible after decades of failed promises. Finally, the proposed pilot will show how to share train infrastructure to reduce stress between Chicago and its suburbs.

3: Maximize how Chicago redevelops around train stations. While City TOD ordinances have helped redevelop well around many neighborhood “L” stops, train ETOD requires other options that include redeveloping around other stops of the line other than above the railyard.

Drawing also courtesy of Crossrail Chicago. Use this map to follow the narrative below justifying a temporary authority for this Corridor.

Part B) Strategy so Through-Route Chicago delivers. Synergize 2 systemic Solutions (MR and SER). To be funded in the 2021 rendition of The INVEST Act, the proposed study is “independent” of state and local agencies. The study’s goal is to explore how federal authority, assets (Amtrak’s railyard air rights) and USDOT grants and loans can stimulate Chicago’s next generation of train service and re-development.

The first Solution converts commuter rail to prepare for Metropolitan Rail (MR). This INVEST-funded study will revive three moribund initiatives by tying them together in a cross-city through-route. Packaged to work through today’s political difficulties, we call the proposal: the Bi-Partisan Three Os (Ogilvie & CUS combined, an O’Hare express, and the Obama Center.)

The first “O”, The 2012 CUS Master Plan, has lost its champion and we need to re-envision a West Loop through-station that connects efficiently through the Ogilvie Transportation Center. This will improve Metra’s service.

The second initiative, The O’Hare Express (two blue lines above), needs only three connections to make a prototype through-network: at Ogilvie & CUS; the cross-South Loop 16th Street Flyover, and the south “downtown” transfer hub at McCormick Place so the three southern lines can connect to the eight western and northern lines.

Third, the frequent Metra Electric service to the southside (brown line to Hyde Park) needs to be a fiscally sustainable service that is more frequent and requires redeveloping much more than merely serving The Obama Center. This third service is the focal point for testing new methods to merge community re-building equitably.

Metropolitan Rail’s growth multiplier emerges even within the City as these three moribund initiatives get synergistically combined if we through-run CUS and convert Amtrak’s railyard into a new urban center whose value capture also contributes to paying back the federal loans and maximize ETOD around other stops moving southward.

This study also proposes how to manage redevelopment properly along this 20 mile cross-city corridor from O’Hare to McCormick Place. As the basis for 19th Century real estate development and rail, corridors still may be our best bet to maximize redevelopment. Consider the corridor of Through-Route Chicago as a public-private hybrid to redevelop while waiting for Illinois to approve how to redesign metropolitan transportation governance.

The second Solution prototypes housing and train policies for Sustainable and Equitable Redevelopment. SER-like solutions are particularly important since Chicago’s growth is sputtering after three decades of progress. In part, this is because Chicago’s diffuse redevelopment proposals could be maximized with the synergy of a through-network. Trains are probably the metro’s chief public asset to boost strategic, sustainable redevelopment. Our goal is to organize this Three Os corridor to connect the Chicago assets listed below and create a multiplier.

Referring to the two diagrams above, Through-Route Chicago connects several disjointed redevelopment touch-points that prevent trains from more fully serving Chicago and, by extension, Chicagoland. The Three Os can connect these disjoints and the added value can serve as capital to continue SER at other station sites.

a) Metra’s proposed Ashland station brings two lines to the Fulton Market extension of downtown. But, it connects only to northern parts of the metropolis. Combining Ogilvie and CUS into a through-station will connect northern parts to southern parts.

b) The Ogilvie Transportation Center (honoring its champion and Republican Governor shortly after the public takeover of commuter rails) sits unconnected, only one block from CUS. Both have air rights to be developed.

c) The light blue line (above) that goes through the Amtrak railyard is the next major downtown extension. This yard should be explored as the long-term solution to Metra’s leasing disagreements over CUS. Also important, the value of these air rights provide the opportunity to generate redevelopment credits around stations southward and west.

d) Across the river from Amtrak’s railyard are former railyards vacant for 40+ years, now being redeveloped as the “78.” These decades of delay could have been avoided if a federal authority controlled that land, much as is being proposed for the current Amtrak yards. The 78 also struggles to get transit options and, some think, did too little to help build an ETOD industry.

e) Both The 78 and Amtrak’s yards will get redeveloped faster with the second vital train connection: the 16th Street Flyover (green line, top map.) It was promised a decade ago, but still lacks funding.

f) At the joint of the 16th Street Flyover and the south suburban lines is Chicago’s most recent disjoint, called One Central whose site also is part of a former railyard that, some think, has been haphazardly redeveloped over the decades. One Central is a state-approved and subsidized redevelopment adjacent to Soldier Field whose initial approval was made without municipal input or serious consideration to ETOD. One Central’s proposed Transit Center marginally engages trains and the growing ridership of a modernized through-network.

g) The McCormick Place Metra station eventually could serve as the second most important transfer point for a modernized north-south through-network. However its southern neighbor also could be that hub, the City-owned Michael Reese Hospital site. But again, a new authority is needed to maximize the coordination of trains and redevelopment.

While largely conceptual today, proven SER policies start more seriously when Amtrak’s air rights are leveraged as social capital. The proposed temporary, Corridor Council authority can develop an enhanced through-network to bring together all the public and private pieces needed for Sustainable and more Equitable Redevelopment. For example, The INVEST Act (Section 2701-03) also should offer additional federal Technical Assistance for participating civic and nonprofit groups to explore synergies. TA also is possible from the USDOT’s BUILD program. TA should be coordinated by The Corridor Council that is detailed in this Through-Route study. It also should explore how to sunset The Corridor Council as Chicagoland re-governs its transportation.

Again, we ask that The Bi-Partisan Three Os study be authorized and funded in the 2021 rendition of The INVEST Act as part of an enhanced Commuter Rail Title. If INVEST continues not to have appropriations, we propose that the study be funded as a loan with the rail yard as collateral.

A Phase 2, Through-Route Chicagoland, will include participating municipalities in Cook County to extend the Three Os’ line and/or explore other through-routes. A Phase 3 will include participating municipalities in the metro’s collar counties who want to redevelop as Chicagoland’s sub-centers.

Through-Route Chicago, ambitiously, is the pilot project of the U.S. Campaign for Metropolitan Rail to establish a federal policy for converting commuter rail into a metropolitan-wide service in at least six major metros.

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This document was last updated on 2/12/21.

Background for concept progression:

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