Last week, this blog dove into Illinois’s forthcoming capital bill, with a skeptical look at extensions to Metra’s BNSF service into Kendall County. While the merits of the $440 million Kendall County extension price tag can be debated, the $3.8 billion elephant in the room is the megaproject at the other end of the BNSF line, the massive One Central project over the Metra Electric tracks at 18th Street. (Mayor Lightfoot is not pleased that the capital bill includes language that lets the state pursue a public-private partnership for the massive project without additional input from the city.)
One Central bills the transit center (which somehow will cost two-thirds more than the entire CTA Red Line South extension from 95th/Dan Ryan to 130th Street) as “the intersection of transit, civic and community interests at this iconic Lakefront destination” and “Chicago’s Opportunity to Integrate Transit”. To be fair, there’s no argument that (1) the site has lots of potential since it’s currently connected to Metra Electric trains and Amtrak Illini/Saluki/City of New Orleans trains passing through the site, and (2) the Museum Campus is woefully disconnected from downtown and the city as a whole. While this project can absolutely serve as a catalyst to maximize those opportunities, the execution as currently proposed deserves more than a little bit of skepticism, especially as a developer tries to get Illinois taxpayers at least partially on the hook for $3.8 billion of transit investment in a region with plenty of more pressing needs.
First and foremost: does Chicago need a brand-new centralized transit hub? The short answer is, we already have a pretty darn good one. It’s about 125 years old, and we named our central business district after it. With a few glaring accessibility needs for people with mobility issues, The Loop is incredibly effective as a centralized transit hub that links rapid transit lines from around the city as well as convenient (within a block or two) connections to commuter and regional rail. The Loop is brilliant because it distributes peak period traffic throughout the CBD, allows for both through-routing and terminal routes that end downtown, and keeps trains moving since there are no stub terminals (although historically each elevated railroad company did operate an auxiliary stub terminal adjacent to the Loop).
Then there’s Union Station, Amtrak’s primary non-East-Coast hub and where six of Metra’s 11 lines terminate. Chicago recently completed a very nice bus terminal directly connected to the lower-level rail concourses and there’s been some buzz I’ve heard about including a direct connection to the Clinton Blue Line station as part of larger-scale redevelopment of some Amtrak-owned land in the West Loop. While Union Station is plenty crowded and cramped, there’s no real reason to believe a new transit hub a mile and a half away as the crow flies down by Soldier Field will fix what ails Union Station (or the Loop, for that matter), especially not to the tune of nearly $4 billion. Even One Central’s proposed link with Amtrak is underwhelming, since there are only three Amtrak services that use that line, and all three offer transfers to the Metra Electric in Homewood already.
Second, let’s be honest: centralized transfer hubs without integrated fare policies will inevitably lead to underwhelming outcomes, since passengers are charged two full fares to complete a trip. It’s hard to see how One Central would encourage a Metra Electric rider to pay an extra $2.50 to get on an extended Orange Line to get into the Loop when they could just ride the ME the rest of the way to Van Buren or Millennium and hoof it for free, other than the pure convenience factor (in which case, proposed operations will have a much bigger impact on the effectiveness of the transit center — more on that later). This is a common theme on this blog and among other Chicago transit advocates, so I won’t dive too far into this at this moment, other than to point out how far even a fraction of $3.8 billion could go to get Metra’s fare structure more solidly integrated with the CTA and Pace.
Third: while it’s good to see that Mayor Lightfoot is jumping in to slow down the momentum on the process as a whole to get more public input on the project, it’s a bit of an indictment of our various planning agencies and the service boards that there’s enough of a vacuum around the Museum Campus that an out-of-state developer can just hop in with an expensive transportation plan that doesn’t seem to make all that much sense and we just go ahead and sneak part of it into an important statewide capital bill. There was some momentum back in 2014 when the Chicago Park District announced they were looking into a long-range plan for the Museum Campus and Mayor Emanuel announced a Museum Campus Transportation Task Force, but both proposals seemed to wither after plans for the Lucas Museum fell through. A comprehensive plan for downtown-area transit and transportation with some actual teeth to it would help guide investment with clear long-term expectations vetted by the public, rather than letting investment guide transportation plans based on what a developer finds most profitable in the current market.
And fourth, and maybe most important: $3.8 billion is a hell of an investment for transportation infrastructure, but with no operational plans or funds to go along with the capital improvements, there’s no guarantee any initiative would be a success. (In a case like One Central, it’s also an omission that offloads a negative externality — the cost to serve the development — onto the public sector without becoming a line item in the project’s own budget.) The balance, or lack thereof, between capital funds and operating funds is one of the largest fatal flaws in how we fund our transit networks. The two separate silos of money too often create competing priorities within a single region or even within a single agency. Toss in good old-fashioned politics — capital projects make for great ribbon-cuttings and press releases; operational improvements, not so much — and it’s a fundamentally flawed system. (Once again, kudos to Illinois legislators for including some ongoing recurring annual capital funding for transit in the recent capital bill.)
The transit operating plan to actually serve One Central is frustratingly vague, at least from what’s been in public documents so far. (The project team has reached out to Metra to discuss the preliminary plans; Metra sounds open-minded but non-committal to the development thus far.)
The crux of the transit center relies on the St. Charles Air Line, which cuts through the South Loop just north of 16th Street between the Metra Electric and Canadian National tracks to the east and the BNSF and Union Station south approach tracks via the St. Charles Air Line bridge over the Chicago River. Currently, Amtrak’s Illini, Saluki, and City of New Orleans trains use this connection to cross over the Chicago River and back into Union Station in a pretty annoying, time-consuming maneuver. The One Central site itself would sit atop existing Metra Electric tracks, yards, and the 18th Street station. The One Central proposal adds additional transit options by building a spur line off the Orange Line along the existing railroad tracks into a stub terminal at One Central, as well as routing Metra BNSF trains over the St. Charles Air Line into One Central. There’s also a “CHI-Line” transportation feature — Bus? Tram? Hyperloop? — that would link One Central and McCormick Place to the Museum Campus and Navy Pier via the McCormick Place Busway and/or Columbus Drive (the exhibits aren’t clear, and actually show two different alignments).
What appears pretty clear to me is that, at least in this preliminary stage, the developers are taking an all-of-the-above, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to transit at One Central: if it’s on the map, drag the line to the site and they’ll figure out the details later, regardless of what actually makes sense from a regional perspective. For one thing, CREATE will eventually move Amtrak trains off this section of track (lol oops); I’m also not confident that Metra would go along with splitting off some trains on their busiest line to serve One Central instead of Union Station, let alone sending all BNSF trains to One Central. Furthermore, with capacity issues during the peak period on the BNSF, any option that has two different terminals would need a transfer station to allow riders to change trains based on their desired terminal, and likewise that transfer station would need to be fully ADA-accessible to allow for full use of all platforms. (The nearest station that meets that criteria would be Cicero.)
The CTA Orange Line spur track also doesn’t make much sense. First off, a spur track along the existing freight tracks would require a new junction on the Orange/Green Line in a section that currently has four tracks with a full interlocking immediately south of the proposed junction at 16th Street, and there’s existing development in the northeast and southeast quadrants of the crossing that would likely need to be either demolished or significantly altered to build connecting tracks. (The exact directionality of the planned junction is unknown, since it’s conveniently hidden behind a building in the “Transit” exhibit above.) Either way, trains coming into One Central appear to enter into a stub terminal, which means the CTA operator would have to change ends before reversing the train back out onto the main line towards either Midway or the Loop, a significant operational inconvenience. My guess is that the developer is envisioning splitting off Loop-bound trains from Midway to create two Orange Line service patterns: Midway-One Central and Midway-Loop, with transfers between branches at Halsted. This would let the developer advertise single-seat trips from One Central to Midway, a pretty significant selling point for businesses and future residents but at the expense of other regional travelers with less service between the Loop and Midway.
Finally, the “CHI-Line” proposal seems to be the standard prerequisite to any transportation plan involving the Museum Campus: “something something utilize the McCormick Busway.” While the McCormick Busway is of course underutilized, currently only used to shuttle conventioneers between McCormick Place and the downtown hotels, the dirty little secret about the Busway is that it doesn’t actually go anywhere useful: the Busway is entirely grade-separated (or at least, separated from the neighborhood streets that get bridged over it) from 25th Street to Lower Randolph, bypassing the Loop but terminating in the bottom level of the multidimensional part of Chicago’s downtown street grid with no good way to get up to surface streets in the Loop. Connecting the McCormick Busway to the Loop Link or Lake Shore Drive or north Michigan Avenue would be great, but it’s surprisingly difficult given how the streets are laid out and interact with each other in three dimensions. The One Central concept also takes a few liberties with how the Busway is actually constructed, including some sort of grade separation over/under Lake Shore Drive at McFetridge Drive (which probably can get shoehorned in there somehow when you have $3.8 billion to play with). It’s also worth noting that the “Mobility” exhibit above ignores the McCormick Busway entirely and uses surface streets instead (McFetridge-Columbus-Middle Randolph-Lower LSD to Navy Pier). Either way, the CHI-Link at this point definitely seems like more of a rough concept than an actual proposal.
I don’t want to be a wet blanket here: if a developer has enough cash to develop sky rights over the Metra Electric and is actively willing to integrate transit options to better connect the South Loop, the Museum Campus, and downtown to each other, it should be seriously considered. I just wish that, if the state is willing to enter a public-private partnership to create a monumental regional transit hub, the operational aspects of how transit connects and interacts with the existing regional system be considered and addressed alongside capital needs and concerns.
Oh, if only someone would come up with a better operational plan for a future regional transit hub at One Central to start some conversations about the best ways to serve the site, the Museum Campus, and the region as a whole…
The Star:Line ONE CENTRAL TRANSIT PLAN
If we’re going to build a $3.8 billion transit center, let’s do it right. First and foremost, there needs to be a general acknowledgement that investments in a One Central transit center must include improvements outside the footprint of the project. In this case, the most significant external improvement I’ve included in my back-of-the-napkin sketch here (toggle the layers in the embedded map above) is a new approach ramp between the St. Charles Air Line bridge and the south approach to Union Station. This connection would not only improve efficiency for Amtrak service (until it gets rerouted as part of CREATE P4 as noted above), but it’s also an integral plan in other regional transportation improvement plans including Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ambitious CrossRail Chicago initiative. It’d take some creative engineering to avoid taking out Amtrak’s maintenance facility or too much of Metra’s BNSF yard, but it probably could be done.
In no particular order, here are the key aspects of the Star:Line plan.
DIAMOND LINE EXTENSION
Landmark Development’s concept required either a split or a rerouting of Metra’s BNSF service to serve One Central, which would require some sort of transfer facility to maintain a connection to Union Station. Our plan turns that on its head and makes One Central the transfer center (think Seacaucus Junction) where Metra Electric trains split to serve different parts of downtown. Our proposal recommends routing South Chicago Branch trains — what we call the Diamond Line — through One Central, over the St. Charles Air Line, and into Union Station on electrified tracks. The South Chicago Branch was chosen due to its relatively high frequency and relatively short current run time. This would provide direct connections between Union Station and One Central, which would actually enhance regional mobility since now seven Metra lines would have a connection to One Central and McCormick Place rather than just the BNSF and ME. This also would happen to serve as Phase I of CrossRail Chicago, the eventual plan to get electrified service between O’Hare and McCormick Place.
18th STREET ELEVATED
As previously discussed, creating a spur route off the Orange Line at the freight railroad tracks creates a few issues with existing junctions and existing development nearby. However, moving the spur track two blocks south and over 18th Street would allow the tracks to tie into an existing junction (where the Orange Line splits off the Green Line) and over a surface parking lot in the northeast quadrant instead of requiring a building relocation. (Obviously noise would be an issue on this alignment for local residents, but noise would likely be an issue with an elevated alignment along the freight tracks as well.) Depending on how the junction is constructed, this location opens up a lot of different service patterns over the Red, Orange, and Green Lines. Here’s three of my favorite routing options:
- The Q Line: Named for the overall shape of the route, the Q Line would function as a new Loop circulator, with service only between One Central and the Loop. Unfortunately as a standalone option it’s not great since it will increase congestion on the Loop, so this might be better served as an off-peak-only offering in conjunction with a different option, including…
- The Red Line Spur: Passenger loads on the Red Line are significantly unbalanced between the North and South Sides, with the former having notably higher ridership demands. This option would send some southbound Red Line trains leaving Roosevelt up the 13th Street Incline onto the Orange/Green Line tracks (similar to the Red Line trains getting sent to Ashland/63rd during 95th/Dan Ryan construction) and over to One Central via the new 18th Street Elevated. Cutting service to the South Side is more challenging from a political and equity standpoint however, so this option may work best during peak hours only to complement an off-peak Q Line.
- The Teal Line: The Teal Line and its subsequent secondary options kill two birds with one stone by serving One Central and also giving the Block 37 superstation a reason to exist so Chicago won’t have to repay $175 million to the feds. The Block 37 superstation included a planned northwest-to-southeast crossover between Clark/Lake in the Dearborn Subway and Monroe in the State Street Subway; a decent amount of the crossover was constructed before the project got mothballed. So the question is, can the crossover be completed for less than $175 million?
- Option 1: Re-route Blue Line trains that terminate at UIC-Halsted through Block 37 and out to One Central. A straightforward option, but it may overcrowd Monroe and Jackson in the State Street Subway and crowd Clark/Lake with Blue-to-Blue transfers.
- Option 2: A new standalone service (the Teal Line) between Jefferson Park and One Central to add additional service to the congested northern Blue Line. Would likely require a new yard somewhere to store and service trains.
- Option 3: My personal favorite crazy idea, this proposal would reroute northbound Orange Line trains down the 13th Street Incline into the State Street Subway, through Block 37, and out to O’Hare to add service to the Northwest Side and to create a single Airport Line. This would also involve turning all Blue Line trains at Jefferson Park, except runs to/from Rosemont Yard and overnight service. With a single Midway-O’Hare service operating, a dedicated fleet of 7000-series (or whatever the next order ends up being) cars with luggage/bike racks could be used for the combined service. Since this proposal would also take Orange Line trains off the Loop Elevated, One Central would be served by a full-time Q Line.
North and South CHI-Line Circulator Buses
The CHI-Line would serve One Central with circulator buses and dedicated BRT-style stops along the McCormick Busway, primarily serving tourist destinations. The line would run from the Adler Planetarium, through the Museum Campus down to 18th Street, cross under Lake Shore Drive, and onto the Busway at One Central. Buses would continue north with stops at 11th Street, Balbo, Jackson, Monroe, and Millennium Station on the Busway. Buses would then head east on Lower Randolph, north on Lower Columbus, west on Lower South Water, and north on Lower Michigan Avenue to cross the Chicago River with stops at Lower Michigan/Lower Wacker to serve the Riverwalk and at Lower Michigan/Hubbard. From there, new bus lanes on Grand and Illinois would connect the rest of the CHI-Line to the Navy Pier bus terminal.
PACE ROUTE 955
If the One Central developers wanted BNSF service because they wanted to better connect the western suburbs to their development, I’ll say what I said to Kendall County last week: try a bus instead of a train first. The McCormick Busway’s south end is at 25th Street just one block east of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive interchange on I-55, so One Central could work with Pace to start a new service that connects the Plainfield/Bolingbrook corridor to One Central via the Busway. If the Pace service can combine with CHI-Line service to the Museum Campus and/or Navy Pier, there’s even the potential for some weekend ridership gains for Pace.
It’s important not to look a gift horse in the mouth, so if developers like Landmark want to make a significant investment in our regional transit network, it’s in our best interest to find ways to leverage their offer. That said, just because they’re willing to kick in cash doesn’t mean we should simply go along with whatever they propose without weighing proposals on their merits, including operating costs and logistics involved with significantly changing well-established transit routes. One Central is still an exciting megaproject and has plenty of merit, but before the state makes a serious commitment for a transit hub, there are still a few kinks that need working out.