My Two Cents: The Sun Times Made Awful Transit Advice

I’m not sure what the Sun Times editorial board was thinking when they penned a piece endorsing improvements to Chicago’s transit systems, but from what I read it doesn’t seem like they were thinking all that much. The editorial board endorses and scorns major transit initiatives in the region, but their picks are mostly uneducated and thoughtless and far from pragmatic.

Their endorsements include the Red Line extension south form 95th Street to 130th Street and an extension of the Blue Line west from Forest Park to Yorktown Center in Lombard–okay, not too shabby. But, the board also coldly dismisses a proposed 16-mile bus rapid transit line along Ashland Avenue as “dead for now, for good reason” and endorses a pie in the sky plan to build an express train from the Loop to O’Hare using an elevated track above the Kennedy Expressway and Blue Line O’Hare branch.

The board [kind of] got off to a good start with some endorsements and an acknowledgement that a world-class city can’t rely on cars alone. What’s disappointing aren’t necessarily the projects the board endorses, but the way they dole out their endorsement. Calls for ambitious transit improvements are commendable, but the editorial board failed overall with these endorsements as a group. Most of these projects make up parts of the Center of Neighborhood Technology and Active Transportation Alliance’s ambitious Transit Future campaign.

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The Transit Future campaign proposes major expansion of Cook County’s transit network.

The editorial board is clearly well aware of discussions and activism concerning transit in the region, but they’re tone deaf to what these discussions are about and what transit activist and experts are saying. Had the editorial board really listened, it would’ve been clear enough the better endorsement is just the Transit Future as a whole: it provides a clear yet ambitious vision for transit in and around Chicago in the near future, while simultaneously offering policy and funding proposals that could make this vision a reality. Few plans on the books do that.

But they picked and they chose specific projects and apparently with little rhyme or reason. There is sense to the madness for sure: the extension of the Red Line south has been discussed for years now with little to show and ever since former Mayor Richard J. Daley visited Shanghai visions for high-speed express trains from O’Hare to the Loop have danced in planners heads like sugar plums.

Why the board decided to endorse the ridiculous proposal for a “double-decker” express train brought forth by Chicago’s new aviation chief Ginger Evans is a mystery. And why they write off the Ashland BRT proposal without explanation even more so. I guess it must suck just that much (not!)

I cannot say I endorse the Sun Time’s endorsement. And while I feel I’ve made my two cents known, I can’t ignore the Sun Time’s method of picking and choosing specific projects either. Lists are too much fun. As such, I think its worth making one-on-one alternate endorsements for better projects.

Why? To show the truth breadth and thoughtfulness of transit proposals for the region, ignored by the Sun Times.

  1. CrossRail Chicago: Proposed by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association,
    map-crossrail-chi-segments

    This map shows how CrossRail Chicago would allow for improvements in and out of Chicagoland.

    CrossRail Chicago would roll a number of projects into one. Essentially, a mix of track and infrastructure improvements between O’Hare and Union Station would facilitate the introduction of express trains between the airport and the Loop. Further improvements would allow trains to travel through Union Station to Metra Electric tracks. This is even better, because it allows conventioneers going to McCormack Place to get off at their destination and improve access to O’Hare from the South Side via Hyde Park. Additionally, these improvements would facilitate the introduction of high-speed express trains to the Midwest’s intercity rail system.

  2. The Mid-City Transit Way (Lime Line): Similar to the Ashland BRT, the Mid-City Transit Way (or Lime Line) is a proposed ‘L’ line that would travel north-south without going through the Loop. Built on abandoned rail embankments it would run from Jefferson Park to Midway and potentially east to the Red Line. Just two blocks east of Cicero Avenue it would connect Far West Side communities and a number of ‘L’ and Metra lines as well as both Chicago airports via Jefferson Park. A major improvement to airport access it is logistically the easiest way to build an entirely new ‘L’ line in Chicago. While the Blue Line extensions endorsed by the Sun Times are enticing, this seems like a more realistic option for the near future, and one that still makes a mark.
  3. Commuter Conversions: Commuter Conversions, or turning commuter rail lines (Metra) in to rapid transit lines (the ‘L’), is such an overlooked option for improving transit in Chicago it doesn’t even seem within people’s conceivable imagination. Yet, it’s a cheap option, because it uses existing infrastructure, and can be implemented incrementally over time. Currently, only one major proposal exists for such a conversion and its for the Metra Electric along the south lakefront. If the idea were expanded over the entire Metra system however, it could vastly increase connectivity to the suburbs and eliminate the need for some costly rail lines. It’s cheap and its pragmatic and it’s something other cities are doing at an impressive scale.

At the end of the day, I do feel silly writing something that is essentially bickering about what commendable transit proposal is the best. But there is good reason for such bickering. Chicago has a great transit system, but has a long way to go before things get called “world-class”. But with limited resources its important to pick your battles. Costs, rider needs, logistically realities all play a role in transit planning, and the endorsements made by the Sun Time’s editorial board seems to consider none of this and that’s where the Sun Times fails in their endorsements.

A subtle hand can be as strong as a bold one, and sometimes the bold ones are the most impactful if not the most powerful.