Petitioners Make A Strong Case for 63rd Street ‘L’

Just over two weeks ago a petition was launched calling for the extension of the CTA Green Line from 63rd Street and Cottage Grove to Jackson Park. The petition rapidly reached its initial goal of gathering 500 signatures and is now being left open to gather more support. Talk of any new major investment in rapid transit is always exciting, but most of the time it is just that: talk. This petition makes a strong case for extending the Green Line east, however, and it may be a case worth giving serious attention.

I spoke with the three men behind the petition—Reuben Lillie, its author, and Mike Medina and Gabriel Piemonte, two Woodlawn residents who helped him craft the wording and background knowledge. (Streetsblog Chicago published an edited version of the story, and a complete version is available on Urbanelijk.) It’s easy enough to identify a good idea and propose a rapid transit extension, but does the plan Lillie, Medina, and Peimonte propose have teeth? Looking at it in details indicates it does.

The petitioners make a strong case that the project can be funded in part with private-public partnerships. It is unlikely this extension would do be a huge financial windfall for investors, but it is important to note the two potential investors for this project are non-profit institutions that would nonetheless benefit directly from solid transit services to their area.

The extension of the Green Line is a high-impact, low cost project for the CTA. Based on cost estimates for its other major projects, it doesn’t appear this project would cost most than $500 million and certainly it wouldn’t cost $1 billion, which is was CMAP’s estimates. The Red and Purple Modernization, for example, is expected to cost less than $220 million per mile to build and will include new elevated structures and stations. And more contributors can share this lower cost.

While the lack of a consistent local funding stream for major capital projects for Chicago transit is often a road block two new options may help proposals like a Green Line Extension more forward. A new type of TIF specifically for transit projects is being experimented with on the North Side for the Red and Purple Modernization. Second, the Transit Future campaign suggests a penny on the dollar sales tax for Cook County to specifically fund transit projects. Both ideas are realistic and could make the difference between not expansion and major growth.

The Obama Foundation is directly identified as a possible funding partner and it is implied that the University of Chicago would be another. At the moment, neither is served directly by the ‘L’ and both would benefit from the access provided by a Green Line extension. Students, visitors, and employees would be a short walk from the ‘L’ if the Green Line gets extended. To sweeten the pie, funding could be rewarded with naming rights. One point made during the interview was how powerful it to call a new terminus at Jackson Park “Obama Center”. A new station between Woodlawn and University could reasonably be named University of Chicago.

Furthermore, the petitioners call for new stations or expanded services at two to three locations, which would increase the use of this branch, bringing in more revenue through fares, which is vital for the extension’s long-term sustainability. And speaking of sustainable solutions, the petition reveals that a substantial segment of the route’s elevated infrastructure already exists in storage. While this would not save on construction costs it would save on materials procurements. Although it’s only a few blocks worth of structure, this is significant for a project that is only one mile long.

Finally, the costs of some of the more expensive elements of the project, including a bridge across the Metra Electric tracks, could be split between multiple parties. While the petitioners avoided making demands on Metra and the South Shore Line to avoid distracting from the main goal, a new bridge could (and should) be integrated into a transfer station connecting the three rail services. A new transfer station could replicate the model of Jamaica Center in New York City and in turn increase ridership resulting from improved transfers. This would be a vital link between the three South Side transit services.

Demographically, the area is also well suited to support rapid transit services. In addition to strong institutional draws the population density of the census tracts surrounding the route of the proposed extension range from 16,000 persons per mile square to over 20,000, which puts these tracts among the most densely populated in the area. The densities are already high enough to support rapid transit services. There is ample developable land in the area, too, which means population growth could be further supported.

The residents of this area would also benefit from transit access. Woodlawn residents experience a higher rate of unemployment, poverty, and transit dependence than residents in Chicago as a whole or in neighboring Hyde Park. Improved rapid transit access would increase the speed with which residents could access jobs and educational opportunities elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, the construction of the extension would produce numerous jobs in the neighborhood at least temporarily. Finally, it would decrease the burden of transit dependent residents who currently have to rely on buses or the more expensive but less reliable Metra services.

In total, a one-mile extension of the ‘L’ to the former terminus at Jackson Park would bring new ‘L’ services to upwards of 100,000 residents, multiple major institutions, and the lakefront within a one-to-two mile radius of the new line.

The proposed extension is likely one of the most reasonable transit expansion proposals in the region. In some ways, it’s arguably a better use of money than the Red Line Extension. Considering the low cost, split between multiple public and private parties, the existing materials, and the potential social and economic impact there is very little that says this is a bad idea.