Paving over the Mid-City Transitway

As I started writing this post I was suddenly taken by the idea of submitting it to the Tribune as an op-ed, which explains the writing style. Since I have no hope of them publishing it, here it is for your enjoyment.

As the reelection of Mayor Daley approaches and the Illinois legislature gears up for a big budget battle in Springfield, an important but largely unknown issue has hit the media in the last week. In an alarming display of poor judgment, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan announced his support for a new highway running through the Northwest, West, and Southwest Sides.

Madigan seems not to have consulted anyone on plans for the unused railroad corridor just east of Cicero Avenue that the first Mayor Daley had planned to turn into a highway called the Crosstown Expressway. He did not speak with Governor Blagojevich, the City of Chicago, the Illinois Department of Transportation, or the toll authority before proposing the new highway. Area transportation experts expressed surprise at Madigan's plan, and skepticism that it would ever be politically viable. In 1979 the original plan was killed by the strong opposition of residents who would have been forced out by the highway construction's swath of destruction. Perhaps Madigan failed to consult a recent map of Chicago's population as well, but a lot of people are still living there.

Good thing, too. The last thing Chicago needs is another highway. As study after study have shown, new road construction does not alleviate congestion. Rather, traffic expands to fill the new space, leaving road conditions unchanged but adding a lot more pollution, greenhouse gases, and road accidents.

What the city desperately needs is not more roads, but more transit options. If Chicago is going to meet Daley's goal of becoming the "greenest city in America", it has to come up with an adequate infrastructure for people who want to get out of the traffic jams and away from the road rage. It will have to revive and expand public transit.

A plan to do just that in the Cicero railroad corridor has been under discussion since 2002. Known as the Mid-City Transitway (MCT), the plan would develop the corridor as a new El line instead of a highway. Running from the Blue Line Jefferson Park stop south to Midway Airport then heading east along 74th, the MCT would end at the Red Line 87th Street station.

If built, the MCT would provide a direct connection between O'Hare and Midway. It would finally establish a north-south El line in the western part of the city, linking the Blue, Green, Orange, and Red Lines. And it would bring the El to huge swaths of the city that have been excluded. According to a 2005 study commissioned by the city, an MTC El would attract about 90,000 riders a day - numbers similar to the heavily used North Side Red Line and twice that of the Brown Line. (See information on neighborhood population densities here and here.)

In response to Madigan's proposal, Daley has voiced his support for building some sort of mass transit and a trucks-only road in the Cicero corridor. The idea is certainly better than Madigan's, but why has Daley made the MTC such a low priority?

The MTC has languished as a "long-term proposal" with no political urgency behind it. Instead, Daley and the CTA have pushed forward projects like the Circle Line and Block 37. The Circle Line would form an outer Loop linking El and Metra lines just outside of downtown. Because part of it would be underground and because it runs through valuable land, it would cost about as much to build the Circle Line's 5 miles as it would to build the MTC's 22 miles. The Circle Line would draw far fewer riders and run through parts of the city already well-served by transit. Yet it moves quickly forward while the MTC remains endangered by hare-brained proposals like Madigan's. Could the percentage of condos in the Circle Line's vicinity provide some clue to this otherwise baffling development?

Until our city's leaders get serious about public transit, and about serving all parts of the city rather than just the professional set, our atrocious traffic situation will only get worse. An MTC El should be an integral part of a serious plan to dramatically improve Chicago mass transit.


Anonymous said...

Agreed, for the most part. I was unaware of the discussion of the MCT that preceded this bombshell. I'm not convinced that it would be feasible to build it up on a platform like Daley wants, but I actually think the truck lanes would be a good thing (because trucks aren't going away anytime soon - they'll be with us much longer than cars, I suspect).

Jake said...

true enough, but the best approach is to get cars off the road first, then consider making some existing roads trucks-only. we should also be switching our freight to rail, not deepening our reliance on trucks.

plus, adding the truck lanes would make the mct more expensive and displace more people. so until there's no other choice, i think we should try to get the El line without the truck lanes. who wants to ride the El between trucks anyway?

Eric said...

Well, I enjoy riding trains in the middle of expressways (no more or less than I enjoy other trains). But that's not terribly germane. I do agree that the best possible result would be a train line only; however, I remain suspicious that it won't be possible to get anything built unless it's got a road wrapped around it, due to the politics of transportation funding (especially at the national level). The Toll Authority has good credit and can underwrite mammoth projects with new bonds; the CTA can't keep the lights on. So if there's gotta be a road, I think I think Daley's proposal seems the most feasible one.