A Gray Line for Chicago

If you had to make a list of top Chicago destinations that are not El-accessible, what would it include? Maybe Ford City Mall, which the long-discussed Orange Line extension would reach, maybe Humboldt Park or Marquette Park. The other key locations are probably McCormick Place, Soldier Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, Jackson Park, the University of Chicago, and Pullman. All these places have something in common - they're very close to a rail line that no one but commuters use, the Metra Electric Line.

Now consider the 2016 Olympics. Even tho Chicago is far less suitable than 東京/Tokyo or Madrid to host such a huge event, this time around is the Americas' "turn" (Asia has it this year, Europe will have it in 2012) and even tho South America has never hosted an Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is the only place less suitable than Chicago. So there's a decent chance Chicago will end up hosting it. But there's a big problem - most of the proposed Olympic sites, which include the Olympic village south of McCormick Place, Soldier Field, McCormick Place itself, and Jackson Park, are far from the El. However, these places are all near the Metra Electric Line.

Now take a look at a CTA map and compare it with a map of neighborhood densities. Which of the dense neighborhoods have the least El service? Aside from neighborhoods on the far West Side that could be incorporated thru a new El line on the Mid-City Transitway route and those that would benefit from a Western Ave subway, the only major areas of high density currently excluded from El service are near the Metra Electric Line.

The conclusion is obvious: we should have an El service on the Metra Electric route. Years ago Mike Payne, a working class South Sider, went to the Harold Washington CPL and typed up just such a proposal, what he calls the Gray Line. The Gray Line would finally provide rapid transit access to the most important neglected part of the city, and it could do so fairly cheaply since most of the infrastructure is already in place. It would go a long way toward solving the Olympics transportation problem. Easy transfers could be made in the Loop by extending the Jackson tunnel and installing a moving walkway to link the Blue and Red Lines with the Van Buren Gray Line stop. Convention-goers would, for the first time, have an easy route from the airports to McCormick Place. The South Side would get a much-needed transit addition. What's the downside?

I looked around but wasn't able to find any reason why the proposal wouldn't work. The only explanation for why an incredibly cost-effective expansion of transit service isn't even being studied is that it doesn't have any high-profile patrons and it would require real cooperation between the CTA and Metra. Those are some pretty lousy reasons for ignoring an idea whose merits far outweigh those of the Circle Line and airport express, which are currently Daley and the CTA's highest transit expansion priorities. There's a chance that the needs of the Olympics will convert Daley into a supporter. But failing that, public pressure is, as always, the only way to get anything done.