Circle City?

Circle City?

The Chicago Transit Authority is developing strategies to move ahead with its highly anticipated Circle Line while simultaneously proceeding with plans to extend its Red, Yellow, and Orange train lines. First proposed in 2002, the Circle Line would form a critical mid-city circuit, allowing transit riders to traverse the system without traveling to the downtown Loop to make intracity line transfers.


According to CTA representative Kaitlyn Thrall, the CTA is holding open houses to discuss the state of the Circle Line. “The meetings will present a recommendation that provides for a long-range plan for the proposed Circle Line and phased project development, initially with improved connectivity through the near west and southwest neighborhoods,” Thrall said via email.

Likewise, the extension of its existing rail network would add convenience for CTA riders in the far south of the region. “On August 12, the Chicago Transit Board voted to adopt the locally preferred alternatives proposed for the Red, Orange, and Yellow Line extension projects,” Thrall said. “The process involved considering all possible routes, modes of travel, and locations.” She added that the CTA has moved to the next step in the federal funds application process, the Environmental Impact Statement.

The CTA plans to extend the Red Line 5.3 miles south to 130th Street, and build four new stations along the route. The Yellow Line will extend 1.6 miles to Old Orchard Road. The Orange Line will run 2.3 miles further south to Ford City Mall, and will include one new station. Each extension will feature new bus and parking facilities.

Transit advocates Mike Doyle, who runs the Chicago Carless website, and Kevin O’Neil, who writes the CTA Tattler blog, are cautiously optimistic about these enormous undertakings.

“They’re doing the alternative analysis now, [but the proposed changes are] not foregone conclusions,” Doyle said. “All of them are great ideas, it’s just a question of where the funding would come from. By the time there’s a locally preferred alternative for all of them, it’s going to be a different economy than it is today because none of these are going to have their studies finished any sooner than a year from now.”

Doyle said the most pressing prospect is the Red Line extension, “so we finally have a spine of rail service all the way from the northern border of the city to the southern border.”

O’Neil agrees, and adds that the project would provide sorely needed transit options to an underserved section of Chicago. “All these areas, they’re not very well covered for mass transit. The rail system just stops dead at 95th.” Funding is also on O’Neil’s mind, but he believes the CTA is “doing their due diligence. It’s a big project, to jump through all the hoops that the feds put in front of you.”

While the three pending extensions will serve an undeniable need, it is the Circle Line that truly excites Doyle and O’Neil. Still, both temper their enthusiasm, considering the complex urban implications inherent in making this project a reality. “The Circle Line is kind of pie-in-the-sky,” Doyle said, “because some of the things it would rely on are building new rights-of-way within the city, and building a huge subway superstation on the north side to replace the existing Red Line. It involves an awful lot.”

“The Circle Line verifies that the way Chicagoans are commuting now is different than when the original lines were built,” O’Neil said. “People aren’t all coming into the Loop to work anymore. The Circle Line hooks up to three or four key lines so that somebody wouldn’t have to go into the Loop to transfer. That’s a good thing.”

Further area transit projects include the possibility of a high-speed passenger rail line and hub, and the corresponding renovation of Chicago’s Union Station, advocated by grassroots groups like the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Chicago is vying for some of the $4 billion that the federal government may earmark for high-speed rail development.

The CTA and transit advocates believe Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid will not impact these improvements. “These projects have been discussed for a number of years,” Thrall said. “The final plan, timeline, and other details will not be determined until later phases of the projects.”

“The projects have to rise and fall on their own merits,” O’Neill said.

A version of this article appeared in AN 01_10.14.2009_MW.