Friday, October 09, 2009

CTA Circle Line plan makes rounds

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Plans for the long-awaited Circle Line, which would link CTA and Metra rail lines in Chicago's growing central area, are a step closer to being realized after the Chicago Transit Authority completed its analysis of options for the project, the Chicago Tribune reports.

CTA officials chose what they said was the most cost-effective "locally preferred alternative" during a series of public meetings. The proposal -- which would be the first phase of the Circle Line project and cost an estimated $1 billion -- would require building new tracks linking the Pink and Orange Lines as well as four new CTA stations and two Metra transfer stations.

The new line would bolster service to the burgeoning Illinois Medical District, Chinatown, Midway Airport and around the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. The proposal is expected to go before the CTA board in late 2009 or early 2010, said spokeswoman Katelyn Thrall.

The idea of a Circle Line began floating in 2002. Some transportation experts view it as an opportunity to reduce commuting times by improving connections between existing CTA and Metra routes and better serving transit riders in the city and the six-county region. Although the entire project -- which would cost at least several billion to construct -- is still in the conceptual phase, many of the proposed new Circle Line stations would create transfer opportunities between CTA and Metra lines where none exist today.

The alternatives analysis phase is the first of five steps required before the agency can apply for funding through the federal New Starts Program, said Thrall. Public input is required in the alternatives analysis study, but last week's meetings did little to allay some residents' fears that families living in areas where the plan calls for new construction of tracks and stations could lose their homes.

Mike Pitula, a community organizer with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, wants expanded transit services for lower-income communities but worries that the Circle Line plan will hurt residents in its path.

Jeffrey Busby, strategic planning manager with the CTA, acknowledged that homes would be affected.

"There would be some impact to residents. We don't have a number yet," Busby said, adding that further studies needed to be conducted.

Busby said one main goal of the proposal is to improve transit options for people traveling to jobs outside the Loop. He said it would also reduce train congestion within the Loop by diverting those passengers who are only passing through to transfer.

In the proposal, the Circle Line uses existing Red Line tracks, then follows the Orange Line until just past its Ashland stop. Newly constructed tracks then branch up through Pilsen and merge into the Pink Line Cermak Branch near 18th Street before reversing direction at its Ashland stop.

The proposal includes a new CTA transfer station in Chinatown, new stops at Blue Island Avenue and Roosevelt Road, and a transfer station at Congress Parkway. It also designates two potential Metra stations where commuters could switch to the CTA system. One station would serve commuters from the southwest suburbs, and the other would be built just south of the Medical District and serve the BNSF, Metra's busiest line.

The plan was designed in part to help increase access to the Medical District, which has 20,000 employees and receives 75,000 visitors daily, according to the Illinois Medical District Commission. The CTA projects 100,000 daily visitors by 2030. Project manager Jim Czarnecky estimated that a half-hour trip from the suburbs to the Medical District could be cut down to five or 10 minutes.

Pitula opposes Circle Line plans that involve the Ashland corridor. Instead, he advocates for the improvement of bus services along Cicero Avenue. "It's cost-effective and flexible and allows you to provide public transportation for all," he said.

CTA officials said the Circle Line was preferable because it would ultimately serve more passengers. Busby added that the CTA also is studying ways to speed up its bus service.

Ald. Danny Solis, whose 25th Ward is the area targeted for new construction, said he supports the proposal.

"I think that the benefits outweigh the negative," he said. "And I'm sure that the people who are displaced, most being renters, that we can find places for them to move into, and I would think even better than the places where they are living now."

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