A long-awaited extension of the Red Line in the Far South Side has developed mixed opinions by residents and professionals.
The proposed project is part of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Red Ahead program devoted to improving the Red Line, the most highly-used train route of the Chicago transit ecosystem. The project is described by the CTA as a shiny new addition, bringing southern Chicago neighborhoods access to public train lines. The 5.3-mile extension will have three new train stops at 103rd Street, 111th Street and Michigan and finally, 130th Street. These additions would extend from the previous final stop of 95th/Dan Ryan. It’s estimated the project would cost $2.3 billion.
On Tuesday, February 13, community members of the neighborhoods surrounding and mainly south of the 95th/Dan Ryan CTA stop gathered for an open house at the Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory School’s gymnasium regarding the project.
The CTA went through an “Alternatives Analysis” process from 2006 to 2009 that considered several different alignment options for the extension, according to the CTA. At the February open house, the CTA advertised the “preferred alternative” as a combination of the previous east and west options running along the Union Pacific Railroad. The alignment is pictured in the image below.
Irene Fernandez, a CTA representative, said she believes the “preferred alternative” is the “best of both worlds,” since it affects fewer properties while stimulating business in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The plan has yet to receive federal funding, but if it does, the CTA plans to start construction in 2022. After a calculated four years of construction, Fernandez said that the CTA hopes to make the extension operational by 2026.
For the most part, residents at the event were excited about the new development, despite some misgivings. Some said this project has been “a long time coming,” looking at the need of transit in an underserved area.
The project comes to a region of the city in need of transit opportunities. DePaul professor and former transportation reporter for The Chicago Tribune Jonathan Hilkevitch has followed this project for a long time.
“This is an area of Chicago that has been underserved for decades, and now it’s time to make it up,” Hilkevitch said.
He further explained that while he believes the project will be completed, he is unsure when. “At this point, without having identified a money source, I’m not optimistic,” Hilkevitch said.
Although the CTA is banking on federal funding to pay for the project, it’s unclear whether it will be granted, especially with the current administration’s sometimes-adversarial relationship with the city.
“President Trump has been very critical of Chicago,” Hilkevitch said, adding that the Department of Transportation “has tended to favor Sun Belt communities,” doling out money for transportation projects in Florida, Arizona and California.
A large selling point of the Red Line extension is the idea that this new addition to the community will spur economic growth in the form of housing, retail and more. This notion is commonly referred to as transit-oriented development.
The preferred alternative “is going to stimulate more business and more transit-oriented development,” Fernandez said.
Although Hilkevitch believes the addition will bring development to the area, he was tentative to overemphasize the notion that new transit is the solution to an apparent development drought in the area.
“Transit is not a cure-all,” Hilkevitch said.
Dr. Joseph Schwieterman, a professor in the School for Public Service at DePaul, also remains skeptical of this project. “It’s enormously expensive considering the demand may be relatively weak,” he said.
Schwieterman agrees the lack of transit in the area is important to address, but is uncertain whether this extension is the most effective and efficient solution.
One idea that has been circulated by experts and community groups to address the transit problems of the Far South Side is work on a modernization of the Metra Electric District (ME) line. This plan involves providing express trains running every 10 to 15 minutes into downtown Chicago, integrating Metra and CTA fares and extending the train line from the South Side to O’Hare International Airport, according the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric’s website.
Schwieterman is among the experts supporting improvements in the Metra Electric corridor. His view is that express buses downtown and possibly parking facilities at the 95th/Dan Ryan station along with many other small changes to the scope of transit on the Far South Side would be more effective.
Ultimately, in reference to the Red Line extension, Schwieterman said, “I am not confident the project will be completed.”
With the proposal of extending the Red Line South various issues arise within the communities surrounding the proposed alignment.
The new alignment will affect a total of 236 parcels of land. Building displacements will affect 79 of these parcels, 59 of them residential.
The CTA recently released a draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). Among the various areas of the project investigated under the EIS was the effects on local parks. A total of two park areas could be displaced in the building of the new extension, though Fernandez said the CTA plans to replace the parks in another area.
Several residents at the open house mentioned that they do not use the train system and do not see themselves using it in the future.
Darron Luster lives in the area around the 95th/ Dan Ryan CTA station. He mentioned that he is aware of the Red Line extension, saying he thinks it is good for the community because it would deal with the congestion around the 95th stop. He also said that he would use the extension if it was implemented, though he is unsure it would bring jobs to the area.
Luster was born and raised in the area, and said that he was around before the 94 Expressway was even open.
Luster mentioned that he was supportive of the Red Line extension but was concerned that 95th street and the surrounding areas are deteriorating due to issues with drugs in the community. Luster said he wished more support for issues such as drug rehabilitation should come to his neighborhood.
Other residents of the 95th Street and surrounding neighborhoods seemed less optimistic. Mark Broaster lives near 98th Street, just south of the final stop on the CTA. He mentioned that he was not very familiar with the extension but believed the project would help the several people who catch a bus daily.
“They should get the money,” Broaster said, referring to local government authorities. “Sometimes they start stuff that they don’t finish.”
Header image by Cody Corrall