By Linus Hoeller, Northwestern University
Few Chicagoans can remember a time before the promises of a southward extension of the city’s public transportation backbone, the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line. However, none has seen it go beyond a mere promise.
Decades have passed since the idea of extending the Red Line, going from the Northern border of Chicago to the southern terminus at 95th street, was first floated in the 60s. In fact, the idea is as old as the terminus itself: Richard Daley, the mayor at the time, had promised that the Red Line would extend (indefinitely) beyond 95th street and that the current ending was not a permanent terminus.
The city’s South Side – predominantly populated by lower-income, minority residents – has historically been neglected, facing a number of struggles including pollution, crime and lacking public infrastructure. “Chicago is tremendous and it is very inequitably served by the L system,” said Kate Lowe, a professor of urban planning and policy at University of Illinois Chicago.
Only three lines, Orange, Green and Red, extend south of the Chicago River. The far south of the city, made up of neighborhoods like Pullman or Roseland, isn’t served by the CTA’s rail network at all, leaving what experts sometimes call a “transit desert,” with very limited options for residents and many having to rely on cars to get around.
Extending the L system farther south would mean that impoverished and neglected communities would get easy access to the opportunities of the inner city. “Neighborhoods like Pullman obviously don’t have the same density of jobs as the central business district,” explained Lowe. The existing bus service is “not nearly as fast” as a potential rail connection. Therefore, “the L extension is essential to making access to opportunities more equitable in the city.”
More than half a century after the promise of a more connected future was first made, some movement is finally taking place in the CTA – although there still won’t be any CTA trains running to Pullman anytime soon.
In the past decade, the city has renewed its vows to extend the L’s backbone all the way to the southern border of the 9th ward, which includes Pullman and Roseland. While this has been discussed in earnest since at least 2006, under mayors Immanuel and Lightfoot, the city has started taking more concrete action.
Metropolitan agencies have created environmental assessments that are prerequisites for federal funding and have decided on the route that the trains will take to 130th street, even starting to buy land that will be needed to complete the project.
According to CTA documents, the red line extension would affect 236 private properties. If the plan goes forward in its current form, 79 buildings will be displaced, including 59 residential buildings.
A major milestone for the red line extension to make the jump from paper to reality was reached in December 2020, when the federal government preliminarily allocated $1 billion dollars for the project to take place. That is a substantial part of the projected $2.3 million total cost.
Still, some doubts remain. Steven Vance, an urban planner with extensive knowledge of this and other projects in Chicago, explained why he isn’t completely convinced that extending the red line is the best way to connect the far South Side. “There are other options that need looking at,” he said, citing, for instance, a proposed conversion of the Metra Electric line which already runs along a similar route at the western edge of Pullman, or even the creation of a bus rapid transit system. Both, he estimates, would come in considerably cheaper and would likely be completed well before the Red Line Extension’s 2029 opening date – recently pushed back three years from the initial planned completion in 2026.
“Part of why there is such a focus on the L lies in the perceived quality difference,” he said. “People will see a bus and think, ‘but a train is better than a bus! Why are you giving the North Side trains, but the South Side buses?’” On the north side of the city, construction on the Red and Purple Modernization Program – similarly expensive to the proposed red line extension in the south – has been well underway since 2019.
The Red Line Extension’s projected route on an interactive map. Linus Hoeller.
It wouldn’t be Chicago if there weren’t some political intrigue in the mix.
Vance pointed toward the fact that “the mayor essentially controls the CTA – not through legal means, but through influence.” While the board of the CTA is supposed to pick the agency’s president, what really happens, Vance explained, is that the mayor picks the president and the board merely confirms the nominee.
The red line extension is a good way for a mayor, who needs the votes of the residents, to ensure that the population on the South Side feels their influence and thinks they are being looked after. Whether the line is built in a timely manner or even built at all is of secondary importance to the promise. Vance argued that what is important, though, is that, unlike the Metra Electric, the city controls the CTA.
Some difficulties arise because Chicago’s public transportation system is split between three big entities: The CTA, Metra, and Pace. The CTA and Metra have historically found it challenging to cooperate, a fact that is again and again brought up by publications invested in public transportation stories. Pace only operates busses.
Vance also said that the Metra has a “railroad mentality, not a transit mentality” and that the company operates “like a freight railway – you are just a sack of potatoes and you ought to be on the train at one time and we’ll drop you off at your final destination at another (if you’re lucky) and with no transfers.”
Presidents with a railroad background add to this feeling of “not being a transit company, but a train company,” making it unlikely that the company would be too keen on revamping service to their already existing Pullman-neighborhood stops and creating a less 9-to-5-oriented, more metro-like service on the route.
The city never showed much interest in this idea anyway – in the political world, the Metra is not a Chicago affair. According to Vance, the city contributes exactly $0 to its operation – money comes from suburban counties and about 20% from Cook County, with the rest being covered by the state, he said. Further, only a single Metra board member is appointed by the mayor of Chicago.
Pullman being part of Chicago proper, it would not be in the interest of the politicians who control Metra’s money as well as its picks for the board to show up as competition for the CTA’s extension, even if it may be more cost-effective and a lot of the infrastructure already exists.
A final link of the puzzle that is local transit politics is the Regional Transit Authority RTA, the agency tasked with financial oversight over the CTA, Metra and Pace. Vance said that while the agency has important powers, such as demanding that CTA and Metra collaborate and serve to coordinate such projects, “they choose not to exercise those powers. The RTA is abandoning its responsibility to do that.”
Vance said he thinks that, like so often, this seems to be a political thing, blended with a good bit of “that’s how it’s always been done.” The RTA has never really gone beyond being a simple double-check for the budgets of the transportation agencies, he said. The CTA’s Red Line Extension-in-the-making is so far no exception.
Regardless of the political intrigues and specifics of a better transportation connection to far South Side communities such as Pullman, experts generally agree that a Red Line extension would be immensely beneficial to the area. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has issued a report outlining a whole host of benefits to the extension, with some of the most crucial including drastically increasing the number of jobs and higher education institutions that local residents can reach within a set amount of time by affordable, public transport.
“From an equity perspective, this is a really necessary thing,” Vance said. The CMAP report also emphasizes that the current transit options, especially at the southern end of the proposed extension – in Pullman – are very limited, and that the Red Line’s time-saving effect will be greatest coming from those final few stops on the line that will lie in the 9th Ward.
Crucially important for the construction of these time-saving stations and tracks is the federal government. Without money from Washington, the city has made it clear they would not construct the route.
The $1 billion allocated to the project so far are a good start; However, now, the CTA needs to stay on top of its game with the creation of further studies and plans in order to ensure that those $1 billion remain available to the project.
Vance said he’s confident that will happen. “The CTA is good at building things and securing the funding for them. It’s also good at paying back its debts,” he said, pointing to the ongoing Red Purple Modernization on the city’s north side. Those factors play an important role in making sure that funding actually materializes in time for when construction is set to begin in 2023.
The ability to repay debts incurred by the CTA in projects such as this one is in significant part through the use of something called a tax increment financing corridor, also known as a transit TIF. Essentially, this raises the property taxes along parts of the route that is being worked on.
Naturally, this brings with it huge political implications; Property owners tend not to enjoy having to pay more taxes.
This, Vance said, likely plays a role in the CTA’s decision not yet to release any information as to which residents along the Red Line will have to expect to pay for the project. While at first glance it might seem natural that residents on the South Side would be asked to pay a little extra, Vance noted that the property value in that part of the city is particularly low and it would make more financial sense for the city to implement the TIF in wealthier areas like the Loop. Vance said that city officials are likely keeping this topic quiet for now because it would be politically unwise to give property owners – who, more crucially, also have votes to cast in local elections – any reason to be angry at something that is not yet a real decision.
Between all the political arguments, questions of funding, and technical considerations, one thing seems all but certain by now: The Red Line Extension to the far South Side is coming – sometime, somehow.